Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Power of a Time Out

Sometimes, to keep moving forward, you need to stand still. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past few days with my colleagues at United Synagogue, and it’s been a nourishing and, frankly, moving experience.

We began Sunday morning at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Bethesda, Maryland. I note the location because, significantly, we were not sitting in an office; rather, we were in one of our partner synagogues – a sacred community whose health and vitality represents the essence of our mission. After conducting routine business, we engaged in what I think of as the real work: discussing our core values and how to bring them into what we do every day.

Sitting together at round tables, our staff and board discussed a story from the Talmud, in which Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Hiyya argue about what they would do if, God forbid, the people of Israel forgot the Torah. (It’s a wonderful story that you can find in Tractate Baba Metizia, 85b.) I listened as each group teased out the values behind the two rabbis’ strikingly different approaches, and debated which had the most merit. They then began to articulate the values that should animate our own work and to decide which were most important.

What moved me was not so much the ideas generated – though there were excellent notions about empowerment, respect, collaboration, and building community – but the fact that we were sharing a conversation about what matters most, about the principles that would guide us. It moved me to see how seriously each person took this discussion and to hear afterward how meaningful they had found it.

We’ve been working with the boards of our kehillot to help them go beyond simply giving committee reports toward articulating their core beliefs and how their institutions can embody them. Needless to say, we can’t preach this message very effectively unless we practice it ourselves.

Which brings me to the second part of the last few days, a staff retreat in the Pennsylvania hills. Again, we stepped back from the craziness of our daily routines to look more deeply at what we do. What’s been moving about this experience is how much time we’ve spent in meaningful conversation. We’ve sat face to face, talking about our lives and work. We’ve learned the art of asking questions and truly listening to the answers. Some of the feedback about these sessions is that people felt “validated,” “taken seriously,” “really listened to.”

It’s hard to think of a better way to move into the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, than asking each other about our most precious values; listening to each other as if we were truly created b’tzelem Hashem, in the image of God; and measuring ourselves against our most deeply held beliefs. Because that’s what we pray for this time of year, isn’t it? To find the inspiration to recommit ourselves to our core values. To internalize those values so they guide how we actually live. To elevate our lives into something holy.

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