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Rosh Hashanah 5783 (2022) Sermon

In their work studying adaptive leadership, Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie create a list of leaders known to succeed when their organizations are met with profound challenges and change. Adaptive leaders, according to their research, desire to lead from the balcony. They look at an organization and its growing points from a 10,000 foot view. This way they can identify challenges and understand how they're being perceived by others. But more than that, successful leaders also know when to come down from the balcony and onto the dance floor to regulate distress, handle the sequence and pace of the organization, and maintain disciplined attention to those under them. Leaders then know how to transfer work back to employees so they develop a collective self-confidence and stake in the mission and product of the organization. Everyone at every level of the organization feels protected and heard and most importantly as an essential component of success. Heifitz and Laurie say to embody this approach "one can lead with no more than a question in hand." To me, that is a profoundly Jewish way to look at leadership.


Look at our own organizations within the Jewish community. We are question driven. There are many issues that stimulate our institutions but I think the ultimate question that guides Jews forward is “what does it mean to be Jewish right now?” From Torah times to the 21st century, Jewish communities have adapted and evolved to the needs of the moment. Movers and shakers that make history arise in critical junction points. But some questions are eternal - forever begging us to find new and creative responses. It is in these smaller, quieter moments, that we find glimmers of adaptability and commitment to our tradition.


Not so surprisingly, some of the very best leaders are unnoticed and underappreciated. I'm going to give a spicy take here, one that some classical rabbis hundreds of years ago might disagree with. What if one of the most profoundly Jewish leaders might have not been Jewish herself? Around her was the burgeoning Jewish family and despite her lack of agency, she profoundly impacted the values of our culture. I am of course talking about Hagar.


The biblical character Hagar is known as Sarah's maidservant. After a brief trip to Egypt before settling in what we now know as Israel, Sarah is awarded ownership over Hagar after a small snafu with the pharaoh. Hagar then becomes an integral part of Abraham and Sarah’s family unit. We know that since Sarah has trouble conceiving, Hagar is sent in her place and mothers a son to Abraham who she calls Ishmael. The next time we hear of Hagar it is in the story of her banishment. Sarah sees Ishmael and Isaac doing something together that made her uncomfortable. And so she tells Abraham that she wants Ishmael and Hagar away from the family. Abraham is hesitant, not only because Ishmael is his son but he has spent many years with Hagar and considers her part of the family. But God tells Abraham that divine protection will stay with Hagar and Ishmael. 


So Hagar heads out into the desert with her son with just enough provisions to get her somewhere close. Those provisions run out quicker than expected and Hagar has to make the ultimate sacrifice. She hides Ishmael under some reeds and from just a bow shots away begins to openly weep. Luckily an angel of God appears before her and tells her not to worry for she and Ishmael are part of God's covenant forever. She lifts her eyes and lo and behold there is a well. She's able to drink and hydrate her son until they make it to a nearby settlement and she establishes roots there and finds Ishmael a suitable wife.


Despite her challenges in the desert, Hagar follows many core guidelines for brave leadership. She knows how to see the greater picture, to view life from the balcony. Instead of arguing with Sarah, with Abraham, and with the angel, she takes the initiative to move forward. And when she is stuck, with a little guidance she's able to get that balcony view. Only then does Hagar see the well. The well symbolizes possibility in the future. Water not only quenches her parched throat but reinvigorates her spirit. She avoids hypothetical questions such as what happens if…? how can I? and dives directly into action. Hagar knows how to take care of her son. Once newly settled she doesn't put her feet back and put blame on Sarah or even God for what happened. She develops a plan to give her son ownership over their future for the first time. She ensures Ishmael trains in a career that we find out is being proficient with a bow and arrow. And she even makes sure that her family line continues in this new place by finding a wife for Ishmael, a lineage that Muslims claim to this day. Committed to making her dwelling place her home, Hagar takes the mantle of leadership into her stride. We can learn from this narrative that we are imbued with qualities that allow us to build communities that last through history. We don’t need to be Abraham or Sarah to make a mark. We are more likely to be Hagar, responding to life’s surprises and hardships with our ordinary skills. Regardless of who we are and where we are, we all can orchestrate the future into being.


I recently experienced Hagar’s lesson in action on a global connection trip with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to Bulgaria. This trip centered the local Jewish community, learning from Bulgarians about their culture, their concerns, and their hopes and desires for their future as Jews in Bulgaria. These insider trips focus on building connections between American Jews and global communities, bringing to life the rabbinic lesson that all Jews are responsible for one another. 


The history of Jews in Bulgaria stretches over 2000 years to the Roman period, where Jews left mosaic-tiled synagogues scattered in the major settlements. These Jews were Romaniote, Jews with a distinctly Roman influence who kept ancient traditions from the early rabbis alive. For the next thousand years, there was an influx of Ashkenazi Jews coming down from Central Europe, adding to the tapestry of Jewish life. In 1492, with the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal, Bulgaria became a haven as part of the Ottoman Empire where tens of thousands of Sephardi refugees made their new home in the Balkans. From here on out, the culture and identity of Bulgarian Judaism were staunchly Sephardic, mixed with a few influences from past generations.


Jewish citizens lived in relative harmony with their Bulgarian neighbors. Jews fought in the war of independence against the Ottomans in the 1870s. There was even a rabbinic representation during the constitutional convention in 1880, demonstrating that Jews were an integral part of the fabric of Bulgaria. During this time, the community built the third largest synagogue in Europe in the capital city of Sofia, marking the Jewish presence within society. Despite moments of blood libel and anti-Semitic violence, Jews fought in high percentages in the Balkan Wars and WWI. During the 1930s, Bulgaria became a fascist dictatorship that allied itself with Nazi Germany. There were racist laws against Jews, expulsions from cities, and slave labor camps established across the country. Yet the Bulgarian people refused to take the final step to massacre the Jews. Church leaders, politicians, and every day citizens joined together to save the entire Bulgarian Jewish populace from deportation to the death camps. The community compares this moment to the Purim story where a decree for annihilation was proscribed but it never came to fruition. A moment must be said that Bulgaria did annex Northern Macedonia and Northern Greece and 11,000 Jews from these territories were murdered in Treblinka. This is a dark mark that the Jewish and Bulgarian communities are still trying to include in their story of survival.


At the end of WWII, Bulgaria became a satellite state for the Soviet Union, independent but under communist control. Like all communist countries, religion was outlawed and Jewish life went underground. In 1948 with the establishment of Israel, the Bulgarian government allowed for Jews to leave and 90% of the community left for Israel. The remaining Jews were communist supporters and felt the possibility of a future in Bulgaria. Despite this hope, anti-Semitism took hold in Bulgaria during the communist years. Bulgaria often became the Soviet Union’s critical voice of Israel and Judaism on the international stage. Somehow the community kept its connection alive and when democracy came to reign in 1989, the Jewish community sought rehabilitation.


Quickly, the JCC, called Shalom, was reestablished and the synagogue reopened for worship and gathering. With the help of the JDC, Jews began to reclaim their heritage. Now, there is a Jewish preschool, day school, summer camp, BBYO chapter, a Golden Age camp for those 65+, a welfare center, a Ladino choir, and so much more. Today during the Ukrainian refugee crisis, the Jewish community has sponsored aid to help the newly arrived refugees settle in Sofia - more on that tomorrow. 5000 Jews remain in Bulgaria today, mostly in Sofia, and the community prides itself on its reestablishment to the point of self-sufficiency. This trip allowed me to witness authentic and organic leadership on all levels that allow the Bulgarian Jewish community to thrive.


A program this community is particularly proud of is its Hadracha leadership program. Hadracha focuses on preparing teenagers to become pioneers within the local community. The program trains its teens to become madrichim at the local Bulgarian Jewish summer camp. As madrichim, these teens plan events, become counselors in the bunks, and mentor the next generation. I got a taste of this training with one of the heads of the community Maxim Delchev and our local guide Estie Anadoliyska. Maxim is considered an elder in the community. That means is he was a child when communism fell and democracy begin in the early nineties. Since Jewish religion and culture were illegal in Communist Bulgaria, Maxim was of the first generation to reclaim his heritage publically. He participated in the early cohorts of the Hadracha and as an educator with Shalom, now works with Estie, a recent graduate from university. As a graphic designer by trade, her commitment to the Jewish community continues as she mentors the incoming generation of madrichim. Estie led us in a training that all the madrichim go through. We workshopped scenarios that might happen at summer camp, from dealing with homesickness and eating disorders to surprisingly ingenious capitalistic schemes of purchasing all the chips from the canteen and then charging them at an upcharge to the rest of the camp. The entire group reflected that for those of us who worked at a summer camp, these scenarios were similar if not identical to those back in the US. 


I could see the pride on Maxim’s face, watching Estie take ownership of this initiative as she led us in deep conversation and framed these scenarios in Jewish values. Approaching each moment with adaptive questioning, Maxim and Estie showed that leadership happens in the small moments between generations. Even as the teenagers become adults, they still mentor the age below them as they navigate life’s essential questions: where and what to study at college, dating advice, and determining what makes a home Jewish. They opened up Jewish youth experiences to embrace all forms of identity. Their open-tent approach brings the community in and keeps them involved. Sitting with these two generations of leaders demonstrates how this community has grown and become self-supportive. They understand that leadership isn't a one time opportunity. The knowledge and skills are passed down the generations and they are refined through each new cohort of madrichim. The Hadracha is the embodiment of l’Dor v’Dor, passing Jewish tradition from one generation to the next, in hopes that our traditions will continue under the guardianship of new adaptive leaders.


I also had the pleasure to spend an evening with the Beyonce of Jewish Bulgaria - Lika Ashkenazi. Lika has a personality beyond most. Her warmth envelops you the moment you approach her and she becomes the aunt you didn’t know you had. It has become her mission to keep the Bulgarian Sephardic tradition alive. Most Jews have lost the ability to speak Ladino, like many of us have lost the ability to speak Yiddish and the languages of our ancestors. She leads the Ladino choir called Manos Bendichas, Blessed Hands. They sing classics of secular and liturgical Ladino music, from Ein Keloheinu to Sephardic love ballads. She sings on the steps of the Sofia Synagogue as if it is the TD Garden and we joked she only needs a smoke machine to make her performance tour ready. Although we met only an hour ago, Lika leads us in song and teaches us traditional Bulgarian Jewish dancing, the cousin to the hora. In the shadow of the massive synagogue, we joined the community in laughter and dance. 


Written on Lika’s face are the stories of her ancestors and it is clear that Lika’s passion influences the entire community. Despite not knowing the language, community members share in Lika’s delight of their traditional culture. It’s similar to us here in the US gathering to listen to klezmer and dance the hora at weddings. Lika has taken it upon herself to make sure these traditions bring joy to the community. She doesn't wait for someone else to take the reins. Lika knows that for this community to survive they need to celebrate their sacred traditions. And so she takes on that role as preserver and distributor of Bulgarian Jewish culture. She becomes a celebrity because of her obligations. Despite a language barrier, she communicates her tradition beautifully so I understand and appreciate it in ways beyond words. Lika takes your hand and brings into song and dance. She hands over guardianship, making you a chain in this beautiful tradition. This is adaptive and creative leadership in action; with Lika’s commitment the community feels whole. Lika transforms the synagogue from a beautifully ornate but static building into a place that reverberates love and wisdom. 


The final snippet I will share from this experience occurred at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant in the mountains overlooking Sofia. Over shopska salad, spreads of cheese and vegetables, and a glass of rakia, a traditional Bulgarian liquor, I dined with the Cheif Executive of Shalom, Julia Dandalova. Julia spearheads the JCC to make sure all the initiatives actually happen. Her role requires patience and commitment to the future of the Jewish community. Throughout the trip we met with her as she described the history and function of all the JCC’s programs. She holds her role with honor and the deepest respect. But over dinner, Julia relaxes and shares stories of real life in Sofia. She jokingly explains the superstitious medical remedies of rakia, using this alcoholic spirit to solve joint pain, headaches, and the common cold. She laughs as she shares about her excursion to the Caribbean where American tourists are shocked that she would travel across the Atlantic instead of vacationing in the Greek isles - the idealized trip for us here but a weekend getaway from Bulgaria. Julia bemoans her seat at this restaurant, usually serving only tourists looking to experience ‘authentic’ Bulgarian traditions. In this moment at dinner, Julia gets down on the dancefloor and celebrates our shared humanity.


Julia doesn’t take her role too seriously. Her responsibility as head of the community doesn’t prevent her from enjoying life. Like Hagar, Julia refuses to get bogged down with hypothetical questions. She has faith that the community will maneuver its way into the future. She embraces the development of self-confidence within the community. When asked a question, Julia happily passed the torch to others sitting at the table, knowing that as the figurehead of the community, she has the responsibility to let others shine. Under her leadership, it is clear more members gain confidence to take on new projects. Thanks to her vision, we met with members from all sectors of the JCC. In sharing reflections about our experiences, the smile that lit up her face gave her thoughts away; she achieved her goal of sharing the beauty of her community. Julia embodies chesed in its purest sense. Promoting connection and holiness, Julia shares the divine blessing with everyone who enters the doors of the JCC.


Throughout my week in Sofia, I dined on traditional Bulgarian cuisine, participated in Israeli dancing and laughter yoga at the JCC, and connected with teens and young adults as they created authentic spaces for their identity as Bulgarian Jews. We spoke with many members about the individual and communal wrestling of religion, tradition, and modernity. This was a pilgrimage to a part of the Jewish family I didn't even know I had. As I walked the streets of Sofia, the questions of contemporary living came alive. I witnessed people take their identity and generate honest expressions of Judaism. These were modern day Hagars in action.


Shalom in Sofia exists as the perfect hotbed for leadership. When we think of classical leaders we think of heads of state, CEOs, and maybe even rabbis. But true leadership is subtle and involves more than just being at the apex of an organization. Good leaders know how to take the stage and promote their own self-interest. Yet great leaders know when to take a step back and let others shine and trust the future into someone else's hands. Who knows what the Bulgarian Jewish community would look like if Maxim, Estie, Lika, and Julia were not given a chance to fulfill these roles? The premise of community is centered on leadership at all levels. Leaders often are not chosen to be in these roles but find themselves here, willing to give their time and energy to create something for others. Successful leaders drive organizations into the future and take burning questions and make them alive through programming and conversation.


The essential questions of the high holidays ask us to examine ourselves and to find the aspects and qualities that make us worthy of another year. All of us have the characters to make the next year better and all of us are endowed with the potential for leadership. We can all find moments where we can rise and give our Jewish community a little extra burst of life. Like Lika, we can sing and dance our way into the 5783. Like Maxim and Estie, we can mentor the next generation in both formal and informal ways. And like Julia, we can take life with ease and have faith in others. We can be like the countless nameless members of every community that have brought new ideas into action by joining together in prayer, in justice, and in conversation. Like Hagar, we all have moments in our lives that allow us to ascend to leadership. We just have to lift our eyes to see the wells that can galvanize our innermost selves. Because then, with open eyes and quenched spirits, we can all become the leaders that orchestrate history for years to come.

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