On Rosh Hashanah we are commanded to listen.
What a powerful and timely message, as we begin 5779. On this day of judgement, we will gather in places of worship all over the world to stand together as we fulfill the holiday’s central mitzvah by listening intently to the sound of the shofar.
We live in an age when we seemingly talk past each other, seldom bothering even to hear other voices or to take note of other perspectives. Political pundits and talk show hosts fill the media airwaves 24/7, and yet advertisers complain that their marketing messaging breaks through less and less. We create our own echo chambers, which simply reinforce what we already know and how we already feel. With so many sources of information, we seem to listen less and less.
Similarly, with endless platforms for social sharing online, we circulate photos, videos, posts, articles, links — yet research shows widespread increases of depression, and more reported feelings of isolation and loneliness than ever before.
In 2018 America, it seems that we do not listen and we are not feeling heard. As many of us — or at least many of our children — recently have returned from screen-free Jewish summers, we know that camps can provide inspiration to make a change in our family, our community, and ourselves.
For the benefit of our Jewish community, we should resolve to shift our communal paradigm to listen and really hear each other. For our individual growth and development, we must resolve to change our ways — to truly engage, face to face, especially with those whose opinions may differ from our own. In this New Year, let us listen and communicate with all of our senses.
I bring into this New Year three profound recent experiences that motivate and inspire me to begin this transformation.
In February, I participated in Encounter Intensive, a four-day deep dive into stories, people, and places at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — from the Palestinian perspective. As part of a diverse group of North American Jewish communal leaders, I spent time in Bethlehem and surrounding areas, East Jerusalem, and Ramallah, “encountering” the Palestinian narrative.
We listened. We observed. We questioned. We committed to considering and hearing the other. While we did not always agree with what they shared, we did hold ourselves accountable to truly hear them — and without the usual instant defensiveness and pushback that silences other voices.
While admittedly feeling uncomfortable at times during the trip, I was reminded how critical it is for each one of us to consider experiences and perspectives that differ from our own.
Encounter encouraged and enabled my personal growth by demonstrating important values I hope to reinforce in my own leadership. To learn, we must exhibit humility and curiosity. To grow, we must be willing to discover new perspectives and grapple with different worldviews.
To lead — especially in this day and age — we must commit to truly listen to one another and not simply wait for our turn to speak. When our words and actions reflect listening, we are more likely to be heard.
Over the last few weeks, following yet another successful summer camp season, Foundation for Jewish Camp set out on our most expansive listening journey thus far. On behalf of a record number of overnight camps, FJC administered its unique Camper Satisfaction Insights surveys, where we ask parents and campers to rate their experience with 30-plus questions across seven main dimensions. We received feedback representing more than 15,000 Jewish camper experiences — another record — providing camps with timely comparative data to review and contemplate.
In addition to setting new CSI records, this year we have significantly expanded a new tool, what we call Staff Satisfaction Insights. We know that the counselor experience is the linchpin for Jewish camps; counselors are role models who transmit valuable life and Jewish lessons to their campers. With more than 18,000 of these college-age counselors working in overnight and day camps this summer, we want to ensure the very best experience, and offer them jobs that will attract and retain these budding leaders each summer. In order to accomplish this, we need to truly listen to them. Our SSI results from 52 participating camps will help improve the experience for counselors, which in turn will improve the experiences and impact for campers.
Listening to consumers and seeking feedback — both positive and negative — only helps continuously improve our communal offerings and services. By listening, our message will be more clearly delivered and received.
Lastly, I share my experience in this month of Elul through the sounds of the shofar. Each morning the shofar is blown as the New Year approaches. I close my eyes to fully concentrate attention to my ears, for a focused sensory experience, to absorb and internalize the sounds. Each shofar has a different shape and produces its own unique pitch and timbre. Each baal tkiyah (shofar blower) brings a personal talent and flare. There is a certain beauty in the diverse range of “voices” expressed by our many shofarot.
Yet amidst all of these different perspectives and voices, we rise at the same time, in our various diverse synagogues and communal spaces of worship across the world, ready to listen as we start the year. We may be individuals in our own communities, but we stand together as one people, called to attention by the blast of the shofar.
The call of the shofar begins during the month of Elul, and it becomes the centerpiece of our Rosh Hashanah service. Ten days later, we will end our Yom Kippur observance with the sound of tkiyah gedolah, the longest shofar blast of all, as the final reminder and call to action, to listen.
As we begin this New Year, my wish is that we open ourselves to the many valuable perspectives and insights, and to the multitude of ways they can benefit our work. May our renewed commitment to listening give all of us the ability to communicate and lead more effectively in the year ahead.