Thursday, August 28, 2008

Wexner Summer Institute, Part 2.

.מכון ווקסנר קיץ, החלק השני

As I mentioned in my last significant post of August 17 (so long ago!), my arrival to Stowe was fraught with discomforts and disappointments. Thus, when I arrived on Sunday afternoon, I was still very tired/jetlagged. Nevertheless, I was excited to have finally arrived and to be meeting my cadre of fellows for the second time.

At the airport, I reconnected with a few people from our class, and that was pleasant. I also met a fellow Fellow named Jason, who was part of the Summer Institute planning committee. Jason's a rabbinical student at JTS, and we had a great conversation about rabbinical school, siblings' weddings, Stowe, and the Wexner Fellowship on the way to the Stoweflake Resort.

The first day was, thankfully, less intense than the following ones. We had a chance to meet everyone again, and we had a mixer exercise that I thought went really well. We sat in five groups of four, and each person received a number 1-4 and a small booklet with three pages: Agree (green paper), Ambivalent (yellow paper), and Disagree (red paper). Or, the director of the Fellowship, would read a statement (I support the two-state solution, I believe someone can be Jewish and not believe in God, I believe in the human soul, etc.), and we would hold up one of the cards and then discuss in our groups. After each round, two numbers would switch groups so that we would have opportunities to talk with a lot of people.

This set a tone that I really appreciated. On the one hand, the exercise understood that we didn't know each other very well, but it also assumed that we wanted to get better acquainted and not just in a "what's your favorite ice cream flavor" kind of way. We talked about serious, deep issues that we care about, and we established an atmosphere of trust amongst our class of Fellows. I saw these themes reflected throughout the Institute, and by the time I left, I felt that the first theme (not knowing one another) was mostly forgotten in lieu of focusing on getting into the thick of serious issues.

In order to give credit where credit is due, I'll focus on the programs that had a significant impact on me. So, although The ABCs of the Jewish Community was fun and interesting, I want to highlight the strongest parts of the Institute. Thus, I move next to our session on modernity. Dr. Kelner, with whom I had the pleasure of learning later in the Institute, is a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt and a Wexner alum. His session on Jewish Modernity zeroed in on the Pittsburg Platform drafted by the founders of the Reform Movement in 1885. I had never actually read the Platform, probably because the Reform Movement has diverged in several ways, and it was very interesting to me personally to be studying this text of vital importance to the history of my movement. It was also interesting to me to see non-Reform Jews from many different backgrounds studyding the same text, and I felt proud that this was a reflection of one Jewish response to modernity that has changed and remained strong for 120 years.

When I first started reading the Declaration of Principles laid out in the Pittsburgh Platform, I assumed that they wouldn't jive with me. I figured that since the Reform Movement has changed so much in the past century that I wouldn't identify with the Declaration. However, that wasn't the experience that I had. Rather, I felt a strong connection to the rabbis who were banding together and, for the first time in history, declaring a set of principles that established a "new" way being Jewish and that drew together like-minded Jews in such a way that they could practice their Judaism not in isolation. Additionally, I was moved by the constant references to God, holiness, and spirituality in the text. This was not a declaration that said, "We are afraid of being Jewish in a non-Jewish world; therefore, let us hide our Judaism and forget that which makes us different." Rather, the document says (in my words), "We have been raised in and we embrace modern society with all its advances and complexities, and yet we still affirm that God's presence can be felt in our lives through holiness. We affirm that Jewish tradition is the foundation of monotheistic human morality, and we support a unique and unflagging commitment to the ethics evident to us through science and tradition. Since the traditional practices of Judaism do not speak to us on a holy level, we reject their divinity and seek to isolate and expand upon the holy morality inherent to Judaism." I find this sentiment courageous and beautiful, and I'm proud to be its inheritor. Although I don't entirely agree with it on a personal level, I admire the rabbis who were strong enough to come to these conclusions and state them to the Jewish and non-Jewish world, just as I admire the progressive spirituality and ethics that Reform Judaism has championed for over a century.

Immediately, after this engaging study session, we undertook to make a "class portrait." We sat around a large table with magazines, scissors, markers, construction paper, tape, glue, popsicle sticks, yarn, etc. Without any further instruction, we were told we had five minutes to choose a theme. I immediately grabbed a marker and construction paper and facilitated a brainstorming and selection process. Our group dynamics were then publicly analyzed by Or and Cindy Chazan. It was interesting but also off-putting to have our groupwork dissected that way, and when we were told that we had 10 minutes to figure out a way to execute our theme (Insiders/Outsiders), I consciously refrained from "taking charge" as I had done before. This time, we worked much more popcorn style, and our progress was more circular than linear. When time was called, we still hadn't decided on an execution. Our group dynamic was again analyzed, and then we were given 30 minutes to execute our "class portrait." Without getting into the details of what we decided to do, I'll mention that we were very rushed, we ended up doing more individual work than group work, and by the time we had finished, some people were feeling very negative about the experience. Or said that to try to wrap up would be trite, so he simply excused us to lunch ... but we weren't done yet. We pressed him for additional information and then continued our project on our own. The staff left the room, and we continued to discuss the bad experiences that some of us had and tried to heal hurt feelings. We concluded our project and took ourselves to lunch.

After lunch, we had an intense session with Marty Linsky about our team dynamic. He pressed us to consider "exercising leadership" as a behavior rather than thinking of leadership as a characteristic. Examples of leadership tend to defy expectations and go beyond simply acting according to the demands of authorizers. He used specific examples of our class portrait exercise (which he observed) to discuss when certain people did and did not exercise leadership, and he was fairly pressing at times ... though at times we pressed right back. The whole session was permeated by emotions and wills, but Marty seems to thrive in such an environment. At first, I was a bit taken aback by his facilitation style, but ultimately (after speaking briefly with him after the session), I decided that Marty helped us think critically about ourselves. Good thing I concluded that, too, as our Winter Institute is going to involve a lot of time with him!

The Museum of the Jewish Family was very well put together, with a dozen stations representing different points in the life of a Jewish American. However, it didn't address non-normative family situations. Fortunately, we were to devote virtually the rest of the institute to topics dealing with a diversity of family interests.

On Tuesday, I met my seminar facilitator Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the only (as far as I know) openly gay orthodox rabbi and contributor to the documentary film Trembling Before God. He was a great teacher, and I was excited to study the Garden of Eden and Abraham stories with him (and the fellows in the seminar with me). However, the scope of the seminars was fairly broad, so I feel that we didn't get to go as deep as I had wanted. Nevertheless, the insights he brought regarding gender and family were very interesting.

Tuesday was also a day of excellent conversations. On the Fellowship Hike, I had a long conversation with Dani about Jewish peoplehood and the policies that it should or should not result in. After the Beit Midrash, I had a long conversation with Erin about her experiences with observant Judaism, in particular with relation to the pluralistic mission of the Wexner Fellowship. I won't go into details of either conversation here, but when I write Part Three (the part with the lessons I learned at the Institute), I will certainly include ideas that these two helped me generate.

Also on Tuesday, Jonathan Ross performed his one-man show Walking in Memphis: The Life of a Southern Jew, which I had actually seen in Jerusalem when I was visiting Pardes with Becca Klimpl. Ross is an excellent performer, and his personal stories were touching. I definitely recommend the show to anyone who has the opportunity to see it!

My second seminar with Shaul Kelner was about American childhood - and we tried to tie in Jewish childhood whenever we could. We talked about various Jewish childhood experiences and about the changing nature of childhood over time. We looked at as a model of modern play and discussed its possible effect on children today. In the second part of the seminar on Thursday, we talked about the line between childhood and adulthood, and that conversation was really fascinating. On both days, the fellows were the primary speakers with Dr. Kelner offering statistics and questions to guide discussions. It was great to hear from other fellows on these topics, although conversations about children and adulthood reinforced my (factual) self-perception as among the youngest people at the institute.

The rabbinical seminar I went to focused on whether and how much to let our political views influence how we act and what we say in public. It was hard for me to participate as I had barely even begun my studies at HUC, but I found the conversation very helpful. For the first time in a long time, I once again felt very excited to be a rabbi and more eager than usual (of late) to picture myself in a congregational role. (Lessons from this session will likely make their way into Part Three as well).

On Thursday, we had the opportunity to witness a panel discussion with Edmund Case (founder of and Sylvia Barack Fishman (author of Double or Nothing). In brief, Mr. Case believes that interfaith marriages are nothing to be afraid of while Dr. Fishman believes that they contribute to the decline of Judaism. There were a lot of probing discussions, and our class conversation afterward was the most heartfelt and bonding of the entire institute. Once again, see Part Three for the impact it had on me.

The beit cafe (talent show) on Thursday night was quite funny. There had been a big build-up (starting with Abigail Wexner at our orientation) that our class is the "funny" one, so we had a lot of pressure. I think we performed well, and the "judges" liked our reimagination of the song Tradition. The other acts were fairly funny as well, and there was also some "real" talent, including a scene from King Lear and a song from a Sephardic (Moroccan?) tradition.

When Friday rolled around, I was definitely sad to be leaving (and not overly excited about my long return home). We all said proper good-byes, and I hung out/packed until it was time to go. I went to the airport with a half-dozen other fellows, where we rode together to Newark, NJ before parting ways. My return to Jerusalem was much more comfortable than my trip to Stowe, but I still believe that I'll try to insist on a non-stop flight from Israel to the U.S. for the winter institute.

Obviously, I didn't cover everything, but in order to preserve the strongest memories, I've written about the things that impacted me the most. Overall, I found the programming was most useful in its ability to spark meaningful class discussion and side conversation. Yes, I learned a lot about family, what it means to be Jewish, gender roles, marriage, and so on, but the most valuable part of the institute was having my horizons greatly broadened by the poignant and potent insights of my fellow class members. I very much look forward to continuing conversations with them at future institutes and in between!

Now, stay tuned for the "good stuff..."


Jeff H. said...

Interesting post, especially the part dealing with the group dynamics experiment. FWIW, my view of such "lab coat" experiments is that all they reveal is how people react under artificial time constraints. Of course, it's always good to be reminded that sometimes it's important to lead, at other times it's important to listen. But ask yourself how many decisions in life are really made by stopwatch, with little time for give-and-take, rethinking, and recalibrating. Decisions of triage are like that, work in the ER, some decisions on the battlefield, the work of air traffic controllers ... but the overwhelming majority of actions and decisions in life (and, one hopes, communal and rabbinic life) benefit from mature reflection, not from artificial deadlines in lab-type experiments. So, we find out that under absurdly constrained circumstances, with lab techs (= facilitators) looking over your shoulder, group dynamics can break down. Why should we be shocked to hear this? And what, aside from the recognition that poorly designed experiments can yield faulty results, does this actually reveal?

Daniel said...

Hi Jeff, you have a great point there about time constraints, and we brought that up in our subsequent discussion. Part of Marty's conversation dealt with seizing opportunities to "exercise leadership," most often by defying expectations. When we were asked to reflect on what opportunities we had to exercise leadership, we determined that the major constraint put on us was the time limit. If we really wanted to step out of bounds and forge our own path, we would have disregarded the time limit. Most of the time, we abode, as expected, by the rules. However, at the end of the activity, when Or dismissed us to lunch and we said, "But we still have some questions" and continued our project even after the staff had left, we felt that we had, in fact, seized an opportunity to "exercise leadership."

In the end, I think you're right: While we were able to learn something about our group dynamics, mostly the exercise was about how we accomplished a task in a given time limit. I think that their long-term view is focused more on the "leadership" aspect than on the group dynamic as we won't be working in this group in the "real world" in all likelihood.

Thanks for your perspective!

Jeff H. said...

Hey, Daniel ... I still stand by much of what I wrote. But for a wonderful example of bizarro group dynamics under appalling time constraints and extraordinary ego pressure ... have a look at this!

Jeff H. said...

Uh-oh. Looks like the link was garbled. It's

The headline reads: Advisers Say Conservative Ire Pushed McCain Away From Picking Lieberman

Daniel said...

Very interesting indeed!