experiments, instruments & measurement book

Putting People First


By Suri Jacknis

Last week, I was privileged to attend a UJA-Federation of New York SYNERGY Leadership Development Opportunity in Long Island entitled: Putting People First: Elevating Kehillah Through Relationships. Our lead presenters were Dr. Ron Wolfson, author of Relational Judaism and Jeannie Appleman from Join For Justice, Jewish Organizing Institute and Network.

Ron began with a few stories that really showed a strong contrast between having a culture based on relationships vs. having a culture based on transactions (fee for service.)

Ron recently had a birthday. He got 476 birthday messages on facebook and 4 actual birthday cards (3 were from his family) and one was from his Chase Bank teller. The latter was a handwritten note on bank stationery. In it, Ron’s teller Valerie wished him happy birthday and mentioned that the last time he, Ron, was in the bank, he had spoken about going to Northern California to visit his family. Valerie wanted to know how his visit had gone. She also invited him to bring his family by the bank the next time they were in the area so she could have the pleasure of meeting them.

In contrast, Ron showed us the envelope asking for a donation that his synagogue had sent him to mark the one -year anniversary of the death of his mother. He read it out loud. Dear (fill in the blank): This is to remind you that the Yarhzeit of your (fill in the blank) name (fill in the blank) will be on (fill in the date)….etc. We all felt how much more personal and in relation the letter from the bank teller was. Ron reported that it really touched him that his teller wanted to connect with him and the people important to him. Ron added that he recently had heard from a rabbi who spends an hour each week making a personal call to the families observing a Yahrzeit and asks them to share a memory of their loved one with him. This rabbi feels that these calls have made a huge difference to the sense of community in his congregation.

Jeannie took up where Ron left off and taught us the power in a simple “turn and talk.” She directed us to find someone near us in the room that we did not know and either tell them what keeps us up at night or what gets us up in the morning (what are we passionate about). We only had 3 minutes to share, but we all felt connected to that person with whom we had shared a part of ourselves. We heard stories about family, children, health, career, transitions, and hopes and fears of real people. Imagine having the chance to do this more regularly! I could get to know new people in ways that cut through the usual superficialities. I could get to know people that I already know in new, deeper ways.

Jeannie also taught us about the power of house meetings. A house meeting is a small group “relational conversation” with between 6-8 people who meet face to face to share their stories, concerns, experiences and hopes, and to identify new leaders. Jeannie began by doing a “fishbowl” demonstration of a house meeting. We had two rounds of questions; each person had 1.5 minutes to speak each round. The first question was: “Share an experience when you took a big risk; what did you risk? Was it worth it?” The second was: “if you were a magic wand, what would you create at your synagogue that animates your imagination? What talent would you bring?” Once again, the power of listening closely to people’s stories and of having everyone attend to one’s own story was remarkable. As part of the group’s debriefing, we all reflected on what we learned about each other and how, if this was an authentic home meeting we might follow up with each person to build on our relationships, to identify common interests, identify people who had talents to share and leadership qualities to contribute.

We were also privileged to hear from a panel of clergy and lay representatives that had experimented with house meetings, one-on-ones and community organizing. The personal testimony of impact on individuals and communities was amazing. We heard about large projects to promote dignity in aging and community wide efforts to increase recycling. A shout out to the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore, Temple Sinai of Roslyn and Temple Beth Israel of Port Washington.

We closed with an opportunity to make a commitment to seek ways to work on our own congregational cultures to make them exemplars of relational Judaism. What is one action step each of us could take to pay more attention to creating caring connections with others in our congregations?

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