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Dear Friends:

I’m writing this opening to our latest e-newsletter in the afterglow of 25 hours spent with a remarkable group of colleagues at the foundation’s second convening on Applying Jewish Wisdom.  Although we were together on a Monday and Tuesday, it truly felt like a Shabbat, a special moment in time marked by lively conversation, learning, singing and story-telling, and a general sense of oneg, of delight in spending intimate time together.
Our theme this year was B’racha – blessing, taking our cue from the previous week’s Torah portion (Lech Lecha), in which Avram is told that G!d will bless him and his descendants, and that he and they, in turn, are to be a blessing.  We asked:  What does it mean to be both blessed and a blessing?  How is this expressed in our lives, both personal and professional?  Might seeing ourselves as a community and a people that is blessed and charged to be a blessing provide an overarching vision and purpose for contemporary Jewish life?  And, literally dozens of other questions.
What, you might ask, does any of this have to do with the work of a foundation?  For us, the answer is: everything.  As we developed our foundation strategy over the past few years, we quickly determined that making grants – though essential to how we realize our vision – was not sufficient.  The grants we make go not just to organizations; they go to people, people who dream the dreams, generate the ideas, implement the programs, and give incredibly of themselves to create value from the resources that we and others provide.  We recognized that bringing these people together, away from their daily tasks, in a safe and caring space, where sharing and celebrating as individuals, not just as professionals, is honored and encouraged, was incredibly powerful.  Yes, our convenings have practical agendas.  We want to understand how we can all do our work better (and we invite funder colleagues to join in this conversation as well).  But, more than this, we want to make room for camaraderie to take hold, for people to talk and listen from the heart, not just the head, to be a Jewish community, if only for a day, not just to work on building a better one.
We’ve now done two of these convenings.  This year’s had some returnees from last year, some people who joined us for more intimate conversations during the course of the year, and some people we had never had the pleasure of hosting before.  It was a group of forty that could easily have been three or even five times as large – we meet so many great people in the course of our work.  Our ambition is to build a growing network of creative individuals working in diverse settings, a network that serves as a springboard for forging deeper personal connections and for building a shared vision and language informed by accumulating Jewish wisdom.
We don’t know if any new initiatives will emerge from this year’s convening.  We don’t know if any of the two-dozen plus organizations represented, all doing exciting, visionary work, will operate differently as a result of having a staff member participate.  We’d be happy if either or both of these happened, and, given the creativity and drive of these participants, as well as our foundation’s desire to support ideas coming out of our time together, it would not surprise us if they did.  But, that isn’t the reason we do what we do.  We do it because we are blessed with the wherewithal to try to give others the blessing of fellowship with a very special group of individuals and an experience together that we hope renews and inspires them, and certainly renews and inspires us.  We think it’s money and time well spent.

Jon Woocher,



New giving: Amplifier
The foundation’s most recent grant is $34,000 to support Amplifier, a project of Natan, to employ part-time Jewish educators to support efforts to integrate a sophisticated, inspiring, and inclusive expression of Jewish wisdom into Amplifier’s giving circles incubator.  Amplifier has the potential to spur both a wonderful increase in philanthropy and to help participants see that giving as an expression of their Judaism.
Giving results: Moishe House
As a long time partner of Moishe House, it was a thrill to attend the pilot of their Learning Retreat on Living Lifecycles.  Approximately 30 Moishe House residents and community members from all over the country gathered in New England to explore how Jews traditionally mark lifecycles, examine what elements make up Jewish rituals and blessings, and then think about which traditional lifecycles are important in their community (death of a parent, engagement of a community member) and what other lifecycle events they might want to celebrate (when a resident leaves Moishe House, when someone starts a new job).  Participants used ritual objects, texts, and their imaginations to craft a lifecycle prayer and ritual, and are now eligible for Moishe House microgrants to conduct lifecycle programs in their communities.  We're thrilled to see such thoughtful and personal approaches to marking life in a deeply Jewish way, and excited to see what participants will ultimately create for their communities!

Questions of Blessing

What is a blessing?  Who can give a blessing?  Why do we bless?  What does it mean to bless?  What does it mean to be a blessing?  What are the essential components of blessing?  Is it always good to get a blessing?  Does seeking a blessing make you vulnerable?  Does getting a blessing give you strength?  Will you bless me?


During our convening last week, we employed a technique we learned last summer from Hal Gregerson called Using Catalytic Questioning. To use the technique, take a set period of time and explore a core issue by ONLY asking questions - no commentary, no small talk, nothing at all said declaratively until the exercise is finished.
It was our first test run of the technique, and we learned two things:
1.      It requires considerable discipline and structure. Only asking questions -- without qualifying, without discussing, without taking the conversation away from the format to do the regular niceties of conversing with others -- takes a great deal of focus, and many of our small groups did not stick to the exercise. Asking questions amidst other kinds of talk still produced good results, but not nearly as effectively as the groups who ONLY asked questions. 
2.    It works. Those groups who were able to do the exercise -- a solid 15 minutes of sharing nothing but questions -- felt that they got to know each other much more deeply through their questions than if each had been expressing their thoughts through statements and not questions. One participant shared that after a while, she realized that she now knew how the other group members think. Another was shocked at how close he felt to his fellow questioners in such a short time. The quality of discourse that emerged from groups who did the exercise reflected that depth.
Next time you have a significant problem to solve in a group, consider using this technique! Check out Hal’s article in Harvard Business Review for a brief summary.


What is the Good Life? If you're in South Florida, JTS and Temple Beth Am have a program planned that looks at a question very much of interest to us: What can Jewish Wisdom tell us about how to live a "good" life - what does that look like? ...and how do you do it? 

Rabbi Ruth Adar, the Coffeeshop Rabbi, has a great related blog post - a beautiful meditation on mitzvot, deeds, and the "holiness that lurks" in our schedules, giving us daily opportunities to make our lives better, and make the world better.

Know any teenagers?  The Bronfman Youth Fellowship is accepting applications from now until January 6, 2016.

You know how we feel about the Statement on Jewish Vitality...we look forward to participating in #JewishPurpose hashtag campaign and conversation planned for Chanukkah.  The more voices, the better - regardless of your perspectives, we hope you will follow and help commentary become a true conversation.

We appreciated this review of Jay Michaelson's The Gate of Tears, on the holiness of sadness, a challenging and worthwhile reminder that the Good Life, a Meaningful Life is not one of superficial cheeriness.

What else should we be sharing?  Click here to send us your recommendations!
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