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Interview: Ron Wolfson

Friday, December 04, 2015 | Permalink

with Cathy Sussman

Jewish Book Council sat down with Jewish community leader, educator, and author Ron Wolfson to discuss The Best Boy in the United States of America, his new book of personal stories of growing up Jewish in Omaha, Nebraska

Cathy Sussman: How did you come to write Best Boy?

Ron Wolfson: I have always told funny and heartfelt stories in my teaching as a speaker and scholar-in-residence. I find people resonate with them. For example, I tell a story about my Old Country Hebrew school teacher who called me vildeh chayeh—“wild animal”—I was such a class clown at four o’clock on Monday afternoon. Many people have had similar experiences. Since that time, I’ve visited hundreds of synagogues and Jewish institutions during my career and seen some very funny things happen that illustrate the challenges of engaging Jews with Judaism. I thought it would be a good idea to finally write down these stories, not simply to entertain, but to educate and inspire. For me, a book is an extension of my “classroom.” I reach thousands of people I will never meet in person, but I can in the pages of the book and then engage with them on social media platforms.

I really want readers to think about what they can do to shape their family’s ethical Jewish legacy. This book is about generational continuity and what we can do to ensure the Jewish future for our children and grandchildren. And the response to Best Boy has been extraordinary: people of all ages—particularly Jewish Baby Boomers—are reporting that they are deeply moved by the book. What’s interesting to me is which stories are reader favorites; so many are cited. And they “get” my purpose in writing the book: Zaydie Louie didn’t simply call me “the best boy in the United States of America;” he called upon me—and all nine of his grandchildren—to be the best human beings we could be. Isn’t that the goal of a life well lived?

CS: How did you decide which stories to include? Were there stories that you considered including but ultimately decided not to?

RW: There are so many stories to tell, but I believe “less is more.” I wanted the book to be an easy read, something that anyone, not just deeply involved Jews, could enjoy and come away with an understanding of just how powerful family and community is in shaping Jewish identity. So, yes, there are stories about our daughter Havi winning a contest when she was just six years old by naming a koala at the LA Zoo that took us to Sydney, Australia, where we met long lost relatives; stories about my grandmother Celia from Brooklyn who crocheted a baby blanket I ate; and more stories about Warren Buffett, like the time he bought Omaha’s chametz: “Buy low and sell high, I wish I had known about this investment earlier in my career!” Maybe I’ll write Volume II of Best Boy some day.

CS: Best Boy champions the value of creating a Jewish identity within the home. But what about the children who grew up in Number 5’s home? What can theydo to reintroduce a Jewish identity into their family? What is the role of the rabbis and Jewish educators?

RW: One of the funniest stories in the book describes the intimidation some people feel when asked to engage in a Jewish ritual, like reciting the blessings for a Torah reading. There are so many Jews who feel uncomfortable with Jewish practice. There is so much to know and so many rules. My friend and colleague Harlene Appelman, executive director of The Covenant Foundation, often says: “People would rather say ‘I don’t care’ than ‘I don’t know.’” My whole career has been focused on inviting those Jews into a relationship with a joyous Judaism that offers a path to meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing. My first four books are guides to Jewish practice in the home. They feature the stories of real Jews representing all kinds of family structures and denominations, talking about how they have made Jewish rituals come alive. Our work in Jewish family education has the same goal: encouraging Jews to embrace Jewish experiences that can strengthen personal identity and family cohesion.

CS: You reached a certain generation of youth. What do you think we need to do to reach the next generation? Are there two songs you would use today?

RW: When I first began teaching teenagers, I used songs like the Beatles “Revolution” and “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof as texts. Today, I might use “Happy” by Pharell Williams and “Rumor” by Adele.

CS: What would Zayde Louis tell to Ellie and Gabe’s generation?

RW: Zaydie Louie embraced new technologies. He and his sons-in-law built the first modern supermarket in Nebraska with self-serve aisles, checkstands, and that amazing conveyor belt system that I write about in the book—it was like our own personal roller coaster in the basement! I think he would tell my grandchildren to use the incredible technologies of communication and social media, but to never forget that nothing replaces in person, face-to-face relationships.

CS: Tell me about your Facebook contest: "How did a grandparent influence you"?

RW: Many people wrote lovingly of grandparents who taught them about the power of telling stories, the importance of making friends with everyone, the mitzvah of visiting the elderly and the homebound, helping others quietly, and the joys of being generous. Grandparents have enormous influence. Best Boy is a reminder of that important role as many of the 1.3 million Jewish Baby Boomers are blessed to become grandparents themselves.

CS: What is your next project?

RW: I hope to write a follow-up to Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community. It will have reports from the field of Jewish institutions doing a great job in shifting the paradigm of engagement from transactional to relational. I am very grateful that so many Jewish professionals and lay leaders have heard this call and are increasingly focused on putting people first. As I’ve learned in writing Best Boy, it’s all about relationships— in our families, in our communities, and with Judaism itself.

CS: You have led joint educational efforts with the Conservative and Reform movements. What advice do you have for their leadership?

RW: We are getting better at the first step in building a relationship: a warm welcome. But there’s still a lot to be done, even in the smallest ways: when I am invited to a synagogue, for example, the first place I visit is the coatroom; many synagogues dump junk there, but it is often the first stop for your guests!

Reform and Conservative synagogues should not assume anything. Certainly don’t assume people know what to do. There are several very funny stories in Best Boy about what happens when congregations do not understand this. The synagogue should be welcoming, not intimidating.

Of course, the ultimate goal is to build relationships between the clergy/staff and the members and guests, between the members and other members in small groups so they have friends in the community who will be there for them in good times and bad, and between everyone and the Jewish experience itself. Judaism can be a path to meaning, purpose, belonging and blessing, a way to be the “best” you one can be.

Cathy Sussman graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in English from the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minnesota. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, children, dog and cat. For her day job, she specializes in reinsurance and is a principal at Dubraski & Associates.

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What's a Book?

Friday, October 16, 2015 | Permalink

Dr. Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education, American Jewish University. His new book, The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses, is now available in print and audiobook from Jewish Lights Publishing .

No, this is not a question I expect from my preschool grandchildren Ellie Brooklyn and Gabriel Elijah, although they are most definitely digital natives. Their parents—and Bubbie and Zaydie— have made sure that they love to cuddle up with a printed book, eager to hear the words and look at the pictures of a great children's title.

I am not totally worried that ebooks will transplant print books as the way we read literature. A recent New York Times article reports that ebook sales are down 10% and bookstores are breathing a bit easier these days.

Instead, permit me to share two insights about the purpose of a book.

I once heard my friend Rabbi David Wolpe say the most remarkable thing about books. He was a fresh-out-of-seminary rabbi, recruited by Dr. David Lieber, to join the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University). Rabbi Lieber of blessed memory, then President of the University, wanted this bright young rabbi and budding author on staff, but the only suitable job available was "Librarian." Did David Wolpe know anything about being a librarian? I once asked David this question in front of a group at his congregation, Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. His answer: "I knew as much about being a librarian as I know about the flora and fauna of Papua, New Guinea." Nevertheless, Rabbi Wolpe was a great advocate for our library, the largest collection of Judaica in the western United States of America. It was at a fundraising event for the library when I heard David say this: "When I walk through the stacks in the library, I don't see books. I hear the voices of the authors saying: 'Come, now. Pick me up. Let me share with you what I have learned."

I thought about this as I set about writing my new book, The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses. For years, I have wanted to write down the stories I tell—many of them very funny (and all true!)— tales I share to illustrate my educational points when I teach seminars at AJU and during my travels as a scholar in residence. I wondered if the oral words could become written words and retain their impact. Although the book has been out for only a few weeks, I'm thrilled that early readers have indeed reported that the stories are resonating deeply, eliciting many laughs, some tears, and warm feelings of memory and identity. And, with David's stirring words in my mind, I decided to narrate an unabridged audiobook of Best Boy so readers can literally hear my voice!

Here's the other amazing thing about a book. For someone like me who loves teaching, a book is an extension of my classroom. It enables me to share what I've learned with thousands of people I will most likely never encounter in person, but eagerly meet in the pages of the text. This is why I write the stories in easy prose, a narrative that goes down, I hope, like sweet honey in a glazele tay. It is why I am tickled when a reader reports "I laughed out loud on a plane," or "I had to stop to read a story to my spouse," or "your stories are my stories." It is why, when I meet someone with a copy of Relational Judaism with pages that are dogeared, underlined, and ridden with sticky notes, I am elated, for my "student" has indeed heard my words. It is why I included a Discussion Guide for book clubs in Best Boy,because sharing a good book with friends is like convening a class.

So, what is a book? It's a voice. It's a classroom. It's the sharing of life lessons that resonate. It's a vehicle for sharing relatable stories that reveal the author/teacher's experiences and unveil the soul.

Dr. Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education, American Jewish University. His new book, The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses, is now available in print and audiobook from Jewish Lights Publishing .

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Dr. Ron Wolfson on Cutting-Edge Work in the Jewish Community

Thursday, May 02, 2013 | Permalink
Dr. Ron Wolfson, visionary educator and inspirational speaker, is Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and a cofounder of Synagogue 3000. His most recent book, Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community (Jewish Lights Publishing), is now available. Earlier this week, he wrote about the future of Jewish institutions in the twenty-first century. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In Relational Judaism, I report six case studies of organizations and individuals doing cutting-edge work in creating relational communities. Chabad is numero uno. Their first – and most important – “secret” of success: a warm welcome to everyone they meet and an invitation to share a meal, usually in the rabbi’s home and usually within five minutes of the first personal encounter. They practice what I have called “radical hospitality,” a passionate commitment to learning about each and every person they meet. Google “Chabad” and inevitably you will see results that include “no membership fees” and “free Hebrew school.” The truth is that Chabad is not “free.” What they have done is to turn the membership model upside down: instead of asking for dues upfront and then serving the members, Chabad offers hospitality and programming first and then aggressively asks for money. The vast majority of their funding comes from those grateful for their relationship with the Chabad rabbi and his family, almost always non-Orthodox Jews. Does it work? Estimates suggest Chabad raises well north of $1 billion annually.

Hillel is pioneering a relationship-based outreach effort called “Senior Jewish Educator/Campus Entrepreneur Initiative.” College sophomores and juniors are offered stipends and training to reach out to their circles of friends on campus who would rarely be caught inside a Hillel House. They are coached and taught by a full-time senior Jewish educator who also commits the time to reach 160 disengaged Jewish students annually.

Congregation-based community organizing is a strategy to surface concerns among congregants by conducting one-on-one conversations around questions such as “What keeps you up at night?” The conversation itself is a relational engagement experience that some synagogues use to mobilize social justice actions, but just as importantly leads to better connectedness among the membership.

There are several well-known efforts to engage the next generation of young Jewish professionals, among them Moishe House, NEXT (follow up with Birthright alumni), Jconnect in Seattle, and Next Dor – an initiative of Synagogue 3000 to place “engagement rabbis” and community organizers working from but outside mainstream synagogues to connect with young Jews ages 21-40.

No doubt that the social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest have enabled many to create and support relationships among friends and family. Jewish organizations are just beginning to marshal the power of these platforms for building online communities and for encouraging face-to-face communities.

Finally, it turns out the best fundraisers in the Jewish community all agree that relationships are at the heart of securing funding. For Relational Judaism, I interviewed the best of the best, among them Abraham Foxman, John Ruskay, David Ellenson, Arnold Eisen, Jerry Silverman and Esther Netter.

I believe the time has come for us to shift the paradigm of engagement from programmatic to relational. The goal is to build relationships with what I identify as “Nine Levels of Relationship” with the Jewish experience. The strategies are outlined in “Twelve Principles of Relational Engagement.” The six case studies prove that it is possible, that we can revive and strengthen our communal organizations if we put people first and then program for them. It is time for a Relational Judaism.

Check in with Ron at www.facebook.com/relationaljudaism and find additional JBC-reviewed titles by him here.

Dr. Ron Wolfson on the Future of Jewish Institutions

Tuesday, April 30, 2013 | Permalink
Dr. Ron Wolfson, visionary educator and inspirational speaker, is Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and a cofounder of Synagogue 3000. His most recent book, Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community (Jewish Lights Publishing), is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

As I travel around the country visiting Jewish institutions of all kinds, my "worry" quotient is growing daily. Nearly everywhere I go, I hear stories of declining membership, difficulties in attracting the next generation, peaking enrollments and flat fundraising campaigns. This is unusual for me; I have been an optimistic cheerleader for the Jewish community during my career. Bottom line: I am not worried about the future of the Jewish people; I am very worried about the future of Jewish institutions.

What's happening? In Relational Judaism (Jewish Lights Publishing), I outline the many challenges facing any Jewish organization seeking to engage people. A "biggy" is the Internet. Once upon a time, rabbis and Jewish educators held exclusive access to the wealth of Jewish practice and tradition. Not today. In the zeitgeist of DIY - "Do It Yourself," the Internet offers enormous resources for just about anything someone wants to learn or do. Another challenge: why should I pay thousands of dollars in membership fees if I can "rent-a-rabbi" to do a backyard Bar/Bat Mitzvah? In the larger Jewish population centers, there are plenty of rabbis who cannot find work in established congregations hanging a shingle and offering their services as independent contractors. Jewish Community Centers face increasing competition from well-equipped health clubs open 24/7. Day school tuition is so high it is pricing out a large segment of those who would like to send their kids.

All this begs the central question facing Jewish institutions: "What's the value-added of joining?" If the "offer" of affiliation is not truly attractive, I am afraid the membership base will continue to narrow as young people find alternative ways to "do Jewish" and aging baby boomer/empty nesters opt out.

For me, the value-added must be a face-to-face community of relationships that gives my life meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing. "Meaning" is an understanding of the significance of life. "Purpose" is an imperative to do what you are put on earth to do during your life. "Belonging" is a community of people who will be there for you and with you. "Blessing" is a feeling of deep satisfaction and gratitude, a calendar and life cycle of opportunities to celebrate the gifts of life.

In my research for writing Relational Judaism, I searched for organizations and individuals who "get" this, who understand that building relationships, not simply offering a calendar of programs, is the task of the moment. The book presents six case studies: Chabad, Hillel, congregation-based community organizing, next generation initiatives, social media and fundraisers. In my next posting, I will share some lessons learned from their pioneering work, work that I believe is the forward edge of creating a Relational Judaism for the twenty-first century.

Find additional JBC-reviewed titles by Dr. Ron Wolfson here.