There’s a lot of talk about Wall Street these days. Once upon a time I worked on Wall Street. Actually I worked in private equity, which means that I invested (other people’s money) in businesses hoping to grow them. Together with my partners, I did really some good things back in those days: I invested in businesses that grew and added to the GNP. I invested in businesses that grew and provided more jobs for people. I invested in businesses that made money for pension fund investors so that they could pay pensions to their participants.
Of course not every business was successful and prospered, but even in the case of the less successful ones, our investments provided hope and opportunity, they challenged people to do their best and be their most creative, and they fostered new approaches. Sure, everyone in the money business keeps score in “returns” and dollars, but so much more happens along the way.
And then one day, I left the world of private equity to do different kinds of really good things, things of a Jewish variety. Here’s why.
After many years living a completely unengaged Jewish life, almost by fluke (or God’s beneficence, depending on how you look at the world) I found myself one High Holiday in a certain synagogue listening to a certain sermon. That sermon brought tears to my eyes; it made me realize that I was so busy with my career and my family that I had stopped finding time to pause and reflect on the bigger picture, on things beyond my narrow world. That sermon inspired me to learn more about my religion, to do some “due diligence” of the kind I was used to doing in private equity, in order to find out what Judaism might provide.
My due diligence took me all the way to rabbinical school at JTS. Even as a rabbi today I continue to dig and explore, because our tradition is that complex, that rich, that provocative and that fulfilling. And sadly it’s one of the best-kept secrets around.
I was lucky to have stumbled into that synagogue that day. If I hadn’t my life would be totally different. As a community we can’t rely on that kind of luck. The good news is that there are ever more people and organizations trying exploring new ways to engage people in different Jewish avenues. The bad news is we are still barely scratching the surface of finding people like me.
People, even — and especially — those with fulfilling careers and families, are seeking ways to find meaning, connection and community. They want a place that allows them to engage in issues beyond their narrow world. Many have just never figured out the where or the how. Judaism is spectacular at doing just that. But to reach many of these people it has to be delivered in ways that inspire, that are inclusive, that don’t judge, that are accessible, and that are relevant to their lives. It has to be delivered in a ways that make it easy for people to enter: in places that are convenient and non-threatening, like people’s kitchen tables or living room couches. It has to be delivered in ways that are sensitive to language and assumptions about what “everyone” knows lest we make people feel stupid, incompetent and like outsiders.
I know all this not only from my own life experience, but also from my engagement with others in the work I do. I also know how deeply grateful people are when their lives are enriched and their connections to community and to the world are deepened by the gift that can be the Jewish tradition.
My old bottom line used to be measured in multiples of investment dollars and rates of return. The returns on my new bottom line are incalculable.
Rabbi Lori Koffman is founder and director of Mamash, (http://mamash.org/) an organization that engages Jews in the intersection of daily life and Jewish thought and tradition.