Toward a More Realistic Model of Jewish Outreach

Last week we had a disagreement in shul, and I vocally disagreed with the rabbi on social media, and I therefore assumed I would not be welcome in shul anymore.

Went back to shul this week, and lo and behold: It wasn't a big deal.

I am experiencing cognitive dissonance about this. Because I was raised in a religious environment where conflict management meant kicking people out.
  • Can't sit still in yeshiva? Out.
  • Parents religious, siblings religious but not you? Out.
  • Disagree with the rabbi? Out.
  • Marry a non-Jew, God forbid? We'll sit shiva for you.
Now - my attitude has always been: Nobody's gonna tell me what to do or how to believe. Not my father, not my teachers, not my husband, and certainly not any rabbi.

So of course I never felt comfortable in yeshiva or in synagogue.

Some have suggested I might like other branches of Judaism more, e.g. Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc.

But my feeling on that is, while I enjoy the services very much, "you and I both know this isn't real."

It's like a comment that someone made at a Jewish event on campus: "Judaism is a culture, not a religion."

I fairly spit out my soda. "What a chutzpah-bonim," I thought to myself, "a 'culture' and not a 'religion'? Hah!"

But I'm not entirely observant either, and the dichotomy between what I believe to be true in theory, and what I actually live in practice, has always stuck in my throat like a bone.

An alternative could have been Chabad Lubavitch - Torah-true, seemingly open-minded, happy. But the cultishness, the insularity, and the closed-mindedness between the seemingly open-minded exterior is a bit of a turnoff.

Let's face it, too: I am not going to be Orthodox again. Because Orthodox means following the rules without question, without making your own judgment calls, and without rationalizing the things you do and don't do.

As someone pointed out, you disagreed with the Orthodox rabbi, but you wrote your comments on the Sabbath, so come on.

In any case - the Orthodox Judaism I grew up with was an all-or-nothing proposition. If you did not personally keep the mitzvot and follow the Orthodox crowd, you simply were not wanted. 

You were outside.

I still think that is the case. From what I can see, the traditionally observant put other Jews in one of five categories:
  • Religious like us - you're in
  • Religious, not like us - still in
  • Ba'al teshuva - becoming like us - most definitely in
  • Not religious - we'll talk to you, but you don't "count" in the religious conversation
  • Self-hating Jew - the enemy
This mentality, I believe, is the reason why Jewish outreach fails. Because somewhere inside that model is a "perfect 10" of a human being, a black-and-white way of thinking. Recruits are "love-bombed" into the cult, but they can only stay in if they promise so hard to conform that they think they are thinking independently.

A better and more realistic model of Jewish outreach, I believe -- and one that is completely consistent with Judaism -- is what I would call the "Start Where You Are" model. 

This is the model I believe our rabbi and his wife are following. Though it is unusual, it makes a lot of sense to me.

From this way of thinking, human beings as inherently imperfect. Not just imperfect psychologically and physically, but also imperfect in our capacity and willingness to observe Jewish law. This is not a choice we make, it's not a rarity, but it is the default of human existence.

Contrast this with the ossified Orthodox approach that you are either "faithful to God" or you have some kind of "mum," a defect, and you cannot be trusted fully -- in fact, the same concept as kashrut. A person is like a piece of meat, either acceptable or defective, and if they're defective you stay away.

The marriage crisis in Orthodox Judaism also stems from this terrible model. People are "graded" along a scale, and they know very well who's considered "Grade AA" and who's a "D."

When you have this kind of dichotomous thinking and you do outreach, of course the person you are trying to "bring closer" is lesser than you. You may not think this consciously, but the effort is to "bring them up to an acceptable level."

This is why I could never stand to be in an Orthodox community. This kind of thinking repulses me.

I am much more receptive to a view of humanity that says, all of us are broken.

Because all of us are human. 

If there are 613 mitzvot, we hope to keep as many of them as we humanly can. Or at least get on the upswing, increase our level of observance but also the quality of our spirit as we do so.

Where we mess up, and we definitely will mess up, we strive to get back on the horse and recover.

In this fundamentally more realistic model, the ambassador of mitzvot can only be a reflection of humanity and brokenness.

We do not need to pervert the mitzvot or say that they are irrelevant "because most people can't keep them."

We can redefine Judaism as a brand within which every Jew is a precious shard of glass.

If you put all the glass together, there is a vase you can fill with roses.

But even if it is incomplete, and the cracks in the glass let the rain drip through, there is an inexpressible beauty there.

It is the beauty of making an effort. It is the effort that God seeks from all of us, not the pretense of wholeness.

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All opinions my own.

27 Totally Inspiring Bible Quotes

  1. "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands." - Psalm 19:1
  2. "You make the dawn and the sunset shout for joy." - Psalm 65:8
  3. "Sunshine is sweet; it is good to see the light of day." - Ecclesiastes 11:7
  4. "The righteous man will flourish like the palm tree." - Psalm 92:12
  5. "In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety." - Psalm 4:8
  6. "Those who go down to the sea in ships, who do business on great waters; they have seen the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep. For He spoke and raised up a stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea." - Psalm 107:23-25
  7. "Be still and know that I am God.” - Psalm 46:10
  8. "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." - Psalm 119:105 
  9. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me." - Psalm 23:4
  10. "The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever." - Isaiah 40:8
  11. “Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly...their refuge will be the fortresses of rocks; their food will be supplied, their water assured.” - Isaiah 33:15-16
  12. “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” - Proverbs 3:6
  13. “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” - Jeremiah 17:7-8
  14. "He has made everything beautiful in its time." - Ecclesiastes 3:11
  15. "Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land." - Song of Solomon 2:12
  16. "Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers; but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on His law day and night." - Psalm 1:1-2
  17. "He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. And in whatever he does, he prospers." - Psalm 1:3
  18. "Praise the Lord! Praise God in His sanctuary; praise Him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for His mighty deeds; praise Him according to His excellent greatness." - Psalm 150:1-6
  19. "Great are the works of the Lord; they are studied by all who delight in them." - Psalm 111:2
  20. “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In His hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind." - Job 12:7-10
  21. "What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." - Micah 6:8
  22. "You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with abundance." - Psalm 65:11
  23. "So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God." - Ecclesiastes 3:12-13
  24. "Let them give thanks to the Lord for His unfailing love and His wonderful deeds for mankind, for he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things." - Psalm 107:8-9
  25. "The Lord will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands." - Deuteronomy 28:12
  26. "Who commands the sun not to shine, and sets a seal upon the stars." - Job 9:7
  27. "For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze." - Malachi 4:1

A Civil Way To Dissent With Political Appointees

As the topic has come up recently, a few practical ideas have emerged. I don't take credit for these ideas; mostly they're common sense and I'm just sharing. They're grouped into a handful of categories for ease of reference:

1. Designated intermediary

  • An office whose job it is to share employee dissent messages at a high level
  • An ombudsperson – “complaint central”
  • Technology - create a neutral space where concerns can be shared by anyone (for example, a Sharepoint-based “issue tracker”)

2. Written communication, readily available, brief and high-level

  • What does your office do? Why is that important? Who are your key partners?
  • What are the key laws, regulations, policies, principles and standard operating procedures that govern your functioning?    
  • What are the ethical considerations that may occur during the normal course of business, and how do you handle those?

3. Training orientations, offered at regular intervals (e.g. a “lunch and learn”)

  • Walk through the organizational chart: Who does what, who reports to whom, etc.
  • History lesson: How did we get started? How did we evolved? What key events shaped our identity today?
  • What are some of the “hot topics” in our world right now? What are the different angles on it?
  • What is the culture like around here? What are some things to be aware of? 

4. Build up the “trust bank account”

  • Ask in advance how to disagree without creating conflict or embarrassment
  • When an issue comes up, ask questions first and draw conclusions later
  • Model respect and professionalism
  • Assume good intent - common ground in your mutual wish to serve the American people.
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Opinions my own. Not intended to explicitly or implicitly represent any government agency, the government as a whole, or any other organization.

The Halacha Of NIST


When my parents come to visit us, we normally go out to eat. But if we eat at home, they arrive with a big tray of kosher ribs. 

And we eat off of paper plates.

Some people are offended by the religious laws of others. And certainly I could understand if you said, 

"But those are your parents! Doesn't it bother and humiliate you that they won't even eat in your house?"

The answer is no - of course not, not at all. There isn't an underlying message there, about "lack of respect" or being "not good enough." The bottom line is that we have a relationship, and it is independent of the laws of kosher food. 

I respect their commitment, and they respect me enough not to proselytize.

Personal offense about halachic observance is a topic that comes up all the time. I remember many years ago I told a woman that my family was partially Hasidic. 

"Hasidic," she fairly spat. "Hasidic men are so disrespectful of women."

I wondered aloud what made her feel so strongly about it. Had she worked for Hasidic men in the past? Did she have them in her family?

"Every time I go to New York," she said, "I wind up in a store where the cashier is a Hasidic man. And they will never put my change in my hand!"

The woman was referring here to the halacha governing physical contact between men and women. While opinions legitimately differ, this man was following the version that is more strict. He doesn't touch a woman unless he is his wife.

I explained this to her.

Had it been one year ago instead of ten, I might have added that the Muslim man who runs the dry cleaners place we use will only take cash. And when he gives me change on a $20, he puts the quarters on top of the $10, the $5, and the $1 bills. He doesn't hand me the money directly.

That's called keeping your religion. I respect it.

Sometimes people take things a bit too far. We all know that. And their idea of what "religion" justifies is astonishing.

Other times people think they are observing Jewish law when in fact they are uneducated, or maybe they're obsessive-compulsive. All of us know people like that.

But if someone is genuinely observant of halacha, in a way that can be justified in the context of the mesorah (tradition), then their dedication to it is not an offense to you.

Of course it is easy to say all of this when you're writing from a bubble. In real life, arguments over observance can and do promote an unbelievable amount of hatred. Forget about Orthodox, Conservative, Reform -- I'm talking about arguments between observant Jew and observant Jew.

How can you take it another way? If you feel that someone has wronged you by their insistence that you are not "good enough," how can you remove the offensiveness?

I go back to my time as an employee at NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, in Gaithersburg, Maryland. 

NIST was established by the Federal government to promote a clear and consistent system of "weights and measures." Without any uniformity of standards, a number of things become impossible, among them trade and technology. If there is no coin worth a standard dollar, then how can I buy or sell anything? Hydrogen and oxygen? They're elements of both life-sustaining water, and bombs.

The Halacha is God's original science. 

True, there is one fundamental difference: Science operates regardless of how we feel about it. Halacha is fundamentally wrapped in a layer of interpretation by and for people: Humans make judgments about what it is, what it means, its application in a social context, and even further must be observant people themselves in order for their views to be credible.

But once you get past all of that (and it is a lot to get past), the idea of Halacha is that God runs the world according to certain "natural laws." Those laws are specified in the Torah. I'm not supposed to add to it, I'm not supposed to take away from it, I'm not supposed to twist it around to make myself feel better, and I'm not supposed to bend it to appease you.

Now again, in real life, do we conform to all of this? Of course not.

I would even go so far as to say that entire systems of false Halacha have been established just to make people feel better.

But we should not take offense when somebody else observes their religion. Even if it makes us feel bad inside. 

Even if they're judging us as they do it!

To be able to rise above yourself, and to observe your feelings without letting them compromise your judgment, is the mark of a wise human being. 

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All opinions my own. Public Domain Photo via Pixabay.

Reform, Not Resistance Is Needed To Restore The CIA's Reputation

The CIA statement on Wikileaks' recent document dump is less than optimal --  defensive and arrogant. For such an intellectually sophisticated organization, their communication strategy needs work.

Let's take it apart:

The first thing they say is that they won't comment on whether the documents are real. 
"We have no comment on the authenticity of purported intelligence documents released by Wikileaks or on the status of any investigation into the source of the documents." 
What they should say is that they're not allowed to comment. Saying that you "won't" do something implies choice, power and discretion. Saying you "can't" demonstrates that you are following the rule of law. 

Why does this matter? Because politicized, lawless behavior by elements of the CIA is at the root of the problem here.

The statement goes on to defend CIA's right to develop extremely sophisticated technology.
"CIA’s mission is to aggressively collect foreign intelligence overseas to protect America from terrorists, hostile nation states and other adversaries. It is CIA’s job to be innovative, cutting-edge, and the first line of defense in protecting this country from enemies abroad. America deserves nothing less."
This is a really terrible thing to say to people whose trust you have betrayed. "You deserve nothing less" than the best protection we can offer, and so you should keep quiet.

Uh, no, not really. My television is spying on me!

Now they go on to do a typical government communication thing, which is to issue a very narrow, technically accurate denial that doesn't really speak to the issue.
"It is also important to note that CIA is legally prohibited from conducting electronic surveillance targeting individuals here at home, including our fellow Americans, and CIA does not do so."
The problem with a statement like this is that it insults people -- many of whom already assume that the CIA thinks they're stupid. The key words here are "CIA does not do so," with the modifying clause "electronic surveillance targeting individuals here at home, including our fellow Americans." Reading between the lines, I assume that somebody else is doing the surveillance here at home with technology that the CIA has developed, and that there is some sort of partnership or relationship that provides CIA or other intelligence agencies with access to the data collected.

Then we get a statement about the law provides for close review of CIA activities at all times:
"CIA’s activities are subject to rigorous oversight to ensure that they comply fully with U.S. law and the Constitution."
Ask any one of the hundreds of millions of Americans who have watched any Hollywood depiction of the CIA. Do they really believe that their activities are overseen fully? Do they even believe that the CIA knows what the CIA is doing at all times?

Highly, highly doubtful.

We end with this statement, which is troubling not because of the language they used, but because they don't take any responsibility for the problems they themselves have caused:
"The American public should be deeply troubled by any Wikileaks disclosure designed to damage the Intelligence Community’s ability to protect America against terrorists and other adversaries. Such disclosures not only jeopardize U.S. personnel and operations, but also equip our adversaries with tools and information to do us harm."
I speak only for myself in my blogs, but I think it is safe to say this on behalf of other Americans, too: We appreciate our intelligence community, including the CIA:
  • We are grateful to have such smart and dedicated people defending us.
  • We know that our adversaries are just as smart and dedicated.
  • We appreciate that only the most sophisticated tools available can effectively outmaneuver our adversaries.
The problem however is that the intelligence community, or more specifically, elements within the intelligence community, have clearly overstepped their bounds.
  • They have developed technology that can be used to spy on us, even if we think our communications are private.
  • They have developed technology that can make it look like others are hacking our electoral system, and they didn't tell us.
  • They are vulnerable to politicization, and we don't understand the extent of how this has affected their mission.
There are many other concerns, too, particularly when it comes to oversight.

The CIA should engage the American public with a more respectful, accountable communication strategy that speaks to our real concerns.

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All opinions my own.

"Jewish" vs. "Zionist"

I have been giving this a lot of thought as I always described myself as multiple things, e.g. "Jewish," "feminist," "Zionist."

And then the "feminist" movement disappointed me by coming to represent a range of attitudes, values and behaviors that I personally find repugnant. 

Similarly and more painfully to me as a Jew, "Zionism" is a secular, political ideology that has justified some pretty bad behavior by Jews. 

While I understand that anti-Semitism is pervasive, I do not agree with a Jewish solution that goes outside the religion.

In other words, the Jewish justification for a Jewish state has to be rooted in a theological approach for it to be valid.

Some people may flinch reflexively at any criticism of the words "Zionism." They point to the fact that Zionists dealt with "reality," not "the world of the yeshiva," and in their secularism they created a country where a Jew can be both safe and free to practice their religion as they like; where non-Jews participate equally in the democratic process; where human rights are respected tremendously; etc. 

All of this may be true. And it is true that the establishment and flourishing of the State of Israel is a miracle.

It is also true that my criticism is reflective of Western binary thinking. Perhaps things are a lot more gray than I am letting them appear. Perhaps the ideology and the religion coexist and overlap, and everyone can find their place on the spectrum.

But as I get older I am starting to see, more and more, the wisdom of those who enfold all Jewish considerations under one rubric, the Torah. And they judge all actions according to whether halacha (Jewish law) would or wouldn't consider it permissible.

This is the same problem I have with the term "Open Orthodoxy." I don't have a problem with the term "Orthodox," meaning "halacha-observant." (Similarly with the term "observant" or "Torah Jew.") But I do have a problem with the idea that you can or should modify halachic observance to suit a completely different set of ideals - Western democratic secular ideologies relating to diversity, inclusion, feminism, and the like.

When you equate a non-Jewish ideology with the Torah, or you try to mix the two, you end up ruining both and it is an insult to both. The one exists to the exclusion of the other.

I am a Jew who sees Israel's founding as a miracle. I understand that the people who founded the modern State of Israel were mercilessly targeted and slaughtered for the privilege. I get it.

But I do not agree with the idea that one can substitute "Zionism" for "Judaism" or that all Jews must agree with actions taken in the name of the "Zionist cause." And if you think that makes me a a "bad" or a "disloyal" Jew, your response illustrates the Jewish theological issue I've raised here - perfectly. 
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All opinions my own. 

How Project Management Affects Your Brand

Agile or waterfall or MS Project or Excel, or even a plain old Sharpie used to scrawl out notes on a random set of Post-Its, you somehow have to manage your work. And most of what we do in our daily lives, if we are in a professional setting, involves a series of projects.

Project management = boring. I know you're telling yourself that, and you think that, and other people tell you that too. My evidence is that, number one, the words themselves sound totally boring. "I am a certified project manager" just does not have anywhere near the "wow" appeal of something like, "I am the chief marketing officer at YazDeboo" (whatever YazDeboo is, they must make something cool) or "I am a rocket scientist at NASA."

Now I totally get that. But if you're doing project management right it is not boring at all because the art and the science of it is to juggle a lot of different mini-initiatives aimed at specific outcomes at once, while ultimately aiming to shore up your brand, which is the value you bring to the table over and above your competitors.

The outcome of a project affects your brand:
  • How you implement a customer relationship management (CRM) platform, for example, leads your customers to view you in a very particular way. 
  • Hiring someone is another project - right? Or maybe you didn't think of it that way, but it is. Well, the kind of people you hire and the manner in which you onboard them will ultimately affect your organization's character, and character manifests itself in the values customers see in everyday behaviors.
  • Designing or redesigning your organizational chart is another project. Whoa, can this be a bear to undertake. But the manner in which you categorize and stovepipe your institutional structures (and all structures must be put into buckets, even if they're very broad) will affect the way in which you define the work you're doing. Just to give a very basic example, if you put Digital Communications into the IT shop, the output will be vastly different than if IT serves Digital Communications.
Outcomes are shaped by the way in which you conduct your projects. Your processes either reinforce your company's ability to function as a unified whole (e.g., a recognizable brand with a recognizable vision, mission, culture and values) or they are crisis-driven, dysfunctional and corrosive.
  • On the positive side, if you incorporate the principles of project management into your projects large and small -- following a work breakdown structure, keeping to a schedule, accepting and modulating stakeholder feedback, and so on -- you create a safe and stable space within which employees trust that they can do their best work. You're not in crisis mode, and as such you can grow and flourish without constantly looking over your shoulder.
  • If you ignore irresponsible, abusive, or corrupt behavior by senior leaders, and ignore the warning signs of trouble, at some point disaster will occur. That disaster will create a cleanup project, or several, or many. And you will naturally attract employees who don't really care about doing things well, but only about covering for messes, and looking like a valuable asset to you as they do it. In fact one could say that such employees will actually enable future similar conflicts to occur, avoiding unpleasant task of providing negative feedback and instead positioning themselves as "fixers." 
You see, contrary to what most people think, branding is not about ad campaigns and logos. Those are dessert. Your main meal is the unglamorous work you do to keep things functioning every day.

I once worked for a boss who was famous. When I complained about having to do so many dreary things she said to me, "Only a tiny percentage of life is fun. The rest is just horse manure. Roll up your sleeves -- plenty of that to go around."

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All opinions my own. Photo by OpenClipArt-Vectors via Pixabay (Public Domain).

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