[The following article is offered as a partnership between eJP and the Clergy Leadership Incubator program (CLI). CLI is a two-year program to support and encourage congregational rabbis and rabbinic entrepreneurs in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation. CLI is directed by Rabbi Sid Schwarz and is fiscally sponsored by Hazon. Each month CLI offers a Synagogue Innovation Blog. Past columns can be found at: www.cliforum.org/blog/].
By Rabbi Lori Shapiro
The road to creating Open Temple is over two decades long. As someone who didn’t grow up with any Jewish identity, an unaffiliated Jew on the “periphery,” countless hours, weeks and well, years, were spent trying to penetrate the world of Jewish life. In the years of my nascent curiosity, when I walked up to the front door of any synagogue around the world, it was usually locked. When I finally found a door to enter, I walked into the wrong section (my early journey was in the Orthodox world, years before I determined that denominational Judaism was a 19th century Jewish innovation, and that this diverse collective is Judaism). Once I finally found the women’s section, I opened the prayerbook upside down and backwards. And once I put my eyes to the page, with smudges of characters that everyone else seemed to know, and translations replete with hierarchical arrangement and stilted symbolism, I solidified the dreadful feeling deep within my stomach – I would never understand the religious tradition of my ancestors whose words were anathema to my post-liberal arts, educated mind.
When I wandered into the non-Orthodox world, I identified as a stranger: “on the outside always looking in…”. Summer camp affiliations, congregational affiliations, work affiliations kept me on the fringe. I felt like a Jewish changeling, wandering the world, locked out of my Jewish home.
Twenty years, three rabbinical schools, two Orthodox women’s seminaries and employment at synagogues in every denomination later, I am the rabbi/founder/Artistic director of an organization that envisions an open door for anyone seeking their Jewish soul journey. Open Temple, now in its third year, is a radical re-envisioning of Jewish life and community for the Jew-ishly curious and those who love us. But just as the journey to reclaim my own Jewish life was a long and winding road, so too has been my journey as a Jewish entrepreneur.
The question I am most often asked is: “How did you do it?” My response is that I am still doing it. Every day is a new challenge, a new problem to solve, most often, for the first time. The creation of Open Temple, a scrappy start-up in Venice Beach, CA, has not only been an entrepreneurial venture, but the deepest spiritual challenge of my life. I consider leadership to be akin to “The Hero’s Journey” of Joseph Campbell definition – we enter into the journey and we face all of the spiritual challenges that, in total, are the sum of our life’s work: PR and marketing strategies; board formation; models of membership; HR management; cash flow. All of these are tools of the executive director (a position that defaults to me as the founder). But they are also, very much, matters of the soul.
PR and marketing begs the question: “How do we awaken and inspire?” Board formation spins systems and theories of organizational development like fractals before my eyes. Models of membership poses the question: “What does belonging mean in the 21st century?” Effective HR management requires a discipline that comes straight out of a Mussar handbook. And the challenges of our cash flow remind me that the most often used ritual object in America – the dollar bill – contains the phrase: “In God We Trust.” As a God-optional community, I encourage my community to consider that our lives unfold with every values-based decision we make. And the best indicator of our values is preserved monthly on our credit card statements. It forces each person to confront the question: Do your values align with your highest understanding of Love/Creativity/Truth?
The trajectory of my journey is only clear to me now, in retrospect. I can date it to when I first applied to the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI), a program created and led by Rabbi Sid Schwarz. The most recent milestone was when Open Temple was admitted into Cohort 2 of the Open Dor Project. It is clear to me now that the five years between those two events were, at all moments, my spiritual journey of becoming a leader.
Despite eight years full time in rabbinical school, 20 years of working in synagogues and an upbringing in theatre, when I began this journey my business acumen was virtually non-existent. When I walked into my first day of the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI), a sixth sense inspired Marty Linksy, the lead trainer for the adaptive leadership piece of the CLI program, to choose me as his fall girl. His Socratic method was brutal. It felt like some combination of being tied to the back of a NASCAR racecar or being the entertainment for emperors at the Coliseum in ancient Rome. In a former life, this would have been met with a headstrong resistance; as a nursing mother just six months into parenthood, I was undergoing dramatic self-transformation and was thus incapable of anything but rolling with the waves that were crashing down on me.
There are times in our lives that define our self-transformation. The first retreat with CLI was one of those moments. I found myself unskilled, vulnerable and clueless. I listened with wonder and took copious notes, listening to my colleagues and their wisdom. Two of my colleagues in the first CLI cohort were entrepreneurs whose communities were to be invited into the “Jewish Emergent Network.” I was in awe of their grasp of these concepts which were so new to me and how clearly they seemed to understand how they would turn the vision statements we were required to write, into reality.
Over the course of the two-year CLI Fellowship, a plan for Open Temple emerged: I would prepare 18 “Happenings” (what my CLI mentor called “low hanging fruit”) as inroads into community experiences. These Happenings would be followed by rigorous data gathering and metrics analysis with the ostensible goal of blending a vision I held in my heart for 20 years with human centered design inspired by the needs of my local community. I set up a kiosk at a local festival and gathered 125 names. From this list, I began offering this low hanging fruit. Three years later, our email list is nearing 3000 and we have over 1,000 likes on Facebook. In hindsight, it is clear that CLI was truly an incubator – a place where my idea for Open Temple planted like a seedling. CLI provided nurturing mentors who guided me so that my seedling idea could be cared for, take root and grow.
But real change takes time and the next three years required some pivoting. After CLI, I longed for a community of spiritual practice. As the Rabbi/CEO/ED/Artistic Director of Open Temple, I felt my well running dry. I needed a space where I could work on my inner life. Pregnant with my second child, I applied to Yedidiah’s Morei Derekh Program to become a Spiritual Director. If I was going to be the “spiritual leader” of this organization, I needed to return to my love of Torah. I entered rabbinical school as a seeker, and spiritual direction was an important next step for me to reclaim this call. The program challenged me to slow down. As the only student who was a rabbi, I learned from my peers who were therapists, performers, writers, teachers and doctors. I listened to their holy words and insights and renewed my “beginner’s mind.” I emerged from these two years reminded that, while I was not sure that I knew exactly what God is, I could, once again, open myself up to the inexplicable mysteries that come with stillness, reflection and shared moments of silence.
It was at this time that Open Temple received two large opportunities that brought us onto the national start-up stage: We were accepted into Cohort 10 of UpStart, a Jewish accelerator and we were accepted into Slingshot – Los Angeles Edition. These two opportunities gave us a heksher (approval) from our Jewish innovation peers. Slingshot introduced us to the world of funders and, while we still have a long way to go, we are beginning to understand that we have a whole new learning curve to grow through. Thankfully, we have UpStart to coach us through it.
UpStart provided us with three years of private coaching, peer to peer sharing, local meetings as well as national retreats where we learn about the Jewish start-up tool box. There is a method to Jewish start-ups, and UpStart unpacks this method through a refined process. Again, I fell down the chute to square one and arrived at the first retreat with my head spinning from a new learning curve and wishing that a vocabulary sheet had been sent to me beforehand. Value Proposition? Theory of Change? These concepts would require more than just a two-day retreat and so I hired a coach.
Alison, the awesome coach who graduated from school “in Boston,” tutored me in the UpStart-speak with the discipline of training for the Olympics. The UpStart assignments, and all of the assignments I received from these opportunities beginning with CLI, were rooted in holy work. They were my spiritual exercises through spiritual community formation. Every task was to be taken with deep and reflective consideration. As is often quoted, “how we do one thing is how we do everything.”
And so, I studied, ideated, iterated and repeated. I bought an iPad Pro to take photos of worksheets and scribbled on them with different ideations with my stylus. I trialed and errored so much that I no longer knew which was the right path for me. And I learned that getting lost is sometimes the best way of finding my way back.
Two years into this journey, Rabbi George Wielechowski called and asked Open Temple to apply to be in the first cohort of the Open Dor Project. At the end of our conversation, he expressed that he thought we might be too far along. As Open Temple was really in need of help, I was crestfallen. I spent the year looking at their first cohort and wondering “are we really further along than they are?” A year later, I reached out to George on my own, and he cheerfully responded “did you ever get my email?” “What email?” I replied. “I emailed you in December and asked you to apply.” I did a search on my Gmail, and lo and behold, there it was. Unopened. But, rather than crawl under the table, I surged forward and spent 60 hours completing the application to join Cohort 2.
We received the phone call that we received Open Dor a few minutes after learning that one of my Open Temple supporters and spiritual direction clients passed away; it was also my first born’s fifth birthday. Later that week, my daughter got into kindergarten at our first-choice school. It was a week of expansive shift, where I felt both the heartbreak and ecstasy, the sweetness and the sting. It was a moment of reaffirming life and the work that I do, both personally and professionally. And, listening to my daughters talking to one another from the next room, I can palpably perceive the movement of time.
The road to start-up success is paved in switch-backs and loop de loops. It is real work. And success is a relative term. But it is worth the sweat and challenge, as each experience of failure is a lesson in preparation for success. My daily practice of spreadsheets, cash flow analysis and management re-sets my mind the same way that prayer, a run or meditation does every day. My new spiritual practice is the practice of executive leadership. With it, I feel in alignment with the ancient work of the priests and priestesses, rabbis and redactors, writing the next chapter of Jewish life.
Lori Shapiro is the Founder/ Artistic Director/ Rabbi of Open Temple, an emerging community in Venice Beach, California. Her rabbinate is informed by her trans-denominational education as well as her secular upbringing in the arts. Find her at opentemple.org