“OK, sure…why don’t we give it a try!”
I was still a relatively new youth group advisor and educator at Congregation B’nai Jehsohua Beth Elohim (BJBE), and Rabbi Mark Shapiro had just been showing our students the BJBE torah that survived the Holocaust. This torah came from the city of Kolin, about 45 minutes from Prague, where still stands the city’s synagogue and Jewish cemetery even though Jews for the most part had not been living in Kolin for well over 50 years.
Rabbi Shapiro told the class about how the Jewish cemetery had become overgrown with weeds and brush, because the Jewish people who would otherwise be providing loving care and tending to the graves of their loved ones were sent to the Tereizenstadt detention camp, and then to concentration camps throughout Poland and Germany.
“If this was Star Trek” Rabbi Shapiro told the students, “I would magically ‘beam’ you all to the Jewish cemetery in Kolin so together we could work to clean up all those weeds and honor the Jews of Kolin.” I pulled Rabbi Shapiro aside after the class and I said “that’s a great idea. Why don’t we go? We can raise funds, involve the community, and get a group of kids to Kolin to clean the cemetery.”
“OK, sure.” He said. “Why don’t we give it a try!”
Rabbi Shapiro died last week after battling Parkinson’s disease for many years, and I have been thinking a lot about the role he played in the lives of so many people, and what a valuable leadership lesson he shared with me and the entire community when he said “OK, sure. Why don’t we give it a try!”
He liked the idea of going to Kolin right away, and let me and the kids plan the fundraising and the trip to the Czech Republic. I was so taken along with the enthusiasm and energy of the moment, I did not realize at the time there were lots of other ways this whole process could have gone.
Instead of immediately supporting the idea, he could have first sought approval for the idea by the temple board of trustees. He could have asked for a financial feasibility study, or he could have first asked for a commitment from the kids and permission from their parents before we spent even a moment thinking about raising funds.
These would have been all incredibly reasonable reactions to a knee-jerk idea by a young, easily inspired youth group advisor, but he didn’t do these things. He just said “yes,” and it was through that “yes” that I learned some valuable leadership lessons that reverberate with me still to this day.
Trust the People on Your Team: Rabbi Shapiro did not really know if we would be able to pull this trip off or not, but he trusted me, he trusted the lay leaders I worked with, and he trusted the teenagers who really wanted to see this trip happen. He was always there with advice, support, direction and encouragement, but he let us do our work.
From Rabbi Shapiro, I learned that if you have a colleague on your team, always start from a place of trust. Trust that they are going to be invested in your work. Trust that they will do what they are being asked to do. Trust that that they will be a partner in your work. If it turns out they should not have been trusted to do their work, that lack of trust should be earned, not expected.
Don’t Let Policy Get in Your Way: There is nothing that will squelch a good idea faster than quoting and implementing policy and procedure. Of course every organization needs its rules to operate properly. If the organization has taken the time to memorialize a rule as policy or procedure, then it absolutely should be followed, except when it shouldn’t.
I think Rabbi Shapiro recognized that there was a real excitement behind this idea, and that approvals and layers of oversight would have only served to slow us down, and tamp down on the energy and enthusiasm of the teenagers who were working so hard to raise funds, to learn about Kolin, and to work within the structure of the synagogue community to generate interest and financial support.
From Rabbi Shapiro I learned that policy is important, but it should always be open to interpretation, if not a complete bypass, depending on situation and circumstance. Once a policy has been created, assume that at some point that policy will need to be broken or changed. Do the work, do the important work, and don’t let policy dampen enthusiasm or opportunity.
Rely on Your Network: As soon as we got to work on raising funds for this trip, we saw Rabbi Shapiro’s network come alive. He told the story of the Kolin Torah. He told people how much we need their help, and he told them about the incredible impact their help could have. First, we connected to every teenager and their family in the congregation who might be interested in this trip. Then, we connected to other lay and professional leaders of the congregation to help us spread the word. Then, we connected to the congregation at large asking for (almost expecting) their support. Then we connected with people all across the country, and people in England, Israel and the Czech Republic as we planned the trip. Rabbi Shapiro’s network, literally around the world, became connected to and invested in our trip.
From Rabbi Shapiro I learned how transparency helps to create and sustain networks. We shared our excitement, our challenges and sometimes even our roadblocks out loud. It was because of that transparency that people throughout our immediate and extended networks began to say, in a voice everyone could hear, “we’ve got to get the kids to Kolin.” People became invested in the trip because they cared about the trip. They cared about the trip as much as they did because they knew how much we cared about the trip, how much Rabbi Shapiro cared about the trip, and how hard we were all working.
Rabbi Shapiro was the rabbi at BJBE for over 38 years, and the story of our trip to Kolin is but one of hundreds (maybe thousands) of such stories about his leadership and inspiration. We did go to Kolin in 1998. We went again 2000 and 2003. I left BJBE as the youth group advisor for my next professional opportunity, and the trip continues to this very day. Every 2-3 years, the next group of BJBE teenagers travels to Prague, Kolin and now even Israel.
The world is a better place because of Rabbi Mark Shapiro. Through his leadership, and the lessons of trust, transparency and networking he lived and taught throughout his entire 38 year career at BJBE a whole generation of Jewish and community leaders serve congregations, organizations and businesses around the world. The lessons are sacred and timeless, and they serve us well regardless of our job or industry.
“OK, sure. Why don’t we give it a try!”
My guess is, Rabbi Shapiro said that a lot.