March 20, 2014

I am in Rome for a couple of days, and this morning, while taking a tour of the Jewish Ghetto in the Eternal City I was reminded of the secret of survival: only those of us who truly work together will succeed in co-creating the Judaism that will live and thrive.

This lesson comes just in time. Just a few days ago I was pleasantly surprised to find out the New York Times published a flattering article  about Lab/Shul, and I’m grateful for the incredible flow of appreciation from so many of you.

But it wasn’t all positive. A few people, among them close friends,  wrote to me expressing  hurt and disappointment over one sentence of mine that was quoted in the article.

Sadly, they are right to be displeased. Something I said during my interview was taken out of context and  became  hurtful to the very people who opened the doors for my journey in the US, nurtured Storahtelling’s genesis and helped made possible the next chapter that is Lab/Shul. What was meant as a compliment came out looking like an insult and Instead of celebrating collaboration and respect it seemed like I was dismissing the vital contribution of a cherished and central communal leader.

To my rabbis, colleagues,  and friends  at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun – my sincere apologies for the needless hurt.

Please know that nothing but  admiration and gratitude to you guide my path and inspire all of us at Lab/Shul.

So what went wrong? During my interview I was asked about my arrival in NYC in 1998 and  explained how BJ, bursting at the seams, was looking for more ways to engage its many members. “It was the ‘It girl’ of the ’90s,” I said – role model for all syangouges worldwide, forward-thinking, and generously invited me from Israel and incubate new ways of approaching Torah and ritual.

I went on to describe how BJ empowered me to create Storahtelling, and continues till this day to be the creative and spiritual home for many thousands – including myself, my children, many friends – and  a third of Lab/Shul’s Board of Directors.

It was  an unfortunate choice of phrase taken out of context – but never meant as an insult.

Media works in ways that favor winners and losers, new faces replacing the old, “It factors” that are the flavor of the month. But these are not the age-old Jewish values  that inform and impact our lives, with diligent commitment to the daily sacred work of spiritual life that goes on in countless congregations, for years and decades, far from fame, safe from spotlights.

The “It Factor” is seductive and flattering – but it is not the narrative that I wish to live by or to chart Lab/Shul’s evolution, no or in the future. lab/Shul is one of many bold and creative experiments going on all over the world right now – looking for new ways to make meaning of our legacy and heritage. I believe that we can co-create and celebrate very different ways for living our Jewish lives out loud, in a greater ecosystem of mutual support, appreciation and learning. it doesn’t have to be either/or – it’s much better as and/both.

And that’s the secret of survival that I took away from this morning’s fascinating tour of Jewish Roma. Micaela Pavoncello, our tour guide,  an impressive woman of long Roman Jewish ancestry,  led us through the piazzas and alleyways, through the history of persecution and persistence that define this ancient community. One of the things that struck me most is the fact that as members of the Jewish Roman Community she and her family do not pay dues to one single synagogue but to a central communal body that makes sure all synagogues, schools, ritual needs and cultural affairs are taken care of.

It’s been this way  for centuries, for better or worse. She showed us the 15th century blueprints of the only synagogue of the Ghetto  – where five different congregations worshipped in five different rooms in the same building, as mandated by the Pope. Necessity created a structure of co-existence, an ecosystem of co-dependence. It was never easy, to be sure, and is not exactly the case today, but it created a community that deeply understands the power of collaboration to this day.

“I don’t belong to any one synagogue” Micaela said,  as we lunched at one of the Ghetto’s local heavens, “I am part of this bigger community. Even though I have the temple I prefer to go to pray at – I am always welcome at all of them and can always go.”

NYC isn’t Rome, but our challenges are similar and  historical precedents may point at potential models for our own survival and growth. And the secret sauce must be better collaboration. Tensions over memberships and dues in today’s free market of ideas and options simply shouldn’t matter as much as the bigger picture – we are all in this together and all have a role to play, taking turns in the spotlight but humbly serving a higher, nobler call, the whole greater than all parts.


L’chayim: Lunch in Roma’s Jewish Ghetto. 3/14

I hope and pray that as Lab/Shul grows, we are able to work closely together with other congregations, institutions, leaders and colleagues in NYC and beyond. I want us to be part of a healthy and respectful ecosystem that celebrates success, embraces challenges, sustains innovation,  and is committed to ongoing creativity – together. That’s what IT was, and is, and will always be  about.  Let it be.

Shabbat Shalom.

"Mr. Lau-Lavie's Genial Pedagogy, Punky Mischief" Thank you NYT for the great article!
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