Setting the Stage (or table) for Effective Change:
A Lesson from Sukkot

By Michael S. Berger

For many Jews, and especially those who work in the Jewish community, Tishrei is essentially four weeks of uninterrupted holidays. Yet we naturally divide them into two pairs – the more solemn, reflective “High Holy Days” of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with a focus on making amends, and then the more festive, joyous holidays of Sukkot and then Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, recalling the divine protection our ancestors enjoyed as they wandered through the wilderness. After ten days of (hopefully) deep, inner work, the sudden shift to recalling how we were taken care of seems to be a non-sequitur at best, and a distraction at worst. Is this how to prolong the lessons learned between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

As a program officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation, I think I may have stumbled on an answer.

Last month, I was reading through the anonymous evaluations to our Harvard principals program. The program, as it has evolved, asks a lot of participants. The week-long institutes are jam-packed with sessions, facilitated group conversations, and daily assignments. Moreover, since 2013 AVI CHAI has added an ‘overlay’ in the evenings just for the day school cohort, where the lessons gleaned at Harvard during the day are processed together and applied to the day school context. It is an intensive, immersive week of learning, reflection and deep thinking.

When AVI CHAI began sponsoring day school leaders at the summer institutes 20 years ago, for the sake of convenience we decided to have participants stay in a nearby hotel just a five minute walk from the program, and less than 10 minutes from the Harvard Hillel. This hotel was a five-star accommodation, but we felt it was worth the convenience of access to the sites of learning. Furthermore, we arranged with a caterer to provide high quality (and abundant!) kosher food whenever Harvard offered food to other participants, since very little kosher food is available in Cambridge. Feedback each year helped us learn what the needs of day school leaders were, and our staff worked closely with both Harvard and the hotel to make sure they understood this group’s needs, especially as the program became more intense, and there was little free time for the participants to handle these issues. In addition, we provided helpful information participants might like to know, such as ways to travel to and from the airport, cost of parking, and phone numbers of the Harvard Hillel for prayer times.

As I read through those post-program surveys a few weeks ago, day school leaders consistently commented on how much they valued having all their needs anticipated and taken care of. It’s not just the pampering, which is certainly appreciated. Nor is it their being on the receiving end of such attention, when they’re used to tending to others’ needs. It’s the fact that, knowing they will be nourished and their personal needs provided for, they can then free their minds and turn their attention fully to the learning. They can invest themselves in the sessions and honest, sometimes hard, conversations that challenge their assumptions and get them to re-think their strategies, policies, and the ways they lead. Such deep work is never easy, and AVI CHAI taking care of their personal needs frees participants to focus fully on the main goals.

More than once, we weighed options that might bring down the cost of these amenities, thus enabling us to sponsor more leaders at the summer institutes. But we always came back to the same conclusion – part of what makes the learning so powerful, and of such potentially lasting impact, is that the leaders can devote themselves 110% to the work while there. Aside from expressing our hakarat ha-tov (gratitude) to these leaders for their dedicated work, the “TLC” provided by AVI CHAI and Harvard staff elevated the likelihood that they would get the most out of the week of intensive learning and go back to their schools and improve the culture through more effective leadership.

Many funders are keen to invest substantively in our communal professionals, hoping to raise the bar of our most valuable human resources by immersing them in extended programs of self-improvement. At AVI CHAI, we have learned how important it is as well to ensure they are nourished in every way – physical, emotional, religious – if we expect so much of them. Such an approach may be more costly in the short-run, but there will be far more ROI if real change results.

Perhaps this is the meaning of Sukkot coming on the heels of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We certainly want adults to learn and to improve, to reflect on their past deeds and resolve to do and be better. However, we can’t forget that for that learning to last, adults must first feel physically nourished, emotionally protected, and generally taken care of so they can focus on self-improvement. Sukkot reminds us that the sense of not struggling to survive but being in a safe, worry-free place was first experienced by our ancestors as they wandered in the wilderness – a divine gift to carry the hard work of that first Yom Kippur forward.

Michael S. Berger is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation – North America.