For community-builders, it can be easy to get overfocused in a niche or hung up on comparisons to groups similar to our own. But (just a gentle reminder) community is everywhere. It's a huge part of what makes us human. And we can discover just as many invaluable takeaways and strategies from looking to communities outside our wheelhouse as we can within it.
One of the most fascinating types of communities to observe and learn from recently have been religious communities, particularly in pandemic times. How have these communities — which are often fundamentally in-person groups — adapted to multi-access engagement? How have they shifted (or not) as the demands of congregants have shifted?
Here to give us a powerful example of how to pivot a community in the face of unprecedented change — and benefit massively from it — is Rabbi Esther Lederman.
The keyword there is pivot: pivots in the ways rabbis facilitate communication and offer access to congregants across the spectrum. There's a ton to learn from the way that Esther's congregation accelerated digital adaptation in the wake of the pandemic and how the future of multi-access for Reformed Jews is being reimagined as a result. Plus, learn how the pandemic has helped leaders in the community hone in on what they're best at and increase creative collaboration.
Rabbi Esther Lederman
Rabbi Esther L. Lederman serves as Director of Congregational Innovation at the Union for Reform Judaism. Prior to that role, she was the Associate Rabbi at Temple Micah in Washington, DC. She was ordained in May 2008 from HUC-JIR. She received her B.A. in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies from McGill University in 1996. Rabbi Lederman sits on the national Board of T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, chairs the Advisory council of Avodah in Washington, and serves on the national board of Ameinu, a national, progressive Zionist organization. Originally from Ottawa, Canada, she now makes her home in Virginia with her husband and two children.
In This Episode:
- What a congregation really means in terms of community
- How the pandemic accelerated digital adoption in Esther's communities and opened new doors
- Systemic change and mid-pandemic reimagining in the Reformed Jewish community
- The big adaptive challenges that Jewish leaders have faced during the pandemic
- How Esther is reconceptualizing multi-access for her congregants moving forward
- Why blended learning has been a game-changer for Hebrew instruction for youth
- How the pandemic has increased the potential for creative collaboration
- Separating a tradition's form from its function
- Moments of Impact by Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon
The CX 004: So a Rabbi Walks Into a Pandemic ... with Esther Lederman
Tony Bacigalupo: Picture this. You're a rabbi.
No, this isn't the start of a joke. For this hypothetical sake, you're actually a rabbi and your congregation of people of every conceivable age has been meeting in person, the same tradition way since before you were even born. And then COVID hits, and suddenly, you have to figure out how to take all these people who are used to meeting in person and figure out how to do it, well, not in person. That's the plight of rabbis and many religious leaders over the course of the pandemic. Necessity being the mother of invention, a lot of these folks have set out to get creative, and our guest today will share what she learned, not just as a rabbi herself, but as someone who works with hundreds of rabbis as well.
Rabbi Esther Lederman, director of congregational innovation at the Union for Reformed Judaism, deals with a whole bunch of rabbis who themselves are working with congregations of people who have to figure out how to navigate the difficulties of COVID and now are learning how to navigate coming back to face to face without losing what they learned. So we're going to talk to Esther about that and so much more in this episode of The Community Experience.
Esther Lederman: As one clergy person said to his staff when this pandemic happened, in addition to thinking what do you need to have at home to do your job, totally reimagine your job. You now need to reimagine your job. And for some people, that was thrilling. For some people, that was scary.
Tony: That's Esther Lederman. She's the director of congregational innovation at the Union for Reformed Judaism and that means that she deals with a whole bunch of rabbis who are themselves dealing with whole congregations of people who had to figure out how to navigate how to engage in their communities, in their congregations, over the course of the last 15 months during COVID, and now are learning how to continue to engage as coming back into face-to-face becomes a thing without leaving behind some of the cool things that they learned. So in this episode, we're going to talk to Esther about her experience with this organization, what's she's learned over the course of this time working with these leaders, and a little bit I think about how the Jewish faith in particular equipped them to be resilient during this time. So I'm excited to get into it with Esther. What do you think about this conversation coming up, Jill?
Jillian Benbow: Super excited, especially for everyone to learn about something called outrageous hospitality.
Tony: We're going to touch on some really valuable topics around being pragmatic about the different kinds of media that you might be able to engage your community on. So if you're used to engaging your folks in one particular way, there might be other ways you can do it. We like the idea of multi access as a language versus hybrid. We'll also be talking about some of those different forms of media that you can use to engage folks, particularly older schools ones, like the telephone or just meeting in person. We'll also be talking about how you might be able to lighten the load on yourself as a community leader by identifying what you're best at and figuring out how to outsource the rest. So without further ado, let's get into the conversation with Esther Lederman on this episode of The Community Experience.
Okay, so excited to have Esther Lederman with us on the program. Esther, thank you of joining us.
Esther: My pleasure. I'm excited to be with you.
Tony: Let's just start with a little bit of your background because it's so interesting. Can you just give us in brief a little bit of an idea of how you ended up where you are with the URJ.
Esther: Well, you just asked a rabbi to be brief so, I'm not so sure that that's a thing. I've been at the Union for Reformed Judaism for six years. My previous iteration of my job as a rabbi was a pulpit rabbi, so that means I did the typical clergy things of leading worship, sermons, community building, social justice, teaching, but getting to work for the Union for Reformed Judaism was getting to have a bigger platform and a space to develop new ways of thinking and new ways of organizing our movement of congregations and leaders.
So for six years, I've been working with an incredible team, or the congregational innovation team, and really looking at how we network congregational leaders to be in thicker and deeper relationship with one another, acknowledging that change doesn't happen in a silo by oneself. We are better together and stronger together, and we take deeper risks, I believe, when we're in those kinds of relationships. We feel less alone when we're trying to maybe disrupt the model of congregational life or disrupt how we engage people in Jewish community and Jewish living.
So that's basically what I do. It's not what I was born thinking I would do. I didn't come out of the womb this way, but I'm thrilled that this is the work that I get to do day in and day out.
Jillian: I'm curious just a little bit more about this organization. Can you give us the TLDR of what you do? I was looking at the website and it's just this beautiful coming together of working for change. Can you elaborate a little on the work that this group does?
Esther: I mean, the Union for Reformed Judaism has been around since the late 1800s, was founded in Cincinnati by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who was really trying to develop an American Judaism as opposed to a European Judaism. Our mission is to create a world of wholeness, justice, compassion, and joy. We're the largest and most diverse Jewish movement in North American, and at our core is, I would say, we have this eternal message that we're here on this earth to make the world a better place, to make our neighborhoods and communities better. Those can only be built by people, by leaders and individuals, who feel a sense of wholeness and compassion and justice and joy in their lives.
There's also an element of what does it mean to build leaders who are building that kind of a world. Our main delivery mechanism for this is congregations. When I say the word congregations, I invite your listeners to not so much think about the real estate or the architecture, but to think about what does it mean to bring people together in relationship with one another where they develop a sense of belonging to each other. I often define belonging as a feeling of being seen, heard, and known, and loved. So not thinking about belonging to a particular institution, but what does it really mean to feel that I am connected to something greater than myself.
That's one of our delivery vehicles. We also do Jewish camping. We send kids to Israel. We do a variety of other things. We also do some outreach in more of a social media space to unaffiliated Jews. We believe that in the marketplace of ideas, that Judaism has something to offer for a fully human life to those who are born Jewish and those who find themselves connected to Jews, or those who are just curious about Judaism.
Jillian: That's beautiful. It sounds like when you say congregation, your definition of congregation is very much aligned with my definition of community, so it's this same ideology, I guess. We're a group of people with a common interest, common goal. The organization sounds just absolutely wonderful.
Esther: Oh thank you. Well, I feel very proud to be working for the URJ.
Tony: Until when we met up, you were producing some events, which the organization produces periodically throughout the year, which brings together these congregational leaders from all over by the hundreds and convenes them to talk about some of the things you just mentioned. By doing so, you're paving the way for these folks to try new things and help each other and work through some of the challenges. Is that the main crux of it, or are there other big pieces of the organization?
Esther: I mean, that's a big part of what I and my team do. I mean, there are other parts of the universe within the URJ in which we are connected to. There's a group of people working around social justice work, particularly racial justice campaigns, voting rights, other areas of what does it mean to be an active citizen of this country, bring our Jewish values into the public arena. We have a whole team working on what we call audacious hospitality. And they really look at the pieces around belonging, so taking a racial equity diversity and inclusion lens to all of the work that we do.I work primarily with adults, but we have a lot of work that we're doing with youth and camps. It's about raising Jewish kids and raising Jewish families to be engaged in that kind of way. One of the backbones of our movement is a collection of 800 or so communities across the United States and Canada doing this work collectively.
Tony: And when COVID hit, I imagine that most of the leaders that you work with are not folks who traditionally are used to engaging their congregation entirely online at the very least to varying degrees.
Esther: That would be an accurate assessment. I mean, there had been a little bit of experimentation with online in the sense that when live streaming became an easy technology for congregations to adapt, so installing those cameras and starting to offer services. I will say, actually, one of our central institutions in New York City, Temple Emanu-El of the city of New York for years actually had their services on the radio. In some ways, online world back in the day was radio, so there had been people playing with that idea.
I'll say as the rabinate has changed and the leadership generationally, right? I'm Generation X. We now have Millennials. I don't know if Millennials are considered completely digital natives, but let's just say, I got introduced to email in college. They couldn't have imagined a world without the World Wide Web. I will say that with new leaders like that leading congregations, there's a little bit more of a greater facility and literacy with online opportunities, whether that's teaching online, YouTube videos, just even having your pulpit be Facebook or Twitter. There are some people who had a little more facility with that and others who were like we're going to do it. We're going to learn Zoom.
The quickness with which that happened was just amazing because in a pre-pandemic world, if we had said let's move everything online, it would have taken two or three years. The conversations. Turns out it was like you went from a Monday to not having anything and all of a sudden Friday night running services on Zoom or doing Facebook Live. There was a continuum of comfort, and some of that had to do with just who the leaders are.
Tony: Yeah, I mean, no matter what, it's going to be a huge adjustment, not just for the leaders, but for the congregants as well that even if some of them are more inclined to these things, more adaptable, you're dealing with an extraordinarily wide cross-section of people at different ages, different levels of technical comfort. All of those things.
Esther: Well, one of the ways we had to adapt and also congregations adapted for the first month —my whole team for example, has been using Zoom for four years before the pandemic because my whole team was remote. We had probably half of the organization remote already, so we became the Zoom teachers for all these congregational leaders, particularly lay leaders who were just used to Zoom. What was interesting was then watching congregations develop opportunities for teenagers to get their older generation of leaders, although I don't want to make assumptions — you can be an 80 year old and be a really good texter and meme creator if you're 80. It doesn't mean you're necessarily not used to using technology, but we had a number of congregations who paired ... created help desks, essentially, like a genius bar, made up of teenagers and college students to help grandma and grandpa and Uncle Burt get on Zoom and understand how to use it so they could get on the Seder on Passover or get on Zoom for high holidays. It was quite fascinating.
Jillian: That is the sweetest little glimmer of hope in the pandemic. I just love these kinds of stories where you get to flip the script. The teens, the youths, come and help the elders connect in a whole new way. That's just adorable.
Tony: Well, and I imagine there's some folks who maybe were already wanting to go this direction or thinking about it and all of a sudden, this just really opened up some doors to create those opportunities.
Esther: Well, I mean, one of the other doors I think that it opened up, and we've seen — there've been articles written about this was recognizing that by going online, you've opened up multiple ways for people to access Jewish community, which is really those who might be living with a particular accessibility issue or disability issue, realizing that they're now able to access Jewish community in a whole new way and wanting the mainstream Jewish community to recognize I can now access things in a way that I couldn't before, so the plea is don't go back exactly to what you were doing before, but what can you have learned from this move forward.
Heard from another rabbi in the Midwest who mostly works ... Her population, very small community, is mostly older people — was recognizing that for many of her people driving at night has become harder. Friday night, the Jewish Sabbath, for those who don't know, it's every seven days on Saturdays, but it starts in the evening. Friday night services has become a very popular way of marking this day. If you're going to do them and it's dark outside and people can't drive at night ... It's getting people to also realize, understanding what the needs are of the people and how you access them as opposed to just doing it the way you've done it because you've always done that way. There were a number of doors that were opened, and the hope is that these doors stay open, and that means rethinking priorities, rethinking resources.
As one clergy person said to his staff when this pandemic happened, in addition to thinking what do you need to have at home so you can do your job, totally reimagine your job. You now need to reimagine your job. And for some people, that was thrilling. For some people, that was scary.
Jillian: I'm curious. We've been highlighting some great things that have come out of this, right? Like the teens helping the grandparents. We could do a whole episode on just disability access and how the pandemic has really made those of us that don't live with a disability get just a tiny glimmer into the void, especially in this country, for those dealing with disabilities to get the access they might want, and we're slow to the table. I'm really thankful to see a lot of conversations that have started happening about disability awareness and how to help people joining the communities that would be of interest to them that maybe we don't realize they can't even get to us right now.
I'm pivoting a little bit. Something I'm curious about is more of the not so positive things. Surely there have been groups that you work with, leaders, et cetera that didn't have such a good time with this or maybe struggled a bit, or even just had a hard time reaching their congregations or certain people in their congregations. Did you have any experience working with people like that? How did you help people overcome those sorts of obstacles?
Esther: Sure. I mean, there were sure obstacles in this moment. I'll talk about it in two ways. I want to talk about the systemic piece. The financial obstacles of potentially losing income because you're not running religious school or your daycare is shut down, or people are losing their jobs so they're not paying ... They're making their financial contributions that they usually make to the congregation. So a number of our congregations, thank God for PPP. A lot of them will say, "If it weren't for PPP, we wouldn't still be standing." I'll say that it's leading ... We often call in our work COVID has been an accelerant for certain trends that were maybe 10-15 years off or sped up. Whether that's mergers ... By the way, I don't see mergers as a bad thing, but I see the systemic change. Mergers are closings, and some of that just had to do with either in places where there's a saturation of the market, like there's five reformed congregations within two miles of each other, or in places where Jews are not moving back to, or the industry is dying there, so it's not pulling in people. Those could be border communities. Those could be rural communities.
Some of that stuff systemically was happening. If there were places that had trouble, it was their talent in re-pivoting what they saw as their job. Because the places that understood they had to reimagine what they were doing, they called all their people. They made phone calls to the 800 people in the community, or the rabbi went out in a more urban setting and knocked on doors and stood socially distant and met them where they were.
Shofar blowing, which is the ram's horn we blow on the Jewish holidays. It's the sound that's supposed to pierce the soul to wake up to this new year and make amends. Instead of going into the temple to hear it, people went around to different neighborhoods and did shofar blowing in those neighborhoods and you could congregate on the corner, and you could come and hear it. So this idea of coming to where you are. But yes, that means resources are going to go to certain things and not go to others.
I'd say that this was an adaptive moment, and adaptive moments require a recognition that there's not one solution. It's a recognition that you're not going to hire an expert who's going to come in and tell you what to do. You have to be the ones to help find the solutions, and you have to bring in the people who are facing this adaptive challenge to the solutions. I think one of the big existential questions that got asked in this moment was what makes us essential as congregations, and some lamenting of I don't feel essential to some of our people right now. What I would hear was sometimes how do we convince them we're essential, and I would have to say, "You don't convince them you're essential. You're the one who has to change. You become essential."
One of the teaching tools we use in my team is a great graphic. I'll try and explain it of a leader standing in front of a group of people who says, "Who wants change?" and everybody raises their hand up. Everyone wants change. And then the leader says, "Who wants to change?" and nobody raises their hand. And then the third panel is "Who wants to lead change?" and the room is empty. Recognizing that if you want change, you often have to be the one to be the change. That means you have to change, and that can be hard, but also awesome.
Tony: There's adapting that the leaders had to go through and then the congregations themselves, so imagine there is a lot of opportunity to be the change. Were there specific stories or examples that emerged of people who did particularly remarkable work in adapting effectively, stories that ... Particular tricks or hacks or approaches that were really creative that you found to be impressive that you wanted to elevate and perpetuate?
Esther: Sure. I mean, I don't know every single story, so if anyone's listening out there from my community, you're all my beloved children. Some of them I've mentioned here and there. There were a couple of stories of clergy literally walking outside of their doors, a beautiful message of I'm not waiting for you to come to me. I'm going to go to you. I'm going to physically enter your community, not necessarily into your home, but I'm going to be where you are and actually come into close contact with you in that way.
I want to highlight a couple other examples. There were a lot of examples of ... Some synagogues were doing this pre-pandemic, but most weren't. What does it mean to create care baskets for our community and deliver them to everybody on high holidays? Can I give you Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in a box, to accompany whatever you do in person? There was one community, I believe, in California where to celebrate the holiday of Simchat Torah, which is the holiday where we celebrate the reading of the five books of Moses, created stations in the community, and you would drive around to different stations and encounter a different part of the Torah. Literally like the Torah in 3D.
Some of the examples I might say may seem small, but they're really impactful. Another clergy person, a friend of mine in California also, she started writing "Hello out there." She called them a missive, and she would talk about her life. She's a mother. She's got a husband who's a doctor. Two kids. Insanity. Aging parents. All of that stuff. She didn't expect it to become what it became. It became an engagement tool because people then talked to her about their lives because it was not a "Let me tell you about what's in the Torah portion this week." Like "I'm going to give you content," it was real life to life experience that is not often the way we as clergy are trained to talk to our people.
We have this phrase "text to life." You open a prayer book. Those of us who are text to life people, particularly clergy, we can open up a prayer book, we can open up the Bible, and go "Oh this makes total sense. I see how this relates to my life." Most Jews in the pews, that's not how they are. They're what we call "life to text" people. You help bring Jewish wisdom in the context of where they are in their life. So the fact that she wrote a piece that was like, "Hello out there, let me tell you about what my week was like" allowed people to go "Oh. Right. You're a real human being, and I'm a real human being. Let's connect over that."
I do know of a congregation in Florida. I don't know what they did around their religious education, but they decided to become a site for learning pods. You as a parent ... Your kid was in virtual public school, and then you would register your kid at the temple to be at a learning pod so you didn't actually have to manage their learning from home. You could drive to the synagogue, they took your kid in, they provided snacks and lunch and set you up in your Zoom room. Talk about being essential to parents in their time of need. Hello? I would have loved to have had that at my fingertips. I thought that was a really interesting pivot.
I'd say the other interesting pivot was some work that's very near and dear to my heart is using a small group engagement strategy in pre-pandemic times to form some small pods of people being in relationship with each other in person. A lot of congregations who hadn't yet tried this experience in the pandemic decided to launch this work, which pre-pandemic, we were always like "No, this could never happen online. No. No. No. You need to be face to face. You need to be in each other's living rooms." And here we were. We're like "Turns out actually, it works really well online when you don't actually have to" ... So many synagogues were experimenting with it because now people had nowhere to go. There wasn't an issue with scheduling. The idea of sitting down with a group of 10 people, your cocktail, getting actually ... Tony, you're the one who taught me this. The intimacy of seeing into somebody's home. I get to see my friend with their cat or their dog, or I get to see the rabbi in his kitchen or her kitchen and all of those things. That was another really interesting way that we saw congregations pivot and experiment. I could go on and on about some of the worship-related pieces, but those are just some examples.
Tony: I think having the kids and the pets and our home lives become more integrated has on the balance become more of a blessing, at least my hope in my own experience. We talked a little bit about the accessibility side of things and not just going back but going forward, taking what we have and progressing ahead. How are you seeing people adapting to the transition period when some people absolutely are ready to shut the lid and go hang out in real life, some people are absolutely not ready to do that, and it's going to be like that for potentially a long time? What kind of adaptations are you seeing happening?
Esther: Let me start by saying, I think one of the pieces we also needed to confront was for many people, online people became the equivalent to Zoom. One of the things we've had to say to folks is hybrid does not mean everything ... It's like in person or on Zoom and it's all happening at the same time. This is about multi access. This is about reconceptualizing ... Let's say you want to celebrate the Sabbath on Friday night or Shabbat morning. You can be doing that at the same time in two different places, or you could be doing that in two different places at two different times.
Harvard Business Review had this great grid of a space time to think about hybrid work, and we took it and adapted it for our congregations to think about how to imagine, "Oh worship. It's not an either or." Either you're here in person or you're watching it on the livestream. What does it look like if you could imagine worship in the part of the grid that's different time and different space. Some of you might be gathering in the sanctuary, and some of you might be watching it on the livestream at the same time, or some of you may be gathering in small family pods on Zoom just to do the blessings. You're not doing the full hour and a half service and there's no sermon. You're just gathering with your kids, blessing them, doing the candles, doing the wine and the challah.
I'm curious what we're going to see. In some ways I think it's even trickier because last year it was basically all offline. You had one medium. Almost no one was doing anything in person. There were no vaccines. Now you have a situation where some things could be done in person because some people are vaccinated, but our youngest kids aren't vaccinated. I think that what congregations are going to do, I'm eagerly anticipating to see what they end up doing because I think there's even more room for creativity in this.
I haven't had a chance to go deep with any one particular community. Things are still so new. I think one piece that's for sure an adaption that many places will start adopting is how our kids are educated. For example, most of our kids, if they want to have a Jewish education, if they're not going to a Jewish day school, they're getting what's called supplementary education, which I shouldn't even use because it implies it's secondary or additional as opposed to central. So many of our congregations offered two day a week, either Sunday and an after school, and some of that was Hebrew instruction.
One of the things they realized was "Oh, Hebrew instruction works really well online, and it means that our parents don't have to schlep to the temple in the middle of the week at four o'clock in the afternoon in the middle of traffic." Many of them are starting to adopt what I would call blended learning. I may not be using that in the most precise way, but there can be learning that's relationship focused, right?
Also, I think part of the experimentation right now in creativity has to do with what does collaboration look like. What does it look like for us as a congregation to collaborate with other congregations in our city or across the country or across — in Israel? What does it mean to do what we offer really well and outsource some of the stuff that we're just never going to be really good at, but you can access. I think it also is now shifting how we think about what we offer and freeing up potentially this opportunity to say we don't have to be good at it all, and we don't have to offer it all, which I think is very freeing because then I can think about what are we really good at. What is our value add to our people if we're not going to be everything to everyone? I think there's some potential there of we could see some creative collaborations in that arena.
Tony: It seems like there's a real opportunity here on multiple fronts for things to just line up better in terms of where the real needs are, where people's skill sets are. People who want to be in person can be in person. Will people want to engage online? People who want to engage asynchronously versus synchronously, that the options can all be out there if you're really trying to do your best to give people the best possible experience.
And then in terms of what role do you play as a leader. I think what you bring up there is really important and potentially an opportunity in the long term if you can make the adjustment to say, "Well, if one person out there or if a certain group of people are just terrifically good at giving talks about this particular topic or leading people through educating a particular thing, then why shouldn't we take advantage of that if that's going to be a more effective tool at helping our people reach where we want them to go?" And then maybe I can take a role that is more appropriate to me of saying "Hey let's all watch this talk together. This person gives the best talk on this subject in the world. Let's watch it and then let's all talk about what we got from it, including me the leader, who had to give this talk last year, but frankly just think this person did it better." That adaptability, I think, is a huge part of where we're going and that's going to be a continued experiment, it sounds like.
Esther: I think that language of experimentation is super important here.
Tony: I feel like we'd be remiss if we didn't talk about just separating the tradition’s form from the tradition’s function, right? We talked about that a lot. Just because it used to always be done the same way doesn't mean it has to be done the same way going forward and ultimately it's about what the activity achieves that you're going for. You don't have to do it just because it's always been done the same way for hundreds of years.
Esther: Luckily, Judaism has a history of that. I mean, part of the reason we've been resilient over the generations and the centuries is because we have been adaptive. Our temple was destroyed and visionaries said the function of religion is the same. God is still God, but maybe the way we engage with God is not going to be animal sacrifice in a big building. Maybe it's going to be engaging with text. Maybe it's going to be engaging with one another. Part of the beauty of reformed Judaism, which URJ, we're part of the reformed movement, reform is a part of that definition. In order to be relevant, we have to adapt to changing norms and changing delivery vehicles and other technologies and ways to serve an eternal and essential function.
Tony: I love it. Appreciate that Esther, and I think we're going to get into our last phase of our conversation here where we do some rapid fire questions just to get some quick little responses on a couple of things. Jillian’s going to lead you on that, and then we'll bring it home.
Jillian: Very fun, this will not be graded, so no pressure.
Jillian: Esther, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Esther: A teacher.
Jillian: A teacher? Well, you did in a way.
Esther: Yes, which is what rabbi means.
Jillian: That's beautiful. We touched on this a little bit, but how do you define community?
Esther: Oh my gosh, people have written books about this. I'll give it a shot. To me, community is a group of people who are seen, known, and loved by one another, who come together for a shared purpose that's hopefully, in an ideal way, beyond themselves.
Jillian: See? You didn't even need to write a book. You got it. That's the TLDR. Okay. What is something on your bucket list that you have done?
Esther: Ooh. Something on my bucket list that I have done. I don't know how many people would say this. I became a parent.
Jillian: That's a great one. That's wonderful.
Esther: I became a mom. Yeah.
Jillian: Wonderful. Okay, then the flip of that. What's something on your bucket list that you have not yet done?
Esther: Climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
Esther: Very specific.
Tony: You got that one real fast. I'm picturing in your house that you've got a poster of Kilimanjaro behind your webcam.
Esther: I don't, but I have a goal. I would like to climb it by the time I'm 50.
Jillian: You can do it.
Esther: Which is in a couple of years. There's an element of, will my family let me go? Will I have the time? Will I have the money? Will I be in enough physical shape? Anyway, yeah.
Jillian: I have every faith that you can and will accomplish that. That is a wonderful mountain. I have not climbed it, but I know you can do it. I know enough about it to know yes, that is happening for you. Okay. What is a book that you are loving right now?
Esther: Oh, I'm surrounded by books. I'm going to pull up this book called Moments of Impact by Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon. It's all about how to design strategic conversations for change. I'm super into it. It's a really insightful book.
Jillian: That sounds amazing. Yeah.
Esther: It is. Yeah.
Jillian: Put that on our list, Tony. Okay, so I believe you live in New York.
Esther: I don't. I live in the Washington D.C. area.
Esther: Another fabulous city.
Jillian: Another beautiful place to live. If you could live anywhere else, where would that be?
Esther: I've lived in quite a few places. Hawaii.
Esther: The island of Maui specifically.
Tony: Nicely done. Good use of the prompt.
Jillian: That sounds not terrible.
Esther: Yeah, not terrible, right?
Jillian: Not terrible at all. How do you want to be remembered?
Esther: As a passionate person who tried to change the world and was somewhat successful.
Jillian: Was super successful.
Esther: Trying to be a little bit realistic there.
Jillian: And then just to round it out, Esther, where can everybody find you on the interwebs or wherever else you like to be found?
Esther: I'm on Facebook. Esther Lederman. I'm on Twitter. @LedermanEsther. You can always visit our website at URJ.org or you can also go to ReformJudaism.org. A few of my pieces are published there, but also you can find more about the incredible work our movement does. I'm not on any of those other. Barely on Instagram. TikTok I haven't downloaded.
Jillian: Hey that's okay. I say you find what works for you and you stick with it versus trying to do it all and hating it.
Tony: Esther, thank you so much for your time. This is so exciting. I'm really glad that we got a chance to chat and we got a chance to put it on ... I was going to say put it on tape. Put it on digital tape bits and hopefully this will have a chance to get into the minds of some folks and inspire them. Thank you for all the great work you do with all the leaders that you work with. Keep up the great work, and let's keep the conversations going.
Esther: It was an honor to speak to you both. Jillian and Tony, thank you for this time.
Tony: Thank you.
Jillian: Wow. That was an amazing interview. Tony, what are your first thoughts coming out of that with Esther?
Tony: Community touches on so many different aspects of life and religious institutions have been in the business of cultivating communities that are sustainable around the world at scale for literal millennia. It doesn't surprise me that folks who are involved in it, especially at her level where Esther is dealing with not just being a rabbi but being a convener of rabbis, specifically to talk about these things. She's just swimming in people who are passionate, local community leaders as a vocation. I think we just have so much to learn from people from different backgrounds when it comes to their approaches to community building, which is part of why I'm really excited about the fact that we get to do this podcast.
Jillian: I didn't realize you were actually deeply a part of this multi access planning, which actually brings us right into our key takeaways of the episode, the first being the concept of multi access versus hybrid. I think it's a really great way to think about community, especially in these uncertain times where we are going from in person access dipping back to no maybe we're going to quarantines and things again. Who knows? Just having all of these different options to meet people where they are.
Tony: Yeah, I think we discovered that there is a lot that you can take from being able to engage people both online and offline, synchronously, asynchronously, video or not video. That if you're able to give people multiple ways of participating, then you're going to get more people participating in more ways that feel good for them. And it might be, for example, that you're a super in person face-to-face person, but on a given week, you can't join for whatever reason, so you fall back to the online or maybe you spend most of your time online, but there happens to be a particular day that you can meet in person, so you can allow people to have that optionality.
Jillian: Yeah I think just the quarantining and pandemic related pivots that we had accelerated this potential lifestyle to be more flexible with a lot of things. But of course, like you said, there's still people we need to consider, especially assuming everyone has access to internet and the technology needed. Things like that I think should certainly still be a part of the conversation and how can we ensure all populations have access to the tools that we're using.
But then that brings us to another option that Esther brought up, and I know, Tony, you're very passionate about the ability to leverage maybe some of them old school tools. The old technologies of yesteryear that are actually highly effectively, things like an actual phone call from a human to another. Does anyone remember the days when that was a thing? Or even a handwritten letter or showing up at someone's doorstep. I really just was delighted at the idea ... What she was talking about with the care boxes for different high holidays and physically going to 800 people's homes or however that was done with a box that maybe had some of the items you would use in the rituals related to that holiday, or the foods.
Tony: Absolutely. I think it was a critical part of how religious organizations in particular were able to engage a lot of their congregation because you can assume a lot of your folks aren't going to have computers at all. Aren't going to have internet necessarily, right? I know me as somebody who was raised in the world of technology, it's very easy to think what's the higher tech solution to a problem like a pandemic. In reality, when you look at the needs and you look at the constraints you're working with, it might be what's the lower tech solution.
Jillian: Yeah. It's very true, and I think something that her organization and the congregation leaders that she works with, we got to hear a lot about different things they're trying. That brings us to the final takeaway, which is to really focus on what you're good at. Do what your genius is and the other stuff that your community might need in forms of support or resources, outsource that. Your community is going to stick with you because you're still providing that one thing that you do so well. They can only get that from you and your community, but don't keep your time focused on that. Then find the organization, the person, whatever you're talking about that has the genius in that thing you're not so great at and utilize that to help have a whole well-rounded experience for your community members. I thought that was just beautiful, and I like the idea of collaboration among similar or even different communities or organizations for the purpose of the greater good.
Tony: That can actually be huge in terms of heading off burnout for a community leader, which is something that is constantly on my mind because it's a constant concern. When you think about what burns out a community leader, there are a lot of things, but probably one of the major things is whatever the thing is that you don't enjoy doing, that you don't feel like you're good at, that you feel like you have to do in order to keep things going. So if we can find creative ways to take those things off the table and allow you to focus on what you feel that you're really called to do, then you're probably going to want to keep doing it for longer and the folks that you're serving are going to have a better experience for it as well.
Jillian: Also, it just sounds more fun. Let's be honest. It's more fun to focus on the stuff that is your area of genius and outsource the stuff that maybe isn't. I like this concept in all parts of my life. Who would like to do my laundry?
Tony: Somebody who is really good at it, I'm sure.
Jillian: There's someone out there.
Tony: I mean, I live in New York City, so it's not uncommon.
Jillian: Yeah. I live somewhere where that's a little difficult.
Tony: Thanks to Esther Lederman for joining us at the Union for Reformed Judaism. I hope that this was inspiring to you, and we'd love to hear what you have to say about what you heard on this episode. Is there something you're taking away? Something that you're going to do in your community building efforts that you learned from this podcast episode? We're @TeamSPI on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you, and if you're listening to this on the web, there should be a place to comment or to connect to us. Just reach out to us. We'd love to hear from you.
Jillian: Take care everybody.
Tony: This has been The Community Experience. For more information on this episode, including links and show notes, head to SmartPassiveIncome.com and click on listen. Rabbi Esther Lederman is the Union for Reformed Judaism's director of congregational innovation. You can find her and her organization at URJ.org or ReformJudaism.org. You can also find her @EstherLederman, that's @EstherLederman on Facebook or @LedermanEsther on Twitter.
Jillian: Your hosts are me, Jillian Benbow, and Tony Bacigalupo. The Community Experience is a production of SPI Media.
Tony: Our executive producer is Matt Gartland. Our series producers are David Grabowski and senior producer Sarah Jane Hess. Editing and sound design by Duncan Brown. Music by David Grabowski.
Jillian: See you next time.
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