What Unites Us

This blog is was originally published for Challah Back – NextGenBlog.

This past week, I had the complete honor to present multiple workshops at the JProSTL national professional development conference. JProStl is an association dedicated to supporting professionals working at Jewish organizations in St. Louis. (JProSTL’s website) Its mission is to provide training, resources, and networking opportunities in order to strengthen staff members, their organizations, and the community as a whole.  On March 6-7, approximately 250 professionals gathered in St. Louis for the program themed What Unites Us.

The conference, which was launched in partnership by JCSA (The Jewish Communal Service Association of North America), boasted over 40 total sessions whose presenters included national names such as Deborah Grayson Riegel (myjewishcoach.com), Lisa Colton (darimonline.org), Rabbi Brad Hirschfield (clal.org), and Adam Simon (schusterman.org).  I am truly humbled to be amongst this group of names as an educator in the Jewish world.

I was asked to present three very different sessions:

We’re All in This Together :“World Café Model” for Meaningful Conversations
Using an adapted “World Café Model” for meaningful conversations, come experience how to overcome the obstacles for “what divides us” and how each staff person can take the steps to create more open and honest conversations, facilitate more partnerships and work toward a more unified Jewish community. World Café is an innovative yet simple methodology for hosting conversations about questions that matter. These conversations link and build on each other as people move between groups, cross-pollinate ideas, and discover new insights into the questions or issues that are most important in their life, work, or community.

Making a Difference in the Lives of Pre-Teens, Teens and Their Families
The pressures on teens continue to dramatically change.  While our Jewish organizations become increasingly invested in Jewish identity issues, we are perhaps less open about difficult subjects such as substance abuse, sex ethics, peer pressure, school pressures, bullying, eating disorders and other challenges to the self esteem.   We also often don’t look deep enough into the implications of our teens’ intense relationship with social media and texting.  Robyn works with youth group directors all over the country helping to give them the tools and framework for addressing these issues.  She will discuss present realities as well as how important it is for our communal professionals to collaborate as responsive professionals and advocates for teens and their parents.

Increasing Engagement through “Learning 3-D”
Whether you are teaching children in a classroom, using informal education with teens or involving adults in Torah study or leadership development, it’s important to understand the principles of experiential and participatory learning including why interaction is so important, tools for increasing engagement and providing experiences for learning  “that sticks.”

For the purpose of this posting, I want to share with you what transpired during the adapted World Café.  Visually, the room was set with colorful tablecloths at tables of 6 and coffee cups held markers that were set on white butcher-block paper.  Treats included chocolate covered espresso beans and biscotti.  Colorful napkins topped it all off.  Not the environment you expect to encounter when going to a conference session.  But this setting is key  – as it sets the tone for the important conversations the 20+ session participants were engaging in.

The questions I asked the group to tackle in three 15-minutes rounds or discussions:

  1. What does Utopia Jewish St. Louis look like in 2030?
  2. What plagues Jewish St. Louis?
  3. What 3-5 action steps do YOU/YOUR agency/congregation/organization need to take to make St. Louis the national best practice model in: Jewish Education, Jewish Communal Organization Relationships, & “Affiliation”

What transpired at times was predictable and at times truly eye-opening.  The predictable:  conversations around territorialism, funding, silos, competition, and denominationalism.

The eye-opening came in several ways.  First, was that the participants couldn’t envision Utopia in 2030 without talking about the problems we have in 2011.  They couldn’t get beyond what we are mired in to truly think big and create.  Their reaction was to immediately begin to problem-solve.   This reality scares me as I believe it indicates that true innovation and bold ideas are buried deep under layers of challenges we see before us. Second, when they wereasked to talk about what plagued the community, participants, for the most part, protected sacred cows, held back critical comments, and buffered difficult feedback. Third, was that when I asked them to articulate actions steps from themselves and their agencies, the table groups all generated big ideas for the overall Jewish community to take on.  The participants, only when pushed and confronted, could see that there are immediate action steps that they (personally and professional) and their organizations need to take responsibility for.

The people in the room were smart and talented Jewish professionals with probably about 200 years of combined Jewish professional experience in their collective portfolio.  They took their tasks seriously and worked hard to engage in these meaningful conversations.

However, when I reflect on so many national conversations (and local ones) that start with, “We need to stop talking and start doing…..” I can now look back on the World Café I facilitated and point to reasons why we are stuck.  We onlysee the problems and not the unhindered possibilities; we are too nice in tackling problems that plague us so they continue to plague us; and we only see what “others” need to do and not what action we as individuals and organizations need to take.

I challenge readers to go back to the three questions, make them applicable to your community, and host these important conversations.  Our future depends on it.  And the future unites us.

[Note: A true kol hakavod goes out to the JProSTL staff for an amazing job well done, under the fearless leadership of Marci Mayer Eisen, director of the I.E. Millstone Institute for Jewish Leadership at the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.]

Post-Script:  Please feel free to use the Comments Section of this blog
to answer the questions for you, your organization and your community.

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