What’s in a Relationship?
This blog was posted earlier today on Tzeh U’llimad : A Blog of Continuing Jewish Learning of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Summer is here! It’s that time of year we send our children and congregants off to summer camp or pack our own bags to spend time on faculty at one of our URJ summer camps. The summer camp experience is one in which – young or old – we have the potential to build deep and lasting relationships with peers and mentors. Much like our youth, I find myself counting the days till our return to URJ Camp Newman, an invaluable time for connection, reflection and fun with dear friends and colleagues.
“Relationships” is a buzzword in the Jewish world right now. We are asking questions. How do we build relationships? What does a community founded on deep relationships look like? What role do relationships play in strengthening one’s connection to Judaism?
The quintessential Jewish model of a meaningful, one could even say sacred, relationship is Martin Buber’s model of the “I-Thou” relationship, when we accept another person for who s/he is. We see the person as a whole being. Buber differentiates this from the “I-It” relationship in which we perceive another person as an object to be either manipulated or used for our own self-gratification.
There are a growing number of books that address these questions about relationships. In recent months I have expanded my Kindle and paper libraries with variety of disciplinary approaches to these questions about relationships. So, in between other more causal summer reads, I might suggest you dip into some of these as well:
- Community: The Structure of Belonging (Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008) – A look at what it takes to build a community in which people feel a sense of ownership and investment in its well-being.
- The Courage to Teach (Parker Palmer, Jossey-Bass, 1998) – From the educator’s perspective, a challenge to look inward and realize what we bring to our relationships with our students and constituents.
- MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend (Rachel Bertsche, Ballantine Books, 2011) – A humorous look at what it means to be a “best friend” and how we build friendships.
- Never Eat Alone – And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time (Keith Ferrazzi. Doubleday, 2005) – From the ultimate business schmoozer-networker-connector perspective, this book provides insight into how we can use relationships to create win-win situations for everyone.
- Relationships Unfiltered (Andrew Root, Zondervan, 2009) – A Christian youth ministry book about how we create authentic relationships with our youth in a religious/spiritual context
Each of these authors addresses the same question: What are we trying to accomplish, if anything, in our relationships? Whether it is our own relationships or those we are trying to help our youth and congregants build, we need to be sure we are clear on our answer to this question.
Often times, as seen in “I-It” relationships, we are trying to influence someone to act, believe, or behave, as we would like them to. Come to this youth group event. Go to religious school. Do this mitzvah. Why? Because everyone else is going. Because I said so. Because it’s our tradition. Rather than a goal of influence, Andrew Root shifts the paradigm back to Buber, suggesting that our relationships should be based on the goal of simply being present. In a true “I-Thou” relationship, we are present with each other, to see each other for who we are, accept each other for who we are, support and accompany each other on our journeys. Root writes, “the fullness of a person (her dreams, joys, pains, fears)” should be more important to us than “her ability to know, admit, believe, and commit.”
In an almost opposite approach, Keith Ferrazzi, a marketing and sales consultant, teaches that “relationships are like muscles – the more you work them, the stronger they become.” Much of his self-help approach to success through networking focuses how relationships can open doors, create opportunities, and lead to greater influence on others. He takes the position that people are loyal to their peers, their networks and those with whom they have relationships. It makes me wonder, though, how could we do a better job of building relationships in our communities so that we build stronger more lasting allegiances and connections to Reform Judaism and Jewish community?
Parker Palmer, from his Quaker background, reminds us that relationships have a sacred quality to them. That which makes the Jewish relationship sacred is the presence of God, Torah and Judaism. When we build Jewish relationships of meaning, Judaism and all that is part of it, is in the middle. Palmer reminds us of verses from Robert Frost: “We dance round a ring and suppose,/ But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” In response to this couplet, Palmer invites us to consider that when we bring that Secret – in our case Judaism – into the center of our relationships, we can have conversations with Judaism and with each other that helps us each find meaning and answers that bring us wholeness.
My family and I will be back at URJ Camp Newman in just days. While there with friends and colleagues, while interacting with young Jews eager to learn, grow and connect, I will carry the challenge of strengthening our relationship with each other. While sometimes we might be circled around a campfire, a guitar and a siddur, or a bottle of Napa Valley p’ri hagafen, each moment will be made sacred with God’s presence.