planting seeds

Proposing a seven-year cycle of investment to cultivate courageous Jewish spiritual leaders

Many years ago, in a Jewish leadership program, I found myself struggling with the program structure and the demands placed on the participants. I knew from conversations with my peers that I was not the only one experiencing a disconnect between the stated goals and the actual experience. I approached M, the head of the program, to share my thoughts. M responded, “I haven’t heard about any issues from anyone else. You just have to try harder.” Or — as Taylor Swift similarly phrased it — it’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me. Unwittingly, M had taught me a crucial leadership lesson that day: Questioning the status quo can be risky and wildly lonely. 

Today, I lead Beloved Garden, an organization that supports and nourishes open-hearted spiritual leaders — some ordained clergy, seminary students and other leaders — as they create and sustain new spaces of sacred belonging. They have heard and responded to a fierce call to experiment beyond the bounds of institutions despite the reputational, financial and emotional risks. Most operate in a kind of wilderness, often marginalized by mainstream institutions and foundations. At Beloved, we encourage them to see themselves not as the problem but as the seed of the solution.

One of our Beloved leaders founded a community less than five years ago which grew very fast, even during the pandemic. Despite a robust volunteer system, this blossoming community was too much for any one spiritual leader to handle. Even with close to $100,000 per year coming in from the community, which covers salaries, space rental, direct program costs and basic operations, she doesn’t yet have the capacity to hire an executive/operations director. This beautiful, thriving community is still very much in danger of sinking under the pressure of too few staff, despite talented leadership and passionate lay-people. 

These brave leaders need robust, wrap-around support that can meet their technical needs (i.e. fiscal sponsorship, budgeting, fundraising skills) AND emotional, psychological and spiritual needs. They need reminders of their visions, abilities and inner strength to keep going in work that is often intimidating and doesn’t always bear immediate fruit. 

Here are three hard-won lessons about what works to support the visions of these leaders. 

Listen to what leaders need and respond with loving support. When our leaders asked for fiscal sponsorship so that they didn’t have to spend their precious time wrangling banks and insurance brokers, we said, ‘we will figure it out’ — four years and 15 fiscally sponsored organizations later, I think we are much closer to figuring it out! When our leaders asked to gather with other queer spiritual leaders, we tried to recruit for a queer cohort and ended up with two. Needs can’t always be met, but our leaders know that we listen deeply to them, which is one way we communicate that they matter, that they are beloved to us. 

This focused listening and accountability reflects a community organizing axiom that is at the heart of our work: the people closest to the problem are the experts. Outside experts who can teach budgeting and measuring impact are useful, but cannot replace the expertise of the leaders who can listen and respond to their specific people in their specific locale with their specific needs. We trust and listen to our leaders; they trust and listen to their people. 

Create psychological safety and tackle leadership loneliness. Like many other programs, we gather our people into cohorts; small groups of like-minded people working on similar projects can be very supportive and help our leaders realize they are not alone. The way these cohorts are facilitated and managed also matters. At Beloved, we create and nurture sacred space where leaders learn to trust themselves and each other, can be vulnerable and support each other’s visions. We encourage sharing both their public joys and successes and also private frustrations and fears. Our leaders appreciate our cohorts because they are one of the few professional spaces that do not feel competitive, where they don’t have to pretend or contort themselves or their projects to be part of the community. Cohorts that push people into ‘pitch rooms’ with donors where they are directly competing with their colleagues can exacerbate loneliness. Additionally, the ideas that come out of those spaces can be muted by the competitive environment which prioritizes scalability. 

Last year, at a session on reading financial statements, one of our leaders was brave enough to admit they always pretended they had understood this topic but never really did. Others responded, ‘me neither! I thought I was the only one.’ This would not have been possible without skillful facilitation that centered the psychological well-being of our leaders. Instead of individuals fighting over scarce resources, we create a collaborative of Jewish leaders tackling the challenge of building a thriving 21st century Jewish life, together.

Put people first. At Beloved, we decide whether or not to bring a leader into a cohort based on their personal capacity and vision. We hope their projects flower but, it is impossible that every one will. The projects are outgrowths of the leader’s vision, hopes, relationships, skills and heartfelt effort, all of which continues even if the project sunsets. For example, one of the projects from our first cohort couldn’t continue during the COVID-19 pandemic. That leader, who at first really struggled to believe in themself and their vision, transitioned to a new project that is now thriving. We have to be willing to believe in people, not just in the programs they offer at that moment. 

Our courageous leaders need long-term support. We must make it possible for leaders to grow, mess up, try lots of different ways of addressing challenges and not have to constantly prove their project worthy of investment. Most fellowships in the Jewish community offer learning and peer support for a 6-18 month period and possibly a $5-10k stipend alongside (for a few notable fellowships, there are robust alumni programs). This mostly small-dollar, short-term investment in projects, not people, does not reflect the magnitude of the shift we are experiencing in Jewish life today. 

What is needed now?

The emerging visions we are seeing from our Beloved leaders are not receiving the energy and investment from funders they deserve. Larger Jewish funders have recently focused on substantial investments in programs and organizations with the potential to scale nationally while providing limited, short-term funding to smaller, local projects. When I was leading a home-based Jewish community in Brooklyn, the most frequent question I received from funders was “how will you make this sustainable?” We could barely fit our people within the spacious walls of the home we had rented for this burgeoning community. Although we were thriving, we knew we could not yet support ourselves with mostly local money by year three. We must invest in leaders and their local work for the long haul. 

Ancient Jewish agricultural rhythms can help inform us about how to cultivate our garden’s soil today. Instead of boom and bust funding cycles for leaders and their projects, we suggest a 7-year cycle of investment. At the outset, benchmarks will be set for both the leader and the project’s growth. For the first three years, the leader receives robust financial and administrative support. I am not proposing fully funding the work at the national level; the leader will absolutely still need to fundraise from local foundations and individuals. At the three-year mark, the leader and their work is evaluated and, if benchmarks are met, they receive three more years of support. In the seventh shmita (rest) year, the leader and all of their supporters come together and reflect on their successes and struggles, which includes the strength of the fundraising. Seven years gives us the data we might need — for funders and at the community level — to really assess impact.

For the diverse garden of courageous, rooted leaders to thrive, we must provide fertile, resource-filled soil and continue offering water and sun as each blossoms in their own time. And then, our garden will be like the tree of Psalm 1:3 — “planted beside streams of water, which will yield its fruit in its season…and whatever it produces thrives.” 

Sara Luria (she/her) is a rabbi, founder and, at her best, cultivator of ideas and dreams. She is currently leading Beloved Garden, a network of spiritual leaders planting new projects and communities, after four years as spiritual leader of Beloved Brooklyn. Previously, Luria was the founder and executive director of ImmerseNYC: A Community Mikveh Project, now part of the JCC Manhattan. Originally from Brooklyn, she now lives in Northampton, Mass., with her husband, 3 kids and their pandemic puppy. You can reach her at sara@belovedgarden.org