One day, Honi came across an old man planting a carob tree.
“Why do you bother planting that tree?” Honi asked, “It will take seventy years to bear fruit! You’ll never get to eat its fruit or rest in its shade!”
“Maybe I won’t,” answered the old man, “but my grandchildren and my great grandchildren will. My ancestors planted the trees around us for me, so I plant for those who will come after me.” (based on Talmud Ta’anit 23a)
This story of planting is particularly relevant this week as Jewish communities around the world celebrate Tu BiShvat. In Israel, Tu BiShvat is the time of year when sap begins to flow and the trees begin to bud as the winter draws to a close. Here in the United States, the trees still look bare, covered with snow and not yet showing signs of spring. Yet, we can anticipate what is to come. We look to a future that, unlike the old man’s carob tree, might be months away instead of years.
Organizational change is also slow, and it requires a vision of a distant future. This year at Rockdale Temple, my Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellowship has been community organizing. Rockdale Temple is determined to apply organizing principles in order to shift the culture to be a more relationship-driven congregation. In many ways, I have begun the planting of a tree that will not bloom until some time in the future.
In order for organizing to be successful, there has to be substantial commitment from many members of the team: the senior rabbi, lay leaders, other staff, and the organizer. The goal in this case is to uncover what drives congregants’ actions and what interests and concerns they have. Through a listening campaign led by the right lay leaders who have been equipped with the necessary skills and training, Rockdale Temple will eventually become a more welcoming, relational community. But first, the foundation must be set through extensive conversations.
In the words from a song written by children’s musicians Peter and Ellen Allard, “This lovely tree standing before us, planted by someone a long time ago. Someone with hope, a hope for tomorrow with a dream of the future right here in this tree.” Someone needs to plant the seedling, to establish the roots, in order for trees to grow in the future. As we do this work, it helps to adopt the attitude of the old man in the midrash, thankful for what was created for us and faithful that together we can create a fruitful future.
Leah Citrin is in her second year as the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at Rockdale Temple, working under Rabbi Sissy Coran.