Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sweet Potatoes, Stuffing - But What's Inside That Pumpkin?

I put a lot of pressure on myself around the holidays. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Passover, Rosh Hashana, or Thanksgiving -- you’ll find me agonizing over menus and shopping lists weeks in advance. In fact, my husband believes it’s possible that I derive more satisfaction from the planning and preparation portion of the experience than from the experience in and of itself.

Why? I couldn’t have told you myself, until I read Joan Nathan’s article in Tablet Magazine. She writes of Thanksgiving meals: “These dishes tell you who you are.”

To come through the force of fusing tradition and a personal touch of creativity to a place where you feel: I am these dishes – if you really took that seriously (which clearly I do), then yes, that’s a lot of responsibility.

It’s also a lot of power. I think about the Thanksgiving dishes I grew up on: sweet potatoes with marshmallows, for instance. For me this dish will forever be tied up in the very essence of Thanksgiving; it is impossible for me to imagine a Thanksgiving without it. I possess the power to similarly influence what my daughter’s quintessential Thanksgiving food associations will be – perhaps even, by extension, her basic understanding of her roots, of who she is.

So who is she? I wonder. We have my American side – the sweet potatoes with marshmallows, butternut squash, stuffing, pecan pie, the pumpkin pie. We also have my husband’s Israeli side – hummus (quite good with turkey actually!), Israeli salad, pita.

Finally, we have the Jewish/religious side, which includes the kosher turkey, of course. I also find myself preparing traditional foods of the Jewish parallel to Thanksgiving, Sukkot – such as a stuffed pumpkin. The common explanation for why we eat stuffed vegetables on Sukkot is based off an image of a cornucopia, of giving thanks for a harvest of plenty. I once heard a spiritual spin on it which has to do with hidden meanings. Think about it: The most important things in life are intangible, hidden from view. Inside of everyone there is a piece of these essences – of goodness and, ultimately, of the Divine. The mysteries of G-d’s grand plan might be hidden from us – but we have this spark in each of us to help us along the way.

In truth, I don’t think it’s just that the dishes tell us about ourselves. We have a hand in curating who we want to be – not just on the holiday table, but in our day-to-day lives as well. This is what we have to be thankful for – and the ability to share it with family and friends, of course.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ballet Class

I took my 2-year-old to ballet class for the first time. I was sure she was ready for it because she loves imitating the moves in that old Sesame Street clip of kids in dance class, and doing the “Snuffle Shuffle.” But when I tried to prep her by showing her selected YouTube clips of “The Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake,” she watched in a silence that I was sure was pure enthralled fascination, but could also have been a blank and uncomprehending stare – and then after 5 minutes yelled “Watch Oscar!” So maybe it’s just a love of Sesame Street.

I personally had watched the clips in, yes, enthralled fascination, which was also filled with nostalgia. My parents had taken me as a child to “The Nutcracker” every year – and every year I had dreamed that I could do it too. In fact, for 10 or so years of my childhood and adolescence, I spent 1-3 days a week trying.

When asked about these endeavors, I have a standard answer: “My parents knew I was going to be tall, and they wanted me to have good posture. So they sent me to ballet class.”

Tall I definitely turned out. If you looked across a row of girls in the class, I was easy to spot – I was the aberration shooting up out of the even horizontal line of their heights. (Good posture is more debatable.) I also inevitably turned out in ways differently than perhaps my parents envisioned – religiously observant of Judaism, for one.

Now I’m the parent, and I find myself projecting. What skills, values, and character will sending my daughter to ballet class draw out of her? For that matter, how will she be shaped by being sent to Jewish Day School? What other educational experiences should – or shouldn’t – we as parents instill into her to influence how she thinks and acts?  

If observance of Judaism complicates a girl’s practice of ballet in the long run, the religious implications of sending a 2-year-old to dance class may be slight. She doesn’t understand that there will be a big recital at the end of the year that she won’t attend because it’s on Shabbat. She also wouldn’t understand the difficulties inherent in an invitation for a playdate at a classmate’s house. Unlike me, she doesn’t pay attention to the parents trying to engage me in conversation about the rationale and means for getting a head start on Christmas shopping.

But someday she will. I can’t help but play it out in my head.

Ultimately, though, I come to realize that nurture only goes so far. My daughter is blessed with her own personality, reasoning and logic skills, and has her own likes and needs. From what I can tell as of right now, she’s the leader who doesn’t care if she has followers, who enters a room full of kids watching TV and, instead of sitting unobtrusively in the back as I might, marches up and positions herself in front of the very first row. I think she’ll do fine.

More importantly, I believe that it’s necessary for one’s identity to engage in the process – the experience – of working through these questions for oneself at some point.

For now, I just got great nachas from watching her eagerly prancing around doing her darnedest to imitate the instructor’s every move. She came out of class beaming, her first words, “I did it! I DANCED!”

She’s probably going to be tall, and it’d be great for her to have good posture. I also want her to have self-confidence and strength in her own identity and abilities. I believe in her, and I want her to believe in herself.

The Power of Network Development

This article I wrote was first published here on eJewishPhilanthropy.com. Thanks for the opportunity to contribute to what I feel is a very exciting conversation!

After being a part of the ROI conference for Jewish innovators last June, David Brown, Social Action Coordinator at JHub in London, came home inspired – and filled with questions. How do these young Jews and the initiatives they represent relate to the establishment? And what is “Jewish” about Jewish innovation, anyway?

There are many approaches David could have taken to seek answers. Ultimately, I encouraged him to conduct a SurveyMonkey.com survey of around 70 innovators he was in contact with, the results of which he distilled for PresenTense Magazine. By utilizing the power of his network, David learned what his peers were thinking about the issues on his mind – resulting in a new consciousness of the “why” behind what he does that will inform his sense of purpose as he continues his important work.

Creative thinkers and doers are emerging as leaders of the Jewish people. But they can’t achieve change in a vacuum. They need to reach others – to leverage the power of those who care about the same issues they do. This could mean recruiting supportive connections to join their cause through instrumental commitments of money, time, or advice to help them grow for the future. It also could mean connecting with others engaged in similar work to explore best practices, ways to work together, and channels for emotional support from others likely experiencing some of the same challenges, frustrations, and rewards.

The process of reaching others happens by maximizing connections through a network – where together we can achieve more than we could as individuals.

Network development is an emerging area for Jewish organizations. Many are rising to the challenge of engaging the next generation. While establishing one-on-one relationships with young people is important, some organizations are additionally recognizing that they can achieve powerful results through enabling young people to connect with each other and leveraging the power of the emerging network.

I have come to fundamentally believe that this is best way to foster young leaders, within an individual organization or at large: through finding ways for them to collaborate, form communities, and connect personally and professionally, whether through social media, in-person, or in a conference setting. Through engaging in such network development work, an established organization can provide these new voices with an invaluable conduit to the wider Jewish world, enabling them to connect with and influence the larger, global conversation. At the same time, the organization itself benefits from the ideas, new energy, and passion of these up-and-coming leaders. It can also be recognized as a convening organization which brings thinkers and doers to the table and empowers them to realize their goals and dreams.

Over the past five years, I have had the opportunity to dedicate my passion and energy to the burgeoning field of network development through my work at PresenTense, growing a network of more than 500 community members organized principally around the production of PresenTense Magazine. I have been continually amazed and inspired by a richly diverse spectrum of contributors and their intense commitment toward solving the critical challenges facing the Jewish world.

Through the experiences of my work, I have distilled some strategies in network development, some of which include:

Recognize the importance of the process: Up-and-coming leaders are surely more than capable of networking and sharing ideas on their own. However, the effects of these efforts can be magnified by providing them with a set process and forum. This will allow for growth, connections, and the refinement of ideas – and training in how to network effectively.

Practice sharing ideas: In a world of social media and information overload, powerful messages communicated fast can go further than ever before – and the network can be the place for the research and development of compelling narratives.

Connect those with expertise in a given field: Peer learning can be extremely influential and avoids the unnecessary re-creation of the wheel.

Enable a prosumer ecosystem: Encourage each person to both “consume” and to “produce” – to learn, contribute, collaborate, and absorb. This creates a culture of activism and yields results that truly represent the voice of the network.

When done successfully, network development should instigate a vibrant conversation on important Jewish issues, where everyone can express themselves, learn what others are thinking, and find ways to collaborate to take action. It should also provide personal and professional development – where young leaders gain skills to communicate ideas effectively and to listen effectively to help refine the ideas of others. Finally, it will produce strong connections – individual to individual – which ultimately build an active network.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Issue of Community

This post originally published here on PunkTorah.org - thanks to PunkTorah for enabling me to share my thoughts!

My memories of Camp Ramah are vivid but fleeting: smiling children dove and swam all the way across the screen as the projector rolled in my after-school Hebrew School in suburban Connecticut.

I never did persuade my parents to send me to Camp Ramah. But it certainly was not for lack of trying. Throughout my childhood years working my way through public school, I craved what those smiling children represented to me: a sense of community, built off the commonality of a shared Jewish identity; a place with people like me.

I first found this Jewish community for myself in perhaps the most unlikely of places – Princeton University, to be exact. I found religion too, and my husband. But when anyone would ask on a deeper, more psychological level why I choose to be religious, or start a family, I would come back to this core, human concept of the search for community (or my equally innate and possibly related desire to cook and feed people – but that’s a story for another time).

Post-college until the present, my husband and I have found ourselves in non-transient, suburban Modern Orthodox communities as young married adults with less-than-school-age children. We’ve discovered that, for better or for worse, the world is not a college campus. The casual observer of Modern Orthodox life might ask: really? Communal meals, organized programming, living walking distance from one’s closest friends – surely this all exists for both populations.

The truth is that my demographic is a hard sell, in Modern Orthodox circles and beyond. It’s not that the communities we’ve lived in haven’t given us a warm welcome, because they have. And it’s definitely not my lack of a desire to participate in local, community-building activities.

The usual excuses for my demographic holding back include our preoccupations with our budding careers and attention-demanding babies. While this may have been true historically and may even still be true currently, I believe the root of the issue comes to the complexity of the concept of community in today’s world. Who is your community? Your 1,067 “friends” on Facebook? Your family and friends developed over your 20-something years including, yes, former college roommates, who, probability has it, are now spread around the country, if not the world? The people in your inbox, Google hangout, or Twitter stream, who you may or may not have met in person? These avenues and more all lead to an inevitable feeling of hyper-global-connectivity, and the Modern Orthodox just as well as anyone else of this generation face multi-faceted decisions about where, how, and why to invest their community-building efforts, and with whom.

The issue of community has become so murky that there are those who declare it irrelevant and passé entirely. I beg to differ, and not only because of the weekly thud back into the territory of the local and non-virtual known as Shabbat. I differ because of this longing I have felt from such a young age to feel connected, supported, and identified with on a basic and intimate level. Technology’s increase of the number and variety of means to connect aids but does not necessarily abet such natural desires.

Given all of this, perhaps it’s not terribly surprising that personally, and rather unconsciously, I ended up professionally fixating on the issue of community and how to build it in a Jewish world, transdenominationally. I want to help people connect on personal, Jewish levels, to answer these needs for each other, and to create more ways to expand and spread this supportive community. I want people to see all the advantages of having opportunities to connect, locally as well as globally, personally as well as professionally – because the lines between these categories seem to be blurring all the time.

Through the process of doing this, I have even found ways to fulfill needs of community for myself. Yet while I have developed plenty of processes for community-building, I do not know of a singular answer to the questions around community – especially when it comes to the simplest ones, like what it is or where to find it. Rather, I believe engaging in the exploratory process is part of the point. I believe that community-building is a life-long journey, and however much effort you invest in it, relationship by relationship, you will see a corresponding reward. That’s the fabric of life, and one I want to teach my children to weave – whether or not I send them to Camp Ramah.