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Taking Out the Trash in Talpiot

Following best practice in leadership transitions, Dr. Hal M. Lewis spent some time away from the office while Dr. Dean P. Bell, Hal’s successor as Spertus Institute President and CEO, officially started his new role. Hal now continues with Spertus in a new role as Chancellor. Here he reflects on his time away.

I have just returned from six glorious weeks in Jerusalem, where I rented an apartment in Talpiot, in the southeastern section of the city. I planned the trip hoping to enhance my ability to circumnavigate the holy city, deepen my Hebrew skills through study at an Ulpan, and spend time with friends and colleagues. I did all that — and found each day to be deeply meaningful and satisfying.

That having been said, however, I must admit that the best part of the whole experience was — I kid you not — taking out the garbage. To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that my nightly outing to the dumpster was on par with mastering the nuances of Hebrew grammar, or that schlepping our household detritus could in any way rise to the level of exploring the history and geography of sacred territory. But the truth is that the simple act of taking out the trash in Talpiot proved to be an unexpectedly enlightening experience.

Each night after a day of learning and trekking in the blistering sun, I would descend the stairs from my rented apartment and for the next few minutes, venture into the cool of the Jerusalem evening for the walk to the trash receptacles. Hardly worth talking about you say? Well, think again. Over the course of more than 30 prior trips to Israel, I never stayed in an apartment I could call my own. This summer, no hotel doorman greeted me every morning as I began my day. No polished floors or golden bannisters wished me well as I headed out at night. Instead, I was treated to the uneven pavement of a 1950’s concrete-block apartment building in a working class neighborhood. Miniature Israeli flags, a mélange of half-exposed wires, air-conditioning units sitting precariously on jerry-rigged rusted shelving, and all manner of laundry hung indiscriminately from the building. On the ground beneath, coagulated along the perimeter of the gardens, was loose trash, perhaps destined for the bins at one point, but now an unpleasant reminder of how much more environmental progress is yet to be made in this otherwise sophisticated metropolis.

En route to the trash bins, I felt protected by the garden enclosure that doubled as home to the neighborhood bicycles — rusted out Schwinns with balloon tires from another century. These two-wheeled relics, small relief from the omnipresent horn blaring, spent the night secured with industrial-strength padlocks against a fence so flimsy that a child’s first scissors could easily cut it in two.

My evening sojourn to the rubbish room also offered the opportunity to meet the neighbors, beginning with the “Katzes.” That Jerusalem has long been home to untold numbers of stray felines is well known, and according to animal activists, an increasing problem. For me, however, whether stray or domestic, the cats served only to test my ability to respond calmly under pressure. I failed. You see, even though I knew they were there, their predictably unpredictable nightly jumps from the garden wall to the stone tile on which I stood never ceased to scare the whatsitz out of me.

I met other neighbors as well. Families returning from one of the local parks with children and soccer balls in tow. (No worries about Next Gen engagement in Israel.) Pensioners heading out for an evening stroll along the now paved Jerusalem-Jaffa railway tracks. And soldiers — looking younger than ever — arriving home on leave, lugging their stuff to mom and dad’s for a few day’s R&R.

And the flowers — always the flowers. Amid the artfully punctured garden tubulars unobtrusively hydrating the otherwise rock hard arid soil were the garden progeny — roses, Russian sage, eucalyptus, and more. By all reasonable accounts they should have been dead, murdered by the brutal summer heat. But instead they offered a vibrant and polychromatic escort on my way to the dumpster in the waning hours of the day.

Twentieth-century theologian Max Kadushin spoke of what he called, “normal mysticism.” In Judaism, said Kadushin, ordinary acts — eating, drinking, dressing, sexuality — are portals to the divine. Normal mysticism allows us to find godliness in the day-to-day activities of our lives. While I would not go so far as to suggest that taking out the trash in Talpiot was my ticket to the transcendent, I did learn a great deal from the experience. To restate the obvious, living in an apartment and hauling my daily garbage, even temporarily, is not the same as staying in a hotel, even for an extended period. While it didn’t make me a native or an expert, it did teach me some valuable things.

Seeing Israel from the perspective of someone with banal quotidian responsibilities gave me a tiny taste of an Israel I had never experienced, despite a lifetime of missions, fact-finding forays, and business trips in service of the Jewish people. In contrast to prior visits, what I did this summer was take out the trash. Who would have thought it would have been such an inspiring experience? 

Monday, August 27, 2018

Dr. Hal M. LewisAfter ten years as the CEO of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, Dr. Hal M. Lewis stepped down from the Presidency in June. He continues to serve Spertus in a new part-time role as Chancellor and as Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies. A prolific writer and popular teacher on leadership, Dr. Lewis has joined the Faculty of the Center For Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC. His new nonprofit leadership consulting practice, Leadership For Impact LLC serves the needs of nonprofit executives and their boards, with a focus on executive coaching, crisis management/turnarounds, working with boards, and succession planning. He can be reached at