Arrested Jewish Development

November 1, 2012
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Joshua Avedon

I spent most of my childhood Jewish journey loitering in the foyer. Seven years ago, when I became a “Jewish professional,” I thought that journey would find direction and acceleration. But instead, I often still find myself wandering around the station platform wondering which train to get on.

I went to a summer camp that was Jewish, but not too Jewish. On Shabbat we wore our clean(er) clothes and got off-brand soda at dinner. I had no religious education and never had an official bar mitzvah. My Jewishness had no impact on my life. I had a vague sense that the Christmas tree in the living room didn’t belong. After my parents’ divorce, I had a new step-family that was more serious about being Jewish; I went into full retreat.

Then, in 1987, I went to Israel. I studied archaeology and political science at Hebrew University. In Israel, I spent time with my girlfriend’s family, who seemed to have sprung from a Leon Uris novel: Her father lost an eye fighting for the Palmach; one brother was a leader of David Ben-Gurion’s kibbutz, Sde Boker, in the Negev; and another brother was a pilot in the Israel Defense Forces. Returning from my summer in Jerusalem, I realized that I felt my first sense of deep connection and belonging to the Jewish people. Though this feeling of connection became a persistent undercurrent in my life, it didn’t find any clear expression until much later, when I did something that would have shocked my ancestors: I joined a synagogue.

It wasn’t my idea. I had become an ill-informed co-pilot on my wife’s Jewish journey, or rather her journey to become Jewish. As she drew closer to Judaism, I went along for the ride. Suddenly, I found myself a synagogue lay leader and, for the first time, an engaged participant in Jewish learning. Then, my rabbi said the fateful words: “You should become a Jewish professional.”

Soon thereafter, my Jewish journey kicked into overdrive. Along with a group of impassioned lay leaders and a brilliant young rabbi, we launched IKAR in Los Angeles. We were given a gift — the opportunity to build a spiritual community that reflected our values while also serving our needs. Irreverent but serious, idealistic yet suspicious of authority, IKAR is a unique expression of tradition lived in a contemporary context. It sprang from a Passover text study about liberation and responsibility, and it remains true to that core narrative. That experience, of working to create something we’d never seen before but that burned in our imaginations, transformed us all.

At close to the same time, I began to work for the Jews. I soon realized that the sense of purpose I had felt while laboring long hours with my fellow IKARites (as a volunteer, while in grad school, with two small children) was largely absent from my Jewish workplace. Was I crazy to assume that Jewish learning and Jewish values would infuse my new working environment — that the practical means of building a better Jewish community would match the ideals of the ends?

Apparently, I was. This is what I’ve learned from working in the Jewish industrial complex: The field is filled with people who are toiling for Jews and Judaism, working in Jewish nonprofits for reasons that are noble and good. But those very organizations that are home to a Jewish workforce often starve their employees of the Jewish nourishment that initially drew them to the work.

I don’t believe that every morning at my office should begin with Torah study. But I do believe it’s possible to create an organization that takes Jewish values and learning seriously, both in word and deed — not by grafting on Jewish thinking as an afterthought, but rather by having it serve as a guiding principle. This means creating an organization that adopts governance policies that reflect Jewish principles, an
organization that lives those values in strategic and operational decisions — even when the process creates tension with expediency or efficiency. Most of all, it means creating an organization that does its learning through a Jewish lens and through using Jewish concepts.

Unfortunately, in my experience, this isn’t the norm. Many Jewish organizations don’t express their Judaism beyond their name and mission statement. They often fall short when it comes to paying a living wage, investing in the professional development of their workers, or having human resource policies that adequately honor parental leave. Or they simply fail to create work environments where everyone feels valued and respected. Moreover, they frequently pay no attention to providing opportunities for their workers to deepen their Jewish literacy and education. After working all day in a place that fails to invest Jewishly in its employees, is it any surprise that when many Jewish communal workers are away from the office the last thing they want to do is to engage Jewishly?

So, while my peers and I labor to help others move forward with their Jewish journeys, our own progress is often in a state of arrested development.

Recently, Jumpstart, the nonprofit I cofounded 41⁄2 years ago, ran a retreat for our board members. We spent two hours with a scholar, studying the roots of innovation in the Jewish tradition through text and conversation. We had never done anything like that before. We raised not a single motion, and we cast not a single vote. Instead, we began a process of getting to know one another as people; we talked about how to intentionally make Jewish learning part of our governance process. I walked away with a renewed sense of purpose for my work and an understanding that if my Jewish workplace is missing Jewish context, then it’s my responsibility to find a way to provide it. The Jewish journey of a thousand miles begins with a single text.

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Joshua Avedon is co-founder and COO of Jumpstart, a research and development think tank for the Jewish future. His work at Jumpstart gives him the opportunity to partner with the most creative and inspirational leaders building 21st century Jewish life. Avedon has spent the last several years writing, teaching, and advocating for innovation within the Jewish community around the globe. He lives with his wife, Stephanie, and their three children, Elias, Navi, and Sarit, in the house where he grew up in Venice, Calif.

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