Dark Matter Matters

dark matterBy Robert Lichtman

I was the new chairman of our synagogue’s Youth Committee when I called our long-time Teen Minyan leader with a question. “Jay, you lead the Teen Minyan for a couple of hours once a week. Why are we paying you so much money?” “Bob,” he patiently explained, “all you see is the Teen Minyan once a week. Here is what you don’t see: I call these guys every night … How are you doing? Haven’t seen you in a while. I want you to think about giving the D’var Torah, OK? Would you like to try reading one aliyah next month, I’ll help you … Bob, I love these guys and I’d talk to them for free, but since you ask – THIS is what you are paying me for.”

That lesson stuck, and it was reinforced a few years later when I was sitting on a dorm room floor. Hillel students at Sarah Lawrence College were talking with me about Jewish campus life. After lots of talk about events, one of the students said, “You know, it’s not really about the events. It’s about life. Life is what happens between events.”

Often, what happens between events goes unseen, like the dark matter in our universe. We gaze at luminous stars and we are in awe of effervescent galaxies. It’s the breathtaking stuff of poetry for sure, but we are missing all the stuff that is greater than the sum of all the stars, the stuff that is actually there but unseen – the dark matter. When we are star-struck by “great” programs and moon over “awesome” events we tend to miss everything that happens between events – life itself.

Our Family Connectors hold events, but they are just a means to an end. The events are the stars, the opportunities to meet children and their parents, to interact with them and to get to know them. Following up with them, chatting on the phone, talking about where they wish to go on their Jewish journey and how to get there – that is the dark matter; that is the stuff surrounding the stars. That is Life.

Our Great Shofar Blowout attracted over 1,000 people to set a new Guinness World Record for people blowing shofar in unison. Blowing shofar together – that was the supernova. What preceded it was over 1,000 people either acquiring a shofar of their own or making one at our workshops, as well as over 1,000 people learning how to blow the shofar at one of our clinics. Then we set a new record. “But where is the follow-up!?” people ask. It’s over 1,000 people who will forever own a shofar and pass it along for generations. It is over 1,000 people who have the skill to blow shofar and will forever feel involved in this mitzvah, not just observers. That’s the follow-up. That is the unseen universe. That is Life.

We are inviting young people in our community to enter our “18 Under 18” competition. We will honor 18 middle and high school students who are immersed in various hobbies, passions, or activities and who draft a compelling essay to describe the meaningful connections between their efforts and contemporary or classical Jewish learning. Educational coaches are guiding the students on a one-to-one basis to help them understand, to appreciate, and then to value the Jewish underpinnings to their deepest motivations. No one will witness these exchanges, the dark matter that nurtures these sacred connections. But on the night these young people will be honored in the presence of our community they will be the stars.

Sometimes when we peer into dark matter we hallucinate about the things we cannot see. I had a conversation with a Jewish day school leader about using PJ Library as entrée to engage families in Jewish conversations. “All of our parents already send their children to day school. They are committed Jews. They belong to synagogues. How does this help us?” was the rhetorical pushback. He was blinded by the stars. He knew that the parents sent their children to his school five days a week. But did he know what middot/values were being modeled in the home? Did he know what they discussed at the Shabbat table? That is unseen by the school. That is Life.

As important as it is to recognize the existence and the immensity of dark matter, it is also important to understand that just because it is invisible does not mean that it is immeasurable. Scientists believe that dark matter comprises 84.5% of the total mass of our universe. How can they know that if they cannot see it? Their measurements are based on their observations of the effects of dark matter on the behavior of things they CAN see, like stars and galaxies.

And so, we are experimenting with a new assessment tool that tracks the actions of our Family Connectors and the Jewish behaviors of the families with whom they interact. We believe that over time we will be able to understand the influence of our actions on their behavior. If our goal is to Bring Jewish Learning to Life, we need to understand what happens between events. That is Life.

Robert Lichtman is the founding executive director of The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, the Jewish identity-building organization of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.