A Movement of “Both/And”

There was a great series on NPR last week about young Americans moving away from religion. One of the points they made is that while many young people are moving to the left, organized religion is moving to the right. For the first time, the number of Protestants is seriously dipping. I think it’s time for liberal religious traditions (in my case I’m concerned about liberal Jewish movements) to make a compelling case. Here’s my stab at it.

It seems that to be a religious person today in the United States, one has to follow extremist leaders and their doctrines or focus on the positive aspects of religious communities and traditions while ignoring the rest. You don’t have to make that choice if you are part of a liberal Jewish movement. Liberal Judaism is a faith tradition not of either/or, but of both/and.

  • We both accept scientific fact and believe the stories of our tradition contain existential truths.
  • We are both intellectually curious and spiritually aware.
  • We are energized and inspired by both change and tradition.
  • We value and respect both individual needs and the needs of the community as a whole.
  • We care about both universal causes including hunger and civil rights and have a high concern for Israel and Jews everywhere.
  • We both embrace creative expression, learning and exploration, and we are supported by long-standing Jewish communal institutions.

Being both/and is not trying to be something for everyone. It is not wishy-washy. It is a philosophy for a progressive, integrated and modern Jewish community, one that adapts while still preserving its essential core. Judaism offers us a way to grapple with life’s most challenging and invigorating questions. It gives comfort where there is none. It pushes us to be better than we might. Our tradition is robust, and it is relevant to the issues we face today. The more people who seriously participate in its evolution, the stronger it becomes.

What would you change? Do you think people could get behind this? Whom do you know that is making a compelling case for liberal Judaism?


Our Jewish Podcast, Episode 1

Here’s the latest experiment, a first try at a collaborative podcast. My friend and colleague Rabbi Molly Kane and I are the hosts of Our Jewish Podcast. This first episode features:

  • God Help Us: A segment where we answer letters and give advice from a Jewish perspective
  • This Jewish Life: An interview with a remarkable Jew, this time my friend and epic bike rider, Rudy Van Prooyen.
  • The Puzzle: A Jewish trivia question from our renowned Puzzle Master, Jerry Kaye.

If you like the music, check out Ben Lapidus’s album Herencia Judía.

The podcast is about 15 minutes long. Take a listen and tell us what you think here or at ourjewishpodcast@gmail.com.

A Growth Mindset is Key to a Culture of Learning: A Case Study

It’s easy to get frustrated with the challenges of Jewish schooling, particularly supplemental schooling. It’s tempting to write off parents and children who miss school by saying their priorities are mixed up or they just don’t care enough about what we do. We could play down the curriculum, asking what can possibly be taught in the existing format with so few hours. In tough economic times, many congregations are cutting education budgets, including staff and days of school. A different option is to take a hard look at what families are choosing and what they need, and then take that information to to learn and grow. For a case in point, see this blog post I wrote for eJewishPhilanthropy about Barnert Temple and how they’ve thought about reinvisioning their school.


Imagine you are in the leadership at a large, successful suburban congregation. Your religious school has a good reputation and the students who come give positive feedback. Recently, a consistent group of sixth graders have stopped attending altogether on Sundays. What is your reaction?

When this scenario played out at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, the rabbi met individually with each family to asses where the congregation was failing to meet the needs of those families. Then they created a pilot program to better suit them. In an email their educator sent out following the meetings, she wrote, “Thanks to your honesty, we believe that Barnert is going to move into a new era that will offer all families a more accessible, relevant and meaningful Jewish experience.” This episode is a window into the culture of ongoing learning at Barnert Temple. I believe this culture is directly linked to the prevailing mindset in this community, what Stanford University psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset.”[1]

In her writing, a growth mindset is contrasted to a “fixed mindset.” In a fixed mindset, people believe their strengths and weaknesses are a given. In a growth mindset, people believe that they can develop their abilities through hard work. A person with a growth mindset is open to feedback, seeks out challenges and learns from mistakes. A person with a fixed mindset is constantly concerned with proving him/herself and therefore shies away from any challenge in which s/he may fail. People with a fixed mindset also surround themselves with others who make them look good, while those with a growth mindset want to be around people who push them to think differently and improve.

For an example from Jewish tradition, we can look to Hillel and Shammai. Take the famous story of the potential convert who challenges each rabbi to teach him the Torah while he stands on one foot. (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a) Shammai chases the convert away. We guess his thought process was something like this: This person is ignorant. He has no respect for the depth and breadth of Judaism. He would only dilute and corrupt Judaism if he were converted. He is making a fool of me and all that I stand for. This kind of thinking comes out of a fixed mindset. When faced with the same challenge, Hillel responded, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn it.” What mindset does this reaction reveal? The whole Torah on one foot? Now that’s an interesting challenge! I’ll give it a shot! This man is showing an interest in Judaism. Once he is attracted to Judaism and its philosophy, he will be able to learn more and become a true student of Torah and member of the Jewish community. This is the thinking of someone with a growth mindset, particularly revealed in Hillel’s concluding statement, “Go and learn it.” Hillel believes that learning is possible, even for this person, and that it will be transformative.

As Dr. Dweck explains, organizations can operate under either a growth or fixed mindset as well. In order to learn more about Barnert Temple’s culture and approach to learning, I interviewed eight people in the leadership, including both Rabbi Elyse Frishman and Rabbi Rachel Steiner and the Director of Lifelong Learning Sara Losch. The five volunteer leaders I interviewed (three women and two men) all are part of a self-study in the area of education. This group has been convened in order to look at trends in Jewish education as well as patterns and challenges of Barnert’s education offerings and then make recommendations for improvement. Through my interviews, I found that the growth mindset pervades their work and that this approach has a ripple effect through the congregation.

By highlighting the characteristics at this growth mindset congregation, I hope to show how other organizations can adopt this approach, becoming learning communities with an eye towards evolving and improving.

  1. Group process, not groupthink. Carol Dweck warns that when a CEO has a fixed mindset, “Everything starts revolving around the boss.” (123) When all that matters is boosting the boss’ ego, critical thinking goes by the wayside. In contrast, growth mindset leaders surround themselves with people who give meaningful feedback and represent different perspectives. The education self-study is just one in a series of think tanks and learning efforts devoted to improvement, including a worship think tank, identity think tank, groups to create vision and mission statements, and a recently created strategic planning committee. In the words of the lifelong learning chair, “We tend to like these kinds of participatory, soul-searching processes.” One of the most veteran members of the congregation involved in the self-study told me, “I think one of Barnert’s strengths has always been its willingness to approach self-examination.”
  2. Diverse voices. Central to the group process is representing a wide range of opinion and experience. The people on the task force came from a wide cross-section of the membership. In addition to this large group, focus groups and individual interviews were conducted. A task force member told me, “One of the untapped resources in our congregation is the background, knowledge and skills of our congregants in terms of education…. We once counted 300 people involved in committees at the synagogue.” What allows the senior leadership to open up major synagogue policies and philosophies to such a process? Rabbi Frishman told me, “As I think the work we are doing is really on the cusp, there are no answers to the questions we are answering, so if you invite the right people, they are going to have ideas that I haven’t thought of.” The growth mindset believes in the potential of honest searching and learning to yield meaningful answers. As growth mindset leaders do, Rabbi Frishman has built a team of people who are different than she is: “I love that. The team has to be different. We often make each other uncomfortable, but I’m really OK with that, because we really bring different things to the table.”
  3. The senior leadership sets the tone. As you can see, a big part of an organization having a growth mindset is a leader with a growth mindset. “People in a growth mindset don’t just seek challenge, they thrive on it. The bigger the challenge, the more they stretch.” (20) Rabbi Frishman in many ways embodies a growth mindset. “Do you always take the same road home?” she asked me. “I don’t. I like to always try a new way. I could just get in my car and ride through a new area.” Elyse came into a congregation that did not look like the current one. Although she credits the search committee with taking a forward-looking risk by hiring her, she had to work tirelessly to change the culture against significant resistance from veteran members.
  4. Mistakes are learning opportunities. Therefore, the leadership is open to critique. A mother of two described to me two challenges and how the leadership responded. “Whatever the issue is, they welcome it, they attack it, and they bring it to the forefront. There’s nothing hush-hush. For example, when my kids were in preschool, a lot of things happened by word of mouth, and working moms weren’t getting the word. When I didn’t hear about my son’s performance, I called the school office pretty upset. What did Sara do? She held off the play until I could get there. Then she met me at the door with a coffee. Another time one of my sons didn’t want to go to Hebrew school because he didn’t believe in God. So, I called. The staff responded by developing a whole unit on questioning, explaining that it’s part of Judaism. They taught it to the whole grade.” A culture marked by a growth mindset means not only that people feel comfortable coming forward with critiques and concerns, but also that leaders feel supported in taking risks which ultimately move the organization forward. As Sara Losch told me, “I don’t have to hit a home run every time at the plate.”
  5. Change is the only constant. People with a growth mindset thrive on challenge. They seek out opportunities for growth. More than once, people told me Barnert Temple was not a place that “liked to cruise.” As a result, members of Barnert Temple have learned to be comfortable with change as a mark of learning and evolution. One man I interviewed described his reactions to recent staff changes, explaining “Everything remained the same at the temple where I grew up. We felt we were looking for a solid, no change experience and were a little bit shocked by a change. It took a year to get used to it. I don’t know what else could possibly change, but we’ve seen over the past three years a significant amount of change, and it’s good change, and it feels like we’re growing the temple and the temple management and clergy are not just sitting on their laurels. They’re constantly trying to adapt and move the congregation forward.” Rabbi Frishman has a unique outlook when it comes to evaluating her success: “People look at our congregation and say: It’s not broken, and we say: You don’t see what’s going to happen in ten years. We know for sure based on everything we’re reading, this is not where we’ll be in a few years. If you don’t work on it, it’s going to disintegrate. I’ll know I’ve been successful if the children here join synagogues, or if synagogues don’t exist, they are connected to the Jewish community some way.” This is a stark example of the remarkable attitude a growth mindset provides. Rabbi Frishman’s openness to growth and the possibilities of change allow her to consider a world with no synagogues and still envision a successful outcome as a synagogue rabbi in that world.
  6. Learning is ongoing and for everyone. Here is where the growth mindset meets the learning organization. Carol Dweck writes, “Seymour Sarason was a professor of mine when I was in graduate school. He was a wonderful educator, and he always told us to question assumptions. ‘There’s an assumption,’ he said, ‘that schools are for students’ learning. Well, why aren’t they just as much for teachers’ learning?’” (201) Barnert Temple is a place where the staff, adults and children all engage in learning. Sara described to me a calendar full of learning and professional development opportunities for herself. In fact, she said that when she wasn’t initially going to conferences due to personal health reasons, “there was disappointment from Elyse and my chair.” A man I interviewed said he remembers the congregation where he grew up as a place with a lot of activities for kids, but that the plethora of adult learning opportunities at Barnert Temple sends a message about the ability of adults to grow as Jews. Rabbi Frishman models this; “I don’t see how we can ask people to grow if we don’t grow. People have to know that I’m always growing. I say it to members all the time. I am a better human being because of my partnership with them. I expect the same from them.”

The good news about a growth mindset is that anyone can learn it. You can change your mindset, and you can change your school or organization to be a place that encourages a growth mindset. To return to our ancient rabbis, while Shammai may have been more accurate to insist that the Chanukah lights diminish, Hillel embraced the challenge and potential of a new reality. Each Chanukah we broadcast the message of the growth mindset: embrace change, learn from challenges, and light increases.

[1] Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006. (All references in the article are to this book.)

For more about Barnert Temple, visit barnerttemple.org.

To learn about Carol Dweck’s mindset and find tools to teach the concept, go to www.mindsetworks.com or mindsetonline.com.

Emphasize Bar and Bat Mitzvah MORE

Here’s a blog post I wrote after attending the Speakers’ Lab panel entitled, “Is Jewish Education Broken?” Amid all the talk of re-imagining bar/bat mitzvah, I think we need to remember this is one of the few Jewish life cycle events that people still observe. Jewish weddings may or may not happen. Brit milah is up for debate. Jewish funerals occur, but shiva is often truncated. Are we sure we want to mess with this?

At a recent Speakers’ Lab event sponsored by the Posen Foundation, scholars and educators Zvi Bekerman, Benjamin Jacobs, Jonathan Krasner, Tali Zeklowicz and Jonathan Woocher tried to answer the question: Is Jewish Education Broken? The issues raised left me with a surprising conclusion: we need to emphasize bar and bat mitzvah more, not less.

Zvi Bekerman made a compelling case about “doing Jewish.” He pointed out that “Most Jews throughout Jewish history knew nothing about Judaism and were still Jews. It’s about doing.” He criticized liberal Judaism for its emphasis on feelings and beliefs about Judaism. What then is left that helps a Jew act as a Jew in the public sphere? Later on in the conversation, the speakers turned to the topic of bar and bat mitzvah, saying synagogues have been held hostage to preparing children for this ceremony without ever “interrogating” this life cycle event for its educational value. The contradiction jumped out at me—here we are intellectualizing one of the few Jewish rituals that many American Jews still embrace. Yes, there are options for non-synagogue based rituals, but that’s just a testament to the demand for a way to mark this life cycle event in the context of Jewish tradition. People still want to do this. And I mean do it. Not talk about it. Not experience positive feelings about it. Not reflect on it. They want to do it, and they want to celebrate it, and both should be embraced. That is what community is for—bringing people together and acknowledging significant steps on a collective and individual journey.

But where is this journey headed? Currently, bar and bat mitzvah is a big dead end. The problem is not primarily what comes before, but what comes after. Tali Zeklowicz made the strong point that everyone in the room had evolved their sense of Jewishness as recently as the last five years. And yet, apart from the occasional reference to college students, the conversation about Jewish education in North America focused entirely on the structures and methods we use to educate children. We cannot keep relying on children to perpetuate Judaism as children. Adults opt out of Jewish life, by and large, until they have children, and then they focus on a Jewish education and context in which to raise their children.  Judaism is a sophisticated and robust culture, theology, philosophy, outlook and way of life for adults.

Reflecting on my own role models, I realized I watched my mother prepare for and celebrate her bat mitzvah (in 1981), as well as my college roommate (in 1991) and a graduate school friend (in 1998). Now I’m watching my husband prepare for his, to take place in 2013. That means since I was 9 years old, every 10-15 years I have seen an adult (when I was a child) and a peer (as an adult) embark on a course of serious study and mark it with a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony.  How about this as a model? Every 13 years, an adult engages on a new course of serious Jewish study and marks it publicly. She or he experiments with incorporating new Jewish practices. As a community, we celebrate and acknowledge adult Jewish learning, and we hold up individuals as examples.

Currently the demand for high quality, sustained adult Jewish learning in the liberal Jewish community is pathetically low. If we want to fix a broken Jewish education system, we need to start with ourselves.