By Kirstie Henry
With over 100 registrants, LiNK’s Belonging Conference welcomed the largest group of Jewish professionals and leaders since the pandemic began over two years ago. On April 24, participants gathered inside the Northland Workforce Training Center for a full day of learning which began with an activity challenging them to answer four writing prompts on sticky notes and attaching the notes to display boards. As Chair of the Conference Planning Team, I helped develop the prompts. Yet there I stood on Sunday afternoon, stumped by one of them: What can’t people see when they look at me? I wasn’t the only one who was challenged. Again and again, participants remarked, “This is hard.” And that’s how I knew the conference was off to a very good start.
Following some welcoming remarks, our Keynote Speaker, Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi, connected with participants through her heartfelt and inspiring story about her journey as an adult convert, right up through her ordination and her work with students at NYU’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life. Rabbi Nikki’s message entitled From Stranger to Rabbi to Strange Rabbi was sprinkled with plenty of hilarious anecdotes about her father, Bob, and about her family life with her wife and children, and her students at NYU while teaching us the key steps to create a culture of Belonging. These steps include: listening and eliciting stories, understanding “Intent versus Impact”, recognizing there is wisdom in the group (and lessons in who’s not with us), broadening our intake, knowing the difference between “us” vs “all”, and stretching ourselves to be brave and vulnerable.
After some table discussions about the keynote message, participants had their choice of workshops to attend. I selected Understanding Disabilities. Presenters Dr. Andrew Marcum and Sam Mattle shared their insight from lived experience, along with that of contributor Michelle Lawson, to teach us about self-advocacy and disability etiquette. My takeaway from this workshop was that self-advocacy skills can help people express themselves authentically, including those for whom self-advocacy involves communicating their needs and expressing themselves in other ways that may not be verbal.
We reconvened in the community room for a kosher dinner and a panelist discussion, which included a range of guests who work for non-Jewish organizations that have been successful in promoting Inclusion and Belonging principles. It was particularly encouraging to hear how the greater Buffalo community is working to promote Belonging and what we can learn from those organizations and the people who lead them. When Dr. Darren Brown-Hall, Superintendent of Williamsville Schools expressed the critical importance for students to feel like they can bring their “whole self” to school in order to thrive academically and socially, I knew the same principles apply for us here in Jewish Buffalo.
The conference continued for a second day on April 25 at Temple Beth Tzedek, which we selected for its outstanding and truly inspired accessibility design. After breakfast we gathered in the sanctuary to learn with Rabbi Nikki in her presentation: Pecking Our Way to Belonging, which explored a scenario in which a prince believed himself to be a rooster and was ultimately convinced that even as a rooster, he can dress, behave, and live like a Prince. This story was powerful in the way it challenged us to consider whether the rooster-prince should be made to feel like he has to change his appearance and behavior at all. Rabbi Nikki reminded us that we should seek to embrace individuals exactly as they are rather than inviting them to our spaces contingent on their agreement to conform to our expectations or preferences.
We also learned about the Power of Hello. Presenters Susan DeMari and Captain James McNamara from the Amherst Police Department shared tips and strategies for welcoming the stranger without compromising the safety of our community.
As the conference concluded, I reflected on the several months of preparation and planning. I am incredibly proud to have been part of such an amazing conference and I am particularly grateful for the generous financial support from the Weiss Family Philanthropic Fund and the Estate of Ruth Axelrod. I thought about Shelly Yellen, Federation’s President, and Brenda Feldstein, LiNK’s chair, who encouraged us and supported us every step of the way. I thought about my dear friend and professional partner Mike Steklof, who steered our planning team with great care and courage to put together such an awesome conference. In fact, all of the professional leaders at the Federation put their trust in us and stepped up to help when we needed them. I thought about the many meetings we had with Rabbi Nikki preparing for the conference and how many times she left me speechless and even brought me to tears with her personal reflections and Torah-based wisdom. And most of all, I thought about the exhaustive effort of the Belonging Conference Planning Team: Michelle Lawson, Jeff Clark, Lisa Davidson, Sharon Nosenchuck, Corey Auerbach, Marjorie Bryen, and Mark Horowitz. We were a group of strangers when we had our first meeting at my sukkah back in September. Today, we are friends with a shared experience and a commitment to finishing what we’ve started, each in our own ways. This conference was transformational.
I found the most profound learning often took place between the structured sessions of the conference. Networking and hearing stories from new friends and old friends, during breaks or discussion groups was so profound and meaningful. It made me think about a Torah scroll. When we think about the Torah, we usually see the letters—the black ink on the parchment. But the Talmud reminds us that every letter of the Torah must be surrounded by white space. The white space is as important as the black letters because, according to Jewish tradition, the white space was written with white fire by the hand of G-d. The white space is that hidden Torah that cannot be read in the usual way. It represents what we bring into the text—the letters of our lives, which we could never see if not for the black letters. So too, the Belonging Conference was two days of learning the black letters of the Torah, while truly experiencing the sublimity of the white letters and the limitless potential for bringing the Torah to life for each and every one of us in Jewish Buffalo.
Kirstie Henry is chair of Belonging at LiNK Jewish Buffalo and is the Courtroom Deputy Clerk to United States District Judge, Hon. John L. Sinatra, Jr.