Jewish Communal Introspection

Jewish Communal Introspection: The Jewish Approach to Self-Examination

Yes, we are here. It is this time of year.

We are now in the period known as “The Ten Days” between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the Jewish calendar, and it is during this period that we are asked to examine our lives. We immerse ourselves in reviewing the past year and taking stock of the way we have responded to and interacted with members of our families, friends, employees, employers and the community-at-large. We can feel good about our accomplishments and we can consider making changes in those areas we determine need improvement.

During these days we speak about “repentance” and we refer to the relationship between man and God. People repent by changing their lives and either becoming more religious or deciding to do things differently. Our rabbinic leaders teach us that there are two relationships people are required to evaluate during the process of repentance. One is the relationship between man and God and the other is the relationship people have with their friends, acquaintances and other people in their lives. We maintain people cannot repent before God until they have straightened out their differences between themselves and other people.

This process is not limited to individuals but also applies to groups and organizations. It has implications for almost everything we do, and it can be creative and inspiring not only for us but also for the people who work with us. The basic requirement is one of openness and honesty and a willingness to receive feedback and consider the implications of what we say to others and what others say to us.

We can engage in this process no matter what our role is or with whom we work with in the community. We may be involved in the direct delivery of services to members of a community or we may be working in the administrative side of an organization. We might be involved in raising funds or allocating resources to organizations. We could be supervisors or line staff members. We occupy roles that are significant to the community whether we are volunteer leaders or staff members of organizations.

Of course there are a various levels of discussion and dynamics depending on whether two people speak together or whether a group of people engage in the process. When a group of people on a board of directors or a committee or a number of staff members begin to discuss the way they work together then there needs to be sensitivity to both the group and the individuals in the group. There are times when a personal discussion between two people can be honest and direct as opposed to the context of a group discussion where it is often difficult to say / express feedback to individuals in front of the entire group.

It is important to have one person identified as the group “leader” or “facilitator” to ensure the discussion is productive and helpful and does not deteriorate into a situation where one person is the focus of negative comments. The purpose of evaluating experiences and discussing working relationships during the “Ten Days” is to improve ourselves and our ability to work with others. If the result of the process is the weakening of our connections with the people we work with then we have defeated the purpose of engaging in looking at what we do and the way we do it.

It is easy to ask, “What is inherently Jewish about this process?” An individual or a group does not have to be Jewish to engage in a process of introspection and self-evaluation; so what makes this unique or special for Jewish people or Jewish organizations? Is there really something special about the way this is done in the Jewish community?

We learn from the Talmud (Brachot, 49b):

“Israel will be redeemed only when it forms one single band: when all are united, they will receive the presence of the Shechinah (the presence of God). Therefore Hillel said (Ethics of the Fathers II, 5), “Do not separate yourself from the community.”

The Jewishness of the process of introspection and self-evaluation is based in the building and the strengthening of the community at a time when we are all looking at the meaning of our personal and professional lives. We, members of the Jewish community, are doing this together at the same time of the year and are striving to improve not only our individual lives but the quality of the life of the entire community and perhaps, to make the world a better place to live.

It is important for us to take the time and to engage with others in strengthening our organizations and institutions by looking at what we do and the way we do it. It is not always an easy process but it is one that can improve the quality of our lives as individuals and as a community.

Shana Tova. Gmar Chatima Tova.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.