by Rabbi Jennifer Goldsmith
My husband and I lived in Israel about 10 years ago during our 4th year of Rabbinical School at HUC-JIR. We rented an apartment in Jerusalem that was only a 5 minute walk to school. The apartment was perfect for the year, except for one thing. It had a kosher kitchen and we didn’t keep kosher. I honestly don’t think we ever thought more about food than we did that year. We did everything we could to honor that it was a kosher kitchen. We bought glass plates, new silverware, Pyrex to cook in. We’d eat our dairy food on a dairy plate and our meat on a meat plate. But more than anything else, we thought about how we could change recipes we’d grown to love to make sure they didn’t mix milk and meat…changing things up. We had to be innovative and creative to not mess up the kitchen we were borrowing while still honoring the tradition of kashrut found in our Torah, all the while making sure that this picky eater, yes me, had something she liked to eat!
Fast forward to High Holidays 2015. For the first time in 5 years I was invited by a good friend to lead HHD family services. I was thrilled and accepted the honor very quickly. And then as planning begin, I realized I found myself in the same situation as I did a decade ago in Israel. I had become the keeper of a tradition that wasn’t necessarily mine. This year I was leading HHD services for a Conservative synagogue I didn’t know. Not only did I not know their minhag hamakom (personal customs), I also didn’t know the minhag of the Conservative movement. I felt like I was back in my kosher kitchen in Jerusalem trying to honor the tradition I found in front of me, but also trying to navigate how I could include who I am and what I value.
As I reflect back on my experience in Israel a decade ago and High Holidays this year, I realize that we ask our educators to do this difficult work each year as they innovate and change the learning that is happening in their synagogues. They are staring into the face of tradition and need to figure out a way to honor it while pushing the boundaries. Redefining what learning can look like and the role it has in their congregant’s lives.
How do we help our congregations do this? One way is by offering systematic changes initiatives that allow us to work deeply with a limited number of congregations. Through I*Express we help educators and their teams figure out where they came from, where they are now and where they want to go. We give congregations tools to explore and assess all the moving parts of their system. We provide resources to give parents a voice and create buy-in, collect data, reflect and communicate. All of this coupled with consulting support and peer group work. Through all of this support our congregations are able to create their own recipes of success.
As we launch I*Express Year 1, Cohort 2 and Year 2 this month with 4 new congregations, 11 returning congregations and 8 consultants, I hope for our congregations the ability to honor the tradition that surrounds them while experimenting with various ingredients to create something new and different, with just a hint of the familiar.
To see the trajectory of I*Express Year 1, please visit innovatingcongregations.org.