Musings for World's Birthday

Dear Friends,

I just returned from the experience of a lifetime. My sons Ezra and David went with me on safari in Africa. If you’ve ever been, you know that the combination of big game, a beautiful reserve and the grasses of the savannah transport you to another world, one very far from my home in Brooklyn. Every day my son David believed we couldn’t top the day before, but every day opened up new, astonishing wonders.

The trip made me think a lot about our relationship to nature and also how our relationship to nature ties into the human relationship to God. In Genesis we are told that human beings are created “b’tzelem Elokim” – in the image of God. We are just unsure of what that image is. It certainly gives human beings a sense of their dominance in the world. It powers us and empowers us to be creative, to replicate ourselves and to build the world around us.

And yet, I could not help but think while I was in this magical part of the globe that when you truly encounter unadulterated creation – as I felt in the presence of the Ngorongoro crater – that there are still places in the world that humble us and make us realize how small we are and how vast nature is. No matter what we can create in this world, we will still be awed by more ultimate acts of creation.

This feeling of humility did not depress me. It had quite the opposite effect. I felt part of something special and transcendent. I felt the interdependence of the natural world. I felt the power of beauty that does not exist on the streets of Manhattan and how infrequently I experience this kind of attunement with my surroundings.

And in another way, all of this creation does inspire us to aspire higher in our own sense of innovation. Human beings have created airplanes, cars, computers, shoes, clothes, wheels – all things that attempt to imitate nature in our own way. We cannot fly like birds, but we’ve created planes and rockets that can scale the skies.

I feel very blessed to have shared all these powerful emotions with my sons, my acts of creation ( or, rather, acts of creation I contributed to…). The three of us stood together, joined as one generation and another both confronting what was larger than either of us.

As we enter Rosh Hashana, the birthday of the world, please take time out to celebrate the wonder of our world. Nothing could mean more on a birthday. As we read in the book of Psalms, “How great are your creations…” Indeed.

Shana tova – may it be a year of peace, blessing and renewal.


Let's Complete the Journey

Dear Friends,
We always think of Passover as a difficult journey to freedom that our ancestors took long ago and one that made us into a nation. Great journeys can accomplish just that. This Passover, I want you to think about your involvement in making another journey to freedom happen today. In 2011, the Government of Israel -- after much advocacy by American Jewish communities -- asked The Jewish Agency to take responsibility for operations in Gondar Province, Ethiopia, to facilitate the aliyah of the Falash Mura, the last group of Beta Israel Jews. 

We are now completing the journey that we started decades ago, bringing the final group of Ethiopian immigrants to their Jewish homeland. 

In 2010, the Israeli Ministry of the Interior identified 7,864 members of the Falash Mura who were eligible for aliyah. That number has risen and the Government of Israel made a decision to increase the rate of aliyah in February 2012. This means The Jewish Agency had to renovate and prepare absorption centers and do the groundwork in Ethiopia and Israel. To date the “Completing the Journey” mission supported by our partners – Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has helped over 5,000 individuals make aliyah while 2,000 more are waiting. We hope to bring the last person to Israel by this fall, bringing this historic chapter of Ethiopian aliyah to a close. We still need to raise about $2 million to pay for this operation but we are confident that our partners will accomplish this working with us. Your help with this effort in celebration of Passover would go a long way towards that goal. 

Imagine for a moment, the very last Ethiopian boarding the plane for Israel. Imagine the announcement in the news when the job is done that Israel is the only country in the modern world to take Africans out of Africa for freedom and not for slavery. It is yet another moment when you stand back and say, “Only in Israel.”

More than 4,600 of the new olim will be participating in their first Passover seders this year in Jerusalem and one of the absorption centers in Israel thanks to the generosity of Jewish Federation and Jewish Agency donors in New York, Cleveland Karen Hayesod countries and elsewhere making special donations for these celebrations to take place.

In the Haggadah we read about our obligation to relive history and recreate it at our tables. This year we have a chance to do more than talk about an ancient story. We can be part of an ongoing exodus to our homeland. I know personally what it means to be part of an exodus. I know what it means to me to know that world Jewry fought for my right to be free. I was a stranger, but thousands of people cared enough to protest until my family could leave the FSU.

The exodus teaches us to make strangers into friends, to fight for freedom against oppression and to make the world into a place of social justice and into a place of dreams. This year, live the dream and help us make history.

Wishing you and those you love a holiday of joy and freedom.  


A Global Family Stays Together

Dear Friends,
We have been through a difficult month. November saw a massive storm cause unprecedented damage in many Jewish communities, and Hamas once again targeted Israeli citizens with relentless rocket fire. During Hanukkah, it is tempting to ask: “Where is the joy when so many of our children live in fear and so many of our fellow Jews have suffered loss to their homes and their livelihoods?” 

A deeper look into Hanukah sheds light on the resilience of our ancestors’ whose shared heritage gave them the collective strength needed to survive. This spirit of "כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה" has held us in good stead. Two thousand years later, when Israeli children slept in bomb shelters, the global Jewish family pulled together. We gave them a break from the wailing sirens and provided immediate cash assistance to their parents to help recover from the attacks. And when word got out that elderly members of New York’s Russian-speaking community were trapped in high-rise buildings, and floodwaters forced families to evacuate indefinitely, young Russian-speaking Israelis flew to New York. There they worked with Russian-speakers -- who had emigrated to the States years earlier -- to help distribute hot meals, jugs of water, warm clothing and medicines to those in need. 

Difficult days lie ahead. But we know that we are never alone, and that we will face the challenges of our people as one people. For me, that is something to celebrate.  


Honoring My Heroes

Dear Friends, 

This is a very special anniversary for me. 

Twenty-five years ago this week, I was on the National Mall, a graduate student who came with a bunch of colleagues from New York. I left Russia 12 years earlier, and now I was at a rally to bring other Soviet Jews out from behind the Iron Curtain. The rally was moving, exciting and expected; after all, this was my extended family coming together to do what families do for each other. 

As extraordinary as it was, I almost took it for granted: of course that's what Jews would do! My family had been taken care of by the American Jewish community for over a decade. I had gotten used to the help and support. I assumed it was natural. 

Elie Weisel and Natan Sharansky were the spiritual leaders of the rally and the whole movement. David Harris from AJC was the lead organizer. I met David in Rome 12 years earlier where he was my caseworker at HIAS. I met Elie Weisel in 2002 at another rally on the Mall, this one protesting terror against Jews in Israel after a Passover Seder bombing in Netanya killed some of the Russian Olim who were freed as a result of the 1987 Rally in DC. That was also an impressive rally, but the numbers were much smaller, fewer than half. 

I am not sure how many we would get at a rally today. 

At the GA in Baltimore, Elie and Natan both spoke about the Washington March and its significance in our history for the soul of the Jewish People and the Jewish State. But Natan lamented the fact that American and Russian Jews who made it happen and were transformed by the experience have not shared the story with their own children and grandchildren. We need stories that inspire us to do more and be more for our Jewish family. This is one of them. 

It is a story of responsibility and obligation, kindness and generosity. It is a story of imagination and protest. Most importantly, it is a story of love. On Thursday, December 6, honor this special anniversary by spending a few minutes telling someone this amazing Jewish story. And join the Virtual March at Freedom25 where you can share your story and memories from that day and join those committed to a freer future for all people. 

We are still a miracle: Am Israel Chai!  


A "For Prophet" Approach

Dear Friends,

I feel a little guilty writing a leadership book when there are so many on the shelves already. So let me explain why I wrote my new book*, Re-imagining Leadership in Jewish Organizations. When I left my position at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington a few years ago, I gave a speech that outlined the lessons I had learned from being the CEO of that Federation. Many people approached me afterwards to thank me and also to share their own observations. There was so much to say that I had culled from both reading and leading that the book almost wrote itself. Every leader should have his or her own ten commandments of leadership.
Decades of Jewish communal service has taught me the importance of Jewish literacy, of inspiration, of being mentored and mentoring, of creating certain kinds of lay and professional partnerships and of working quickly. I am honored that Larry Moses, the former president of the Wexner Foundation, wrote the forward to the book because so much of what has inspired me and helped me build a foundation for my leadership came from my exceptional years with the Wexner Foundation.
There I also learned the value of thinking about leadership within a uniquely Jewish framework. Leadership learning is not Jewish per se. Just as ethical values are universal but can have their wellspring in Jewish sources, I feel that most of the lessons I learned about leadership are universal but tinged with a Jewish flavor and apply to our particularistic work cultures.  In writing the book, the ten lessons I shared are true of most leaders I know, no matter their faith or if they run a for-profit of a non-profit organization.
But when it comes to Jewish organizations, we need a more “for prophet” approach. We need ancient voices and modern musings and the discipline to take leadership lessons and translate them into the way we actually run organizations. We need more leaders, more ethical leaders and better-qualified leaders for the complex challenges ahead. I’ve discovered many lessons and have many more to learn. I am exicted to share them and can’t wait for you to read the book and give me your feedback and your ten lessons.


All author's proceeds from the Re-imagining Leadership in Jewish Organizations are benefiting The Jewish Agency for Israel.