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Making an Impact

Michal Eisikowitz

The Jewish People are perpetual dreamers. We see what should’ve been done, must be done, could be done. We wish for a holier, kinder, and more considerate world. But some folks out there don’t just think big — they act big. Their lamenting triggers transformative initiatives that effect profound change in their communities. As a new year approaches, Family First takes a look at some of the recent spiritual initiatives in our communities, running the ambit of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

stairs of clouds Advancing in Atlanta: the Building Blocks Program

In 2010, when Atlanta’s renowned Rabbi Ilan Feldman was tasked with creating a learning program to mark the 50th anniversary of his congregation’s building dedication, he saw it as the opportunity of a lifetime. “I asked myself: If I could present my dream of what an ideal Torah community would look like, what would I say?”

Rabbi Ilan and his wife, Rebbetzin Miriam, came up with eight critical muscles of Jewish life that demand constant stretching: avodah (tefillah), Shabbos, Klal Yisrael, marriage and relationships, Eretz Yisrael, children, holiness, and Torah. The “Building Blocks” program was born.

“Often, people think of leadership as the rabbinic authority saying what must be done and the flock following. This model can work, but in Atlanta, we’re trying to do something different. We want it to be the community that jumpstarts growth through candid discussion.”

For the four to five weeks allotted to each building block, the community is treated to a cornucopia of lectures, workshops, videos, conference calls, and self-exercises relating to the topic. Jumbo-sized posters hanging in the shul lobby announce the current building block and spotlight the subthemes.

“The purpose of our program is not to educate,” stresses Rabbi Feldman. “Instead, we build on concepts we already have. Our Shabbos building block, for example, wasn’t about learning how to peel a cucumber, crucial as that is; it was about learning to experience Shabbos as a joy, not as an unstructured day of setting, clearing, and washing dishes. ”

For each building block, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Feldman walk their congregants through three steps: a) what’s bothering you? b) that’s okay — that’s where the growth starts, and c) here’s a new framework to help you transcend it.

For example, for avodah, the first building block, the kickoff session had over 150 congregants articulating the personal challenges they face during tefillah: “It’s boring.” “It’s hard to stay focused for so long.” “It’s repetitive.” “It doesn’t address what I want to talk about.” (To name just a few.)

Rabbi and Rebbetzin Feldman then explained that the discomfort is being voiced by the body only — the soul is enjoying every minute!

Rabbi Feldman challenged his attendees to differentiate between corporeal enjoyment and spiritual pleasure. He gave them daily exercises, like putting one less teaspoon of sugar in their coffee, or setting their alarm clock one minute earlier, so that they could “hear” who’s complaining and learn to discern whether it’s the body or soul that’s talking.

One inspired program participant shared: “Once I understood it was only my body talking, it was easy to stop procrastinating bentsching. Letting the soul dominate became joyful.”

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