The Pursuit of Awe

By Jim Rosenberg

Earlier this fall during Sukkot, I traveled to Israel with my 12-year old daughter, Gillian. It was her first time there.

After we returned home, I asked Gillian what she saw that inspired her or struck her as particularly cool. She answered the Kotel and the Mediterranean Sea. Not bad, I thought. The Kotel is a place that speaks to most everyone who visits Israel, and especially for first-timers, seeing it can be a particularly powerful moment. As for the Sea, its vastness and beauty were noteworthy to her, and, I suppose, just the idea of a beach that went on forever did the trick. Either way, it stirred an emotion that stayed with her.

While I hope she will someday return to Israel so she can reinforce those feelings and find other connections, her first visit was a success and created within her a sense of awe.

Awe is a powerful emotion and it can show up at some of the most unexpected times. If you have a sense of awe, then you’ve found something unique and special and formed an unbreakable connection to that idea, experience or product. You don’t want to let it go, are inspired by it, and want to share whatever created that feeling of awe with others.

Research bears this out. According to a study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania of The New York Times daily list of most emailed articles, a sense of awe was one of the top factors that contributed to the popularity of those articles. The stories created an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.”

And as the authors further explained, “Seeing the Grand Canyon, standing in front of a beautiful piece of art, hearing a grand theory or listening to a beautiful symphony may all inspire awe. So may the revelation of something profound and important in something you may have once seen as ordinary or routine, or seeing a causal connection between important things and seemingly remote causes.” Not only were readers of these articles inspired by what they read, they wanted to share the emotions they felt with others in the hopes of bringing them closer, and one could argue, creating a sense of togetherness and common experience. (“Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It’s Awesome,” by John Tierney, New York Times, 2/8/2010)

So why does the notion of awe matter to the Jewish community and to organizations that work hard to support current and future needs? Because awe is a critical emotion that we need to instill in our donors, customers and constituents. I may be moved by your work or product, but if it is awe-inspiring (or “awesome” as a certain 12 year old might put it), then I’m all in and want to learn more.

Whether one supports one of the long-established organizations in Jewish life or is trying to make a difference within a smaller, start-up group, those feelings of awe should not only be pursued, but celebrated when they take place as important, defining moments. And then it is up to those organizations to build compelling lessons around those moments and deepen the strong feelings that result.

The opportunity to witness awe-inspiring work happens every day at the Jewish United Fund (JUF). Sometimes, it is the result of the extraordinary work we do in times of crisis when our help is urgently needed, such as was the case this past summer when Israel’s citizens, particularly its most vulnerable, needed our help to stay safe and be reminded that they were not alone. Sometimes, it is the result of getting behind and supporting new ways of thinking, such as how we provided special grants last June that seeded community innovation through our inaugural Breakthrough Fund. And sometimes, it is hearing from an icon like Shimon Peres, the former President of Israel, who was in Chicago several weeks ago at a couple of our JUF campaign events. One could not help but be in awe of his story, achievements and optimism for the future.

But moments of inspiration do not always require a special trip overseas or being in the presence of a famous person. Rather, we can experience awe through our everyday activities and work. As we like to say at JUF, whether we are helping people in need, strengthening connections, or creating great Jewish experiences, our work changes lives and we do it all with the goal of uplifting the community. That is something for which we can all feel good about. Our work (and that of other Jewish organizations) is, indeed, awesome and just like the most emailed articles, it is worthy of being shared.

Back to Gillian and Israel. When we were in Caesarea, walking along the ancient ruins on the beach, we were reminded that this was the place where Hannah Senesh wrote her famous poem, “Walking to Caesarea” which later became the well-known song “Eli, Eli.” As I listened to the rush of the waters and watched Gillian search for the best seashells among the thousands on the shore, that moment became one of awe for me, one I will not soon forget.

Jim Rosenberg is the Chief of Staff of the Jewish United Fund / Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.