U’Netaneh Tokef for Nonprofits

The U’Netaneh Tokef prayer is said on Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. It dates back about a thousand years old and was reputed to be written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany. It is one of the most moving and inspirational prayers we say on the Holy Days of the Jewish New Year. U’Netaneh Tokef, which means, We shall ascribe holiness to this day, is the first line of the prayer that speaks to our lives being in God’s hands and how on these holiest days we are judged. It also offers us the key to changing a harsh decree by appealing to God’s willingness to forgive our failings and to grant us another chance to continue living our lives.

Integral to the Jewish view of the New Year is the importance of reviewing and evaluating our lives. While we do not know what will happen in the year ahead, we have an opportunity every New Year to make changes in the way we live our lives. By reviewing and acknowledging the things we did not do or the things we did not do correctly, we have the chance to make amends in the coming year.

This process of being judged and having the opportunity to make changes in the way the year is used is not limited to individuals. This is a time when nonprofit agencies can avail themselves of a unique experience by adapting the U’netaneh Tokef process for themselves. Of course, when referring to an organization, I mean the staff and board of directors in relation to their respective roles.

If you’re interested, read the full text of the prayer here.

In keeping with these themes, an alternate text for nonprofit agencies might be as follows:

On Rosh Hashanah our agencies will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed; which agencies will cease providing services and which agencies will begin providing services to people in need; which agencies will cease to function because of a lack of funds and which agencies will receive an increase in funding; which agencies will be taken over by other agencies and which agencies will expand; which nonprofits will increase staff and which will decrease staff; which agencies will deal equitably with staff members and which agencies will deal inequitably with staff members; which agencies will increase donors and which agencies will have a decrease in donors; which agencies will have high functional boards of directors and which agencies will have dysfunctional boards of directors; which agencies will receive positive exposure in the media and which agencies will receive negative public exposure; which agencies will be rewarded for their excellence and which agencies will be criticized for not implementing their programs successfully.

Like the refrain we repeat in the High Holiday liturgy that through “Repentance, Prayer and Charity, we can change the evil of the decree,” so, too, the new text for Jewish communal agencies can be punctuated with the following words:

“But Self-Study, Contemplation and Re-direction Increase the Chances for Success.”

What are the implications of this prayer and, in particular, this final statement for the voluntary agency in the organized Jewish community? For the words, “Self-Study, Contemplation and Redirection Increase the Chances for Success” can be interpreted in a number of ways. “Self-Study” means asking the board of directors and the staff to engage in a process of self-evaluation and carefully review of their policies and practices. It means taking stock of what services they provide and the way they provide the services to the community. Are they putting the best interest of the client or member first? Or are decisions being made to serve the best interest of the agency? Once there is a thorough self-evaluation and the agency’s leadership has an authentic understanding of the way the agency is functioning, they can then proceed to the next level.

“Contemplation” in the organization’s life refers to the “I believe,” the “Ani Ma’amin” (in Hebrew). What is the foundation upon which the agency rests and is it prepared to rededicate itself to the basic values that were the rationale for first establishing it in the first place? When a nonprofit is prepared to take this step then it is taking the self- examination process seriously and it is prepared to take appropriate action. The third step is, “Redirection,” and in the context of our discussion about organizations it means the implementation of the results of the self-study. If the agency is going to be a successful organization over the course of the coming year and achieve stronger leadership, increased funding, high functioning programs, positive media exposure and be perceived as an integral part of the Jewish community then it must put into action what it has learned about itself. This process has the potential to revitalize the board’s and staff member’s investment and commitment to the organization.

During this time of the year we are aware of our strengths and vulnerabilities. We struggle with the direction of our lives and what we hoped to achieve as compared to what we have achieved. We think about the coming year and what new goals we set for ourselves, as well as how we plan to achieve those goals. Through this process we strive to enhance our lives.

Since we are involved in this process as individual Jews and as members of a Jewish community why not raise the level of our communal services by utilizing the same kind of process? It is an opportunity we have to enhance the lives of those we serve in the community. By engaging our communal leaders in this venture we not only strengthen our own agencies, but we also impact our Jewish community for the better. Shana Tova!

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.

This piece was originally posted by eJP in October, 2011.