Hit the Ground Learning
A professor at Harvard who runs a seminar for new university presidents teaches her high-powered students something they are not likely to figure out on their own. She tells them that instead of hitting the ground running, they should “hit the ground learning.” While I’m hardly a university president, still I’ve turned her advice into a kind of mantra. It’s easy to come barreling into a new position with rapid-fire changes. Doing so is tempting, right until I remember that learning always precedes effective action. At the same time, I know that new leaders are tempted to study the challenges their organizations face so exhaustively that they never actually get to the work of implementing important changes. I find myself in that dynamic tension between knowing I have much to learn about the URJ and, simultaneously, seeing many pressing challenges.To that end, over the past few months, I’ve had opportunities to learn from various stakeholders of our Reform Movement. And since we Jews are not exactly shy when it comes to sharing our opinions, I’ve received lots of free advice. What I’m hearing over and over again is that we’re at a crossroads in the unfolding of Reform Judaism in North America and that we need to be both bold and thoughtful in charting this next great epoch of our Union for Reform Judaism. One thoughtful rabbinic colleague said there was one thing that I HAVE to do: “Bring back the regions.” She pleaded, “Regions helped those of us spread out across North America feel connected to the URJ.” As she waited for a yes or no answer, I said that it was too early to decide such questions, but what is clear is that we must figure out how to better connect the many people in our Union.I’ve also listened to URJ staff members who joined in a series of “Coffee Talk” sessions to share with me their hopes and concerns for our Union. I sat with some in person at our New York offices while communicating with others through video conferencing. I heard from a diverse cross section of our staff — from Union rabbis to those who run our fabulous camps to others who provide important administrative support to the daily work of the URJ; these conversations yielded stories of dedication along with anxious comments reflecting this time of leadership transition.In mid-August, my Presidential Transition Team, consisting of exceptional lay leaders, URJ staff and Movement stakeholders, met to clarify where we are going and how we’re going to get there. With passion and openness, we debated how best to navigate the road ahead. Our sights were on the seismic shifts reshaping our community and our world. Bob Dylan had it right when he sang, “For the times they are a-changin’.”This is, after all, our Jewish tradition’s season of change. On Wednesday, we will observe Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the Hebrew month that precedes the start of a new Jewish year, reminding us to prepare for the upcoming Days of Awe. Individually and collectively, it is a time for Cheshbon Ha’nefesh, an accounting of the soul. It is the time of year when we face ourselves and our community with probing honesty as we set our sights on areas for personal and collective growth.During these past months, I’ve been moved by the many Reform Jews who have come forward to help in our communal Cheshbon Ha-nefesh. This begins by telling the truth about our Union. As with each of us personally, our spiritual audit must not only focus on what needs to change but also must properly appreciate what is right with our Union. Yes, there are many strengths in the congregational arm of our Movement, many ways we matter to the more than one million Reform Jews within our ranks, but in the spirit of hope and possibility that accompany the start of a new year, let us also keep our eyes on the many opportunities we have to change our URJ for the better.The upcoming High Holidays remind all of us that we’re not locked into yesterday’s ways. We can grow into the people we aspire to be, the Movement we set our sights on becoming.