Sunshine and the Creative Jewish Professional

How does being Jewish leaders inform what we do and how we do it?

Courtesy Naomi Korb Weiss
Courtesy Naomi Korb Weiss

By Miriam Brosseau

This winter has been brutal for many of us living in America’s Northeast. Snow, cold, wind, ice, more snow… A veritable Narnia for the Jews: “always winter and never Christmas.” It can be soul-stiflingly grey. It’s hard to be creative, or productive, or even motivated when it’s that dreary.

That changed for me recently when I got the chance to participate in two successive conferences in decidedly un-winter-like places. While in Miami, FL, for Limmud and Encinitas, CA, for The Collaboratory, the sunshine and its accompanying delicately crisp February breezes woke me up. So when the dozens upon dozens of Jewish social entrepreneurs gathered at this year’s Collaboratory were asked to share an image they were taking away from the 24-hour conference, and powerhouse PresenTense CEO Naomi Korb Weiss tweeted “sunshine breeds creativity,” I got to thinking: She may be kidding… but is she right?

I was first in Florida for Limmud Miami. There, in addition to enjoying the delightfully motley collection of sessions offered at the second Limmud conference ever held in that city, I also hosted a couple of conversations around ELI talks, including this one by Dr. David Pelcovitz.

I’d entitled the session, “If It Makes You Happy: The Talmud of Positive Psychology.” The room was packed. Happiness, apparently, is a hot item.

We opened the discussion by talking about the moments that made us feel truly and deeply happy. Family was a big theme. Accomplishments at work. The beauty of nature (sunshine!). We then talked about the current Hebrew month, Adar, as the happiest month, and the saying of R’ Nachman of Breslov, “It is a great mitzvah to always be happy.” We discussed what it meant to be commanded to have an emotion, and other instances where that happens in Judaism (we’re commanded to love, not to covet or feel jealous, to mourn, etc.). How could it be that we’re instructed to feel?

We then watched the talk in which Dr. Pelcovitz makes connections between Jewish text and tradition and the emerging field of positive psychology – ostensibly the science of happiness. As it turns out, we can actually train ourselves to be b’simcha, to be happy. Dr. Pelcovitz suggests that the word simcha is actually a combination of two Hebrew words: sham (there) and moach (mind). Happiness isn’t something that happens to you, it’s a mindset. It’s about where your mind is, not where you are physically. If your head is in a place of purpose and gratitude, you’re going to feel simcha.

I went from talking happiness in Florida straight to The Collaboratory, hosted at the Leichtag Ranch in California, where participants were greeted by the following question, “How does being Jewish leaders inform what we do and how we do it?”

I think Naomi Korb Weiss’s half-joking insight that sunshine breeds creativity is actually an important response to this question. Our community needs us to be happy and productive in order to do our best work. Jewish professionals need “sunshine.” For those of us stationed a bit further north of the equator than we might like to be, though, that sunshine is metaphorical – and it has to come from within.

I suggest the following recipe, regardless of your literal sunshine intake:

  • Start with gratitude. The first prayer many Jews say in the morning is Modeh Ani, a prayer of thankfulness for this life, for this moment, for the opportunity to do our work in the world. At my company, See3 Communications, everyone sends an email to the rest of the staff in the morning which includes 3 things we plan to accomplish that day, and one thing we’re grateful for. It sets our minds where they need to be right away.
  • Set goals. There’s nothing like that sense of accomplishment you get when checking items off a to-do list. That feeling gets even better when you know the whole list builds to a greater purpose.
  • Embed the good stuff. One of the Hebrew words for learning is mishnah, a word which tells you what it is and how to do it at the same time. Mishnah means repeat. It also means second or twice. So if we want to learn something, we have to repeat it. Take a second look at it. That’s true of Torah, or math, or history, or happiness. Mistakes get embedded in our brains all too quickly and deeply. If we want to be happy, creative, productive professionals, we need to nurture a stash of joyful moments in our brains, memories and attitudes we can call on when we need a quick ray of sunshine. Make a point of recalling the good stuff, dwelling on it, and building up a storehouse of simcha.
  • “Happy” is best with others. Judaism is a communal religion for a very good reason; as books like “Relational Judaism” and programs like Connected Congregations affirm, relationships matter. As I commit myself to gratitude, goals, and good stuff, I think about how communities like Limmud and The Collaboratory (and so many others) help make all those things possible. Jews require a minyan, a quorum of at least ten, to say certain prayers. Sometimes we need a minyan for simcha, too.

It may be grey, and snowy, and -11 outside, but it’s Adar! What better time to (re)commit ourselves to being happier, more motivated, more productive and creative professionals, this month and always?

Miriam Brosseau is Director of Engagement with See3 Communications and Program Director of ELI talks.