By Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Noah (Genesis 6:9−11:32)
This Shabbat we read Parshat Noach, the story of Noah’s Ark. As we start, the world is destroying itself with empty indulgence and meaninglessness, and G-d wants to give us an opportunity to change course via Noah and the Ark. For 120 years, Noah builds an enormous boat, and the news “goes viral,” so that everyone is talking about it. Noah explains that the world has gone adrift aimlessly, and there will be a flood. His purpose in building the boat is to help save people and animals. Noah had a purpose in his life, and he wanted to demonstrate that life needs to have substance and purpose beyond pointlessly changing channels in the vast wasteland. If he could have purpose in trying to save others, they also could connect with their inner beauty and save themselves.
I recently read a book called Start with Why (S. Sinek, 2009), which exhorts businesses to have a central, deeper purpose beyond profits. The author demonstrates how businesses with a social purpose resonate with customers more, and earn customer loyalty in a way that classic rebates and discounts don’t. Discounts and rebates leave a business prey to the competitor who gives more discounts and rebates. Ultimately, the profits are eaten away by the cycle of cutting more and more; as opposed to being about some higher purpose, which is rewarded with like-minded, socially responsible customers who will not flee to the competition for an extra nickel off.
An article in the Sept. 7 Chicago Jewish News addressed the alarming statistics of shrinking Jewish identity. For all of us who care about Jewish continuity, this is our watershed moment—our Noah’s Ark moment. How do we retain our customer loyalty to ensure a next generation of engaged Jews before they drown in a flood of assimilation?
One approach was described in a recent Wall Street Journal article (Sept.6) about Yom Kippur services held in mosh pits, beer gardens, and featuring goat yoga. While these are creative approaches, I see them as rebates and discounts, which don’t tend to encourage long-term, loyal engagement. Next Yom Kippur, the value will be slashed more, and the customer will gravitate to the cheapest, but emptiest, experience, all about the varieties of imported kipper and nothing about the yom. (I’m aware that the beer garden proponents might disagree with me.)
This phenomenon is not new. Fifty years ago, in the throes of the hippy/yippy freewheeling 1968 era, there was change brewing in the world, and in Chicago in particular. The Jewish community, just building a new generation after the decimation of the Holocaust, was at risk once again, this time from the lures of the counterculture and cults. Jews were searching for meaning, and these venues offered something that the pursuit of money and status didn’t. Three visionaries in our community—two rabbis (Rabbi Yehoshua Eichenstien and Rabbi Avram Kaufman) and a medical doctor, the tsaddik Dr. Binyomin Sokol—along with a dedicated team of lay leaders, decided it was time to build an Ark to save our straying brethren from being swept away by the ravages of assimilation, poverty, and loneliness.
They devised a model that was, and continues to be, novel. Three unique elements are synthesized to create a solution to our community’s quest for meaning. The elements are: performing acts of kindness/social service for those in need from all segments of our community; utilizing and valuing volunteer assistance to give people a venue to do something with purpose and meaning; and a unique emphasis on this all being done in a Judaically enriched framework.
I have had the privilege of serving our community in this magical place, The ARK, for nearly 35 years (not including high school volunteering.) I am still as excited and energized to go to work every day as I was on the day I started. I get to reach out to people, make a difference, and have a sense of purpose, while working with a “dream team” of creative, inspired coworkers (which includes a “Na’ama,” the name of the wife of Noah.) We continue to be the Ark to give warmth and shelter to our community in good times and in challenging ones.
So while you won’t find beer gardens, goats, or mosh pits in this ARK, every day when we open the doors, we Start with Why.
Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum is Director of The ARK’s Michael E. Schneider Spiritual Enrichment Program.