Mountainous Memories

Tomorrow will mark the 33rd anniversary of a memorable event – the day that Mount St. Helens erupted. It was on May 18, 1980 at 8:32 a.m. PDT that a 5.1 earthquake shook Mount St. Helens. Ashes were spread throughout the region, and by the end, the mountain actually dropped some 1,313 feet in height (that is an old Trivial Pursuit question). For those of you living here (or in the region) at the time, you will remember the experience. 

Yesterday, we concluded celebrating the holiday of Shavuot. Shavuot combines two major religious observances. First is the early summer harvest of the grain. Second is the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai seven weeks after the Exodus from Egypt. The first determines the ritual for the holiday, which was one of the three pilgrimage festivals in ancient Israel, when Israelites were commanded to appear before God in Jerusalem, bringing offerings of the first fruits of their harvest. The second determines the significance of the holiday for Judaism, tying it in with the seminal event of Jewish religious memory, namely the establishment of the covenant between God and the Jewish people.

Many commentators have noted that one of the strengths of the Jewish community is its “collective memory.” In essence, we were all present at Mount Sinai when the Jewish people received the Torah. This “memory” has kept our people together for thousands of years.

How do our memories shape our vision of the future?

I recently read the following parable:

Two monks – one old and one young – were walking to a village far from their monastery. Along the way they saw a beautiful, young woman waiting at the edge of a stream, too afraid to cross. The young monk reminded himself of his vow not to touch women and continued walking. But to his amazement, the elder monk sped right past him while carrying the young woman, safely across the stream, on his back! When the old monk put her down on the other side of the stream, she thanked him with a respectful bow. The old monk, in turn, gave her a bright smile, and continued walking.

The young monk considered and reconsidered the old monk's action back at the stream. He could not stop churning. His thoughts grew angrier and angrier. Finally, hours later, he ended up shouting at the old monk, "You broke your sacred vows! You are not supposed to touch a woman! How can you forgive yourself? You should not be allowed back in the monastery!"

Surprised at his outburst, the old monk replied calmly, "I dropped her hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?"

Like the young monk, many of our organizations never seem to “move on.” The result – outdated assumptions, missed opportunities, and the inability to change. Organizational memory creates biases that get embedded in planning processes, organizational structures, initiatives, and, of course, people’s perceptions. How many times do I hear people say that Federation is “this or that” when the reality of today is something quite different?

How can established organizations, including the Jewish Federation, be more like the elder monk – and transcend the grip of institutional memory when there is an imperative to respond to modern realities?

Our Jewish organizational eco-system needs to focus on three key areas:

  1. Strategy Making – Instead of taking anecdotes from the past, let’s look at real data that supports ourcurrent efforts within the Jewish community. Let us better understand what people value in Jewish communal life, especially those who are most engaged. At the same time, we must listen to various constituencies, including young people, empty nesters, and older singles to name a few, as well as those who may be considered “outsiders” to understand their needs and wants. They are the ones, perhaps, with little, if any, organizational memory. These insights – taken together – will enable us to develop a true strategy for our overarching community, not our individual organizational silos.

  2. Accountability – We talk about being different and meeting today’s needs. However, a lot of time and money is spent doing the same things we have done for generations. We must hold ourselves accountable for serving our current mission and making a real impact via the work that we do. Let’s make difficult decisions that will enhance Jewish life in the years ahead and work hard to meet those expectations.

  3. Organizational Design – In many ways, the Jewish community of today is structured based on generation-old mindsets. If we drew an organizational map of Portland’s Jewish community today, how different would it look from 1950 beyond the large increase in the number of synagogues? We are now at a point in time when our system may no longer best serve the Jewish community...”walls” have been torn down at (Jewish and secular) communal organizations with full accessibility for Jews. We have the opportunity, today, to create an organizational structure for the future that makes sense – both in regard to effectiveness and efficiencies.

We are challenged with something I call “organizational forgetting.”  We must honor our past and those who created a system to best serve our community at that point in time. Today, however, it is our obligation to move beyond the mindset of “what is” and to create “what can be.”

Mount St. Helens changed. The Torah received on Mount Sinai, for many, continues to have new and different interpretations. Yet, for Jewish Portland, mountainous memories still exist – can we climb over them to create a stronger and brighter future?

Shabbat shalom.



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