Got Chutzpah?

by Rabbi Charles Savenor

There is a story I like to use when I speak at leadership training seminars:

Once upon a time, there was a little old lady on Wall Street who sold pretzels on a street corner for $1.00 each. Every day a young investment banker would leave his office at lunch time. Every time he passed the pretzel cart, he felt a degree of sympathy, so he would leave the old woman a $1.00, without ever taking a pretzel.

The two of them never spoke. This went on for more then 3 years.

One day, as the young banker passed the old woman’s pretzel stand and left his dollar as usual, the old lady cleared her throat and said, without blinking an eye, “They’re $1.25 now.”

There is no better example of chutzpah.

According to the writer Leo Rosten, chutzpah, which is often defined as translated as gall or brazen nerve, defies translation. “No other word and no other language can do it justice,” he wrote.

Though many people would characterize chutzpah as a negative attribute (someone who oversteps their boundaries is often said to possess chutzpah), I like Alan Dershowitz’s contrarian contention, articulated in his classic book, “Chutzpah,” that the aforementioned trait is actually a positive quality.

Indeed, states Dershowitz, it was a healthy dose of chutzpah that enabled American Jews to attain unprecedented success and security in this country, overcoming millennia of low self-esteem through creative thinking, pluck and ingenuity.

Twenty years after Dershowitz popularized this Yiddish word through his bestselling book, embracing chutzpah as a modus operandi has never been more critical for institutions that are flailing as they seek to adapt to a brand new social and economic landscape in the 21st Century.

Among this group are American synagogues. Like houses of worship of many faiths, synagogues that were once vibrant community centers are now struggling to stay relevant to individuals and families who are no longer bound by a sense of obligation to support them … or even show up for services.

We have entered a new paradigm of Jewish history, built on unprecedented security and social integration. In this era of the “sovereign self,” people are seeking communal and spiritual experiences when and where they want them. The responsibility of communal membership has been replaced with the quest for personal meaning in this newly decentralized model.

Add the variable of economic downturn and it is easy to pinpoint the reasons synagogue membership, as well as membership in any organization, is on the decline.

Within contemporary culture, the old one-size-fits-all approach no longer works. Look around at the synagogues that are thriving and you will find institutions on the cutting edge of innovation in prayer, community outreach, chesed and social justice opportunities, spiritual engagement, as well as customer service.

Yes, customer service, an important, recently artfully articulated by Dr. Erica Brown in her article, “Getting to Nordstrom’s”.

The key to building dynamic 21st Century synagogues has nothing to do with a fancy edifice or facility. And while positive cash flow is always a good thing, tapping into a synagogue’s human capital is the key to its success and survival.

In the midst of a contemporary religious paradigm shift, we need an attitude adjustment. And the most critical gift we can ask of our synagogue leadership is chutzpah: the ability to envision change and innovation through unconventional means.

In light of the challenges and opportunities that face us, I have reimagined chutzpah as “entrepreneurial innovation executed with persistence and urgency for the sake of the future”.

In my capacity as United Synagogue Director of Kehilla Enrichment (organizational development) it is my job to empower synagogue leadership to tap into their inner chutzpah. To inspire and guide, I have found it useful to showcase “profiles in chutzpah.” The profiles I have presented recently include the lawyer who used networking to raise over $100K for a Community Scholar program in Orange County, California after being turned down for funding by every major institution in the area; the Westchester, New York youth director who disbanded the board of her United Synagogue Youth chapter, handing governance to the teens who have made their local chapter a model of passionate and creative engagement; the Manhattan-based administrative assistant who bravely suggested redesigning a non-profit newsletter only two weeks into his job, turning it into a better and more well-read vehicle of communication.

I am fond of collecting these anecdotes, which share several common elements: the courage to speak up; the motivation to take risks and generate constructive disruptions; a commitment to communal partnerships; decentralized leadership for a larger impact; and passion for improving Jewish engagement now and in the future.

At the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, we like to refer to our member synagogues as kehillot, a Hebrew word that connotes sacred community. While some observers of religious life have claimed that the 20th century synagogue is obsolete, what I see is quite the opposite. A congregation can thrive when they embrace the idea of becoming a sacred community where chutzpah is used as a compass to navigate and innovate a path to the future.

There is no rulebook for chutzpah. Indeed, chutzpah works best when it is highly individualized, custom-made to a particular time and place. The time for chutzpah is now. The place is wherever Jews come together to form a kehilla – a sacred community.

Rabbi Charles Savenor is the Director of Kehilla Enrichment at United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism.