On The Path, Not "Off The Derech"


"Are these sleeves too short for shul (synagogue)?" asked my daughter. "Because this feels very comfortable for me. Very me."

"Well according to Orthodox Judaism they would be," I responded, "because they're not to the elbow. But I think you look fine."

"It's very me, right?" she pressed.

"Yes, it's very you," I said.

"Well, according to my standards, what do you think?"

"Well they're your standards, so I can't really speak for you."

She went into her room and emerged a few minutes later with one of those light mini-sweaters on. She still looked good. Now her sleeves extended to the wrist.

"OK, now I feel better," she said. 

"It didn't feel right before, did it?" I asked. "That's why you were coming to me."

"No," she said. "It didn't."

We were both quiet for a minute.

"Well I'm going to go now," she said.

"OK."

She walked out and the door made a nice soft reassuring clicking sound. It always makes that sound. I like it.

I worried for a minute that she was walking down the steps in the stairwell. On Shabbos (the Jewish Sabbath) she does not use electricity at all, and I worried that a young woman shouldn't go in the stairwell alone.

You have to let her go, I reminded myself. 

The rest of us took the elevator down and headed over to the new synagogue. What a beautiful structure. Whoever designed it, designed it with eyes of love. 

And the inside of it. The columns. The lights. The colors. The silver encasement on the Torahs. The spacious seating. The roundness of it.

I wanted to be Instagramming it. Instinctively I reached for the cell phone I had brought with me in my blazer pocket. But I had it turned off, it was deliberately turned off. 

It shouldn't even be there, I knew. But if it was going to be there for emergency purposes, it definitely shouldn't be used.

My other daughter pulled out a siddur (prayer book) from behind the seat in front of us. Thoughtfully, each seat had its own custom shelf into which the books were inserted.

"I don't understand why G-d needs us to pray to Him," she said. "G-d is G-d."

"G-d doesn't need our prayers," I said. "We do. To remind us that we're not G-d."

She turned to one of the pages.

"I don't even understand what these prayers mean."

The English translation was right there, on the left-hand side of each page. But she wasn't asking about the translation. 

My daughter wanted to know why we had to be confronted with such a sea of repetitive text. What the meaning was of that.

I started to tell her the answer they taught me as a child. That the words have meaning even if we don't understand them. That mouthing them is worth something even without comprehension.

And then I stopped, because she's too smart for that and I felt it beneath her intelligence to give that kind of an answer.

"I don't believe you have to say every word," I said to my daughter.

"I think the point is to find one thing that means something to you," I said, meaning one prayer or one element of the service or even the synagogue environment. "And then focus on that."

They finished reading from the Torah right about then. There were two Torahs out today, actually. 

The men gathered around and gingerly rolled up each scroll. Put them back in their elaborately crafted silver encasements. 

I could almost hear it. That gentle click.

Then two men picked up the Torahs, one each, and started the traditional procession around the synagogue and back to the Aron (the Ark in the back of the synagogue, where they are stored).

Part of the procession is that they stop in front of the women's section.

When I grew up the women stuck a few fingers out to touch the Torah case and then kissed the finger that had touched it. This, a gesture of respect and love.

Later, at a shul I attended in New York there was a disagreement about whether women should touch the Torah directly or with a prayer book. The logic being, some among the congregation would inevitably be ritually impure. And so they should avoid direct contact.

My father-in-law, I loved him so much and may he rest in peace, was vehemently in favor of the women kissing the Torah with the prayer book. I disagreed. We had so many arguments about this.

Today I extended my prayer book to the Torah when the men passed by. I hadn't said any of the prayers nor had I followed the service. But whenI kissed the prayer book as it returned to my lips, I started to cry profusely. And had to walk out and get a tissue.

We ought not tell other people where they are on their paths in life. We ought not sit there in judgment.

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Note: All opinions are my own and don't represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo by Josh Cowan Photography via Flickr.

"Why Are Most Fortune 500 CEOs Male?" - My Top 10 List


1. The notion of what it means to be a corporate CEO is tilted towards socially constructed norms of "maleness" - appearance, demeanor, personality.

2. Boys are still taught to lead, dominate, conquer, take charge and men feel obligated to do so, e.g. the military is mostly male and is still viewed as a male domain.

3. There is a biological element here that has to be taken into account, e.g. hormones do affect behavior. 

4. Girls are taught the converse of what boys are taught, albeit implicitly, subtly, etc. "Soft sexism" is very real and it is not respectful of women either at work or at home.

5. Children require thinking and rethinking priorities and more often, women will choose children first over the effort required to climb the corporate ladder - which is not as fulfilling for most.

6. Same as #5, but for relationships. Corporate success requires long hours and frequent overnight travel, as well as relocation as needed. These are all relationship-killers.

7. Women are less likely to be groomed/mentored for corporate success because the mentor if male may fear accusations of harassment; women fear competition especially since there are fewer seats in the C suite for women than men.

8. Women have trouble with the notion that they are financially responsible for themselves (because it implies there is no Prince Charming and they will end up alone)  versus men assume they must be financially literate.

9. Women have trouble with self esteem and so do not demand what they rightfully deserve.

10. The CEO job is conceived of in a way that reflects old-fashioned stereotypes about work and the division of labor - most obviously that one person occupies the job rather than two partners. If CEOs had job-sharing, this would make it easier for women to aspire to the role without harming their ability to be caregivers as well as serious participants in committed romantic relationships.

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All opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo by thetaxhaven via Flickr. This post began as an answer to a question posted on Quora.com.

Personal v. Professional Communication In A Government Job - My Two Cents

The issue of personal vs. professional public communication comes up for me a lot. 

In the spirit of being helpful, here are some thoughts. I really put a lot of time into this one, and asked for feedback before sharing the below as well. I was concerned you'd read my own personal "cheat sheet" and think I was speaking for my agency. 

It's tricky, right? Because I am bound by policy like everyone else, but at the same time we all have to use common sense.

**Long way of saying, these thoughts are not necessarily truisms across the government at all, and are offered only as a way of participating in an ongoing dialogue across our individual organizations.**

I. Variables

1. Agency - explicit and implicit rules/culture; includes your relationship with your supervisor, with Public Affairs, with other internal stakeholders 

2. Role - communicator or technical subject matter expert, for example 

3. Media of choice - e.g. book, blog, newspaper column, Tweet 

4. Seniority

5. Visibility personally; visibility of program 

6. Whether you routinely deal with public-facing information or non-public facing information 

7. Types of topics you tend to communicate about - e.g., are they related to your job, are they explicitly about your job, are you an official communicator on behalf of your program, are they about the policy/management/budget of your agency, and so on

II. What I Do 

1. Public communication outside my job and outside the area of expertise for which I was hired - I don't consult with the agency but I do keep in mind that I'm a public servant and that my actions always reflect on the brand of the federal government as well as my agency.

2. If a reporter calls me on an unofficial basis, I call Public Affairs. 

3.   If I produce content where I'm offering expertise about government communication specifically, I ask Public Affairs/my boss to review it before posting. Review doesn't mean approval, it means giving them a chance to react. Sometimes I miss things that can be misinterpreted.

4. If I produce a substantive piece (e.g. a blog, brochure, video) about my program or the policy/management/budget of my agency, Public Affairs/my boss have input and can disapprove it.

5. I direct reporters straight to Public Affairs for official media interviews rather than taking the call and then serving as an intermediary.

III. Things I Keep In Mind

1.  Public Affairs is busy

2.  Beware of broad, general, strong, declarative statements that lack substantiation 

3. Thoughtful, substantive, nuanced communication is vastly better, but too technical or complex and you lose your audience 

4.  Content tends to be better when it's "fresh" and "stream of consciousness" but feedback also tends to help 

5. IF YOU GET THAT BAD FEELING IN THE PIT OF YOUR STOMACH, DON'T DO IT!

IV. Other

1. I use a strong disclaimer that incorporates a statement like "I don't represent my agency or the federal government as a whole." This can seem like overkill until you hear from people who literally tell you that they think you're speaking for the government when you're totally not.

2. In personal communication, I don't name my agency in the disclaimer because that just draws more attention to the agency, and my goal is to keep the distinction intact.

3. You are entitled to be human and unique and everybody understands that some social media environments are more informal, like Facebook. But also remember that the higher your position in the organization, the more likely that your opinions may be interpreted as your agency's opinions, even with a disclaimer.

4. Be especially cautious when it comes to the Hatch Act. 

5. Remember that posts to professional listservs are a form of public communication. You see it as an email, but a thousand people just got that rant.

- Dannielle Blumenthal

P.S. This is one of those posts where I want to reinforce that this is a post based on my own experience; others' experiences and the expectations placed on them will vary widely, even within the same agency; any opinions expressed are my own; and of course my personal thoughts don't reflect those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo via Wikimedia.


20 Lessons Learned From Great Federal Government Managers

It occurs to me that I shouldn't be giving away all my secrets.

But I am betting that a rising tide lifts all ships. So that my doing so will show I am a valuable asset by being selfless and helpful.

That's lesson 1. Here are the rest:

2. Travel with a posse. It makes you look important.

3. Delegate. Repeat that a hundred times.

4. Help people - give them credit - promote them - and maintain good relationships for life.

5. Ask for help. This is not the same as delegating. Find resources.

6. Overcommunicate, and collaborate genuinely.

7. Work around red tape. Do not fight it.

8. Be quietly effective most of the time, but know when to be loud.

9. Don't make enemies if you can help it.

10. Be nice to everyone, no matter what.

11. Don't take it personally.

12. Understand when something is a lost cause. Walk away.

13. Remember what's really important and go home on time.

14. Also remember it's all a game.

15. Be passionate about excellence. That's not just a line.

16. Have a clear competitor in mind. This is not the same thing as an enemy.

17. Learn one skill from everyone you meet.

18. Understand how truly ignorant you are.

19. Stay out of things that are not your business.

20. Be humble and grateful, but don't pass up a chance to shine.

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All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo by Heng Fu Ming via Flickr.

"What's Your Leadership Style?" "Basically Immature"


Once in a job interview a senior executive leaned forward, and asked THE question.

"So tell me, Dannielle...what would you say is your leadership style?"

I looked at her. I looked at the group. I couldn't take how serious they were. I mean for goodness sake, we weren't negotiating Middle East peace here.

"Basically immature," I answered and then started laughing.

My husband said later, "I can't talk to you about this. I can't believe it."

He just couldn't believe it. It's true. "You threw the interview. Why?"

"I was just being honest," I said.

My daughter said, "I love it."

"You didn't want it," said my husband.

True, they all blinked when I said that. It was all of them. At least that's what it felt like. A big collective blink.

"You really are a seven-year-old. I don't get it," my husband said.

"Instant gratification. That is you."

But it was the truth.

I believe in total immaturity if you're going to lead people.

I believe in Peter Pan.

In appealing to their most basic, childlike desires.

To their sense of awe, of wonder, of curiosity.

I believe that work is fun. It's supposed to be fun. 

If it's not fun then why are you here? Why are you alive?

It is not a sin to be happy. It's what we're made for.

Happiness is a sign that you're on the right track. And sadness means you've embarked on the wrong one.

Never be afraid to cry like a baby, or to laugh like a seven-year-old. 

Your feelings should be trusted. Balanced with logic, they'll never lead you astray.

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All opinions my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government. Photo via Wikipedia.








The Tragedy of Gitty and Shulem Deen (Reading "All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir")

It is impossible to read All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir.

It is impossible. You want to turn away like it's a bad dream, but it's not a bad dream.

It is a recount that feels so close to the truth it hurts.

Because you were Shulem Deen, once.

The child of parents who believed, but didn't quite belong.

Awed by the light, but a questioner.

Told, early on, that you were rebellious and an evil child.

"All of the questions have already been answered," they reminded Shulem and you, too. "You're not supposed to really ask, not really."

You knew better, because your parents and grandparents are the real thing, that is to say you come from a line of holy and great and pure rabbis stretching centuries and centuries back.

You were Shulem Deen, except Shulem got hit so hard, physically and mentally, that he left all of it. Had no belief left in the system at all.

You were Gitty, too.

Dutiful and convinced in the rightness of the system - somewhere, somehow it must be right.

Believing in your special role because you are a female.

Women are potentially murderers of holiness, the rabbis say and you always believed it. Unless submissive, immoral and tempting a man astray.

That's what they call a man who goes to such a woman - the same thing they call a heretic - one who goes and does not come back.

You were lucky enough not to really be Shulem, or Gitty either.

Your parents believed that keeping minds from sunlight turns fingers to gnarled claws.

That shoving healthy bodies into closed boxes bends their spines irretrievably.

So you were groomed for a secular life as much as for a religious one.

And when you sat for your dissertation, your parents sat there, whistling.

You were one of the lucky ones. But Shulem and Gitty were not so fortunate.

Had they been given the freedom to be secular, maybe then they'd still be married.

Maybe they would be able to hold hands, sit on the porch and watch the sun go down together.

Not trade visits with the kids. Not have to think about the whole community they come from. Watching every moment of their lives, weighing in on every moment and move.

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All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.



Your holy books & my holy books

I was in synagogue yesterday and got upset at one line of the prayer.

It's in "Aleinu," a hymn of praise I have always loved. The tune of it is so beautiful. The content is a call to action, to recognize the oneness and all-encompassing power of G-d.

But this line of the prayer -- not universally adopted -- takes a swipe at other religions. Says that they "bow down to nothingness."

I hate that line and the mindset of whoever wrote it.

Recently I heard a Muslim invoke "the Prophet, Blessed Be His Name." 

The reverence with which those words were spoken was palpable. And if I had occasion to protect a Qur'an, I would do so. Just as I would want someone else to protect a Torah.

Not because it's my belief. But because all symbols of spirituality are holy.

In synagogue I reflected that there are thousands of pages of prayer to say. But no human being can say all of them.

The holiness comes from the energy that we invest in saying whatever few. 

What G-d wants from us is to partner in sincerity. Not to lord power over us (pardon the pun) like an egotistical arrogant king. 

That way of thinking is a result of limited human understanding.

Today is a Christian holiday, Easter, and I feel myself aware of that. I feel respectful to my friends and colleagues who observe it. 

More than that...I feel extraordinarily grateful for the gifts that Christianity has brought to the world.

From Islam I learn about rigor, devotion and humility.

From Christianity I learn about forgiveness and faith.

From my own religion I learn...well pretty much all of the above, and more. It shapes who I am all the time.

We ought to treat the Torah, the New Testament, the Qur'an, and all other Scriptures with reverence.

We ought to open multi-cultural centers of faith. That include a home base for people who don't believe in organized religion, or any religion at all.

Hundreds of classes, thousands of sermons, millions of prayer groups, billions of meditation "moments" a year.

A presence online and offline.

A place for all people, all over the world.

What G-d wants, I truly believe, is for people to get together and take care of each other. Preferably with awe and reverence and respect - for the uniting force that created and re-creates us every second.

Putting other faiths down is wrong. No matter who does it and no matter what the reason.

We owe it to ourselves to strengthen one another in faith. And to understand that diversity is not about being religion-blind. 

Rather, diversity is about celebrating the full and complex identity that each and every person brings to the table.

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Disclaimer: All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. 



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