From left: Sara Singer Schiff, show guest Laurie Cousins, Morgan Simpson and Melissa Brohner-Schneider. Photo courtesy of The Other F Word Podcast.

If at first you don’t succeed, do a podcast about it

In the spring of 2016, Sara Singer Schiff and Bipasha Shom applied to a program sponsored by National Public Radio that offered to teach participants how to produce a podcast. The two looked forward to visiting NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., and learning from the best.

They never made it. NPR turned them down.

Looking back on it, that rejection may have been the perfect preparation for the podcast they went ahead and made anyway: “The Other F Word: Conversations About Failure.”

The hosts of the podcast, which debuted in October, are Schiff, 45, a full-time mom with a background in television distribution; Melissa Brohner-Schneider, 48, a marriage and family therapist; and Morgan Simpson, 42, a filmmaker and actor. Shom, 48, a film editor, produces the show.

Why did they think they could have success with failure?

“Failure right now is kind of trendy,” Shom said. “It’s in the zeitgeist. And there are so many angles to it. Talking about failure can really make people feel uncomfortable. But unless we all share our stories, we’re under the misguided impression that we’re suffering alone. Ultimately, we’d like people to know that failure is something that’s not just a part of life but in many ways essential to growing and learning as a human being.”

Schiff was responsible for bringing everyone together. She knew Shom and Simpson through schools their kids attended, and she met Brohner-Schneider when their kids were on the same soccer team. 

“It was like a blind date,” said Brohner-Schneider, whose family worships at Nachshon Minyan in Encino. But they “immediately jelled,” said Schiff, who calls her family “Reform cultural Jews.” Simpson is Episcopalian and Shom is not religious.

Because the foursome knew they would be asking others to open up about their personal failures, they figured they should start by sharing their own struggles. So, for the debut episode — recorded in the kitchen of Schiff’s Studio City home, like most episodes — they took turns talking about their own failures.

Simpson discussed the film he poured so much time and energy into, only to have it fizzle, with one “scathing” review seemingly overpowering several good ones.

Brohner-Schneider recalled attending seven colleges and universities before earning her undergraduate degree.

Schiff revealed the shame she felt in getting diverted from her professional goals and the fear she now has pursuing her dream career of journalism in her mid-40s.

And Shom, who prefers her usual role behind the scenes, shared her story of starting a children’s clothing line that struggled with sales and then collapsed when a bogus sales rep she hired stole her products and disappeared.

Listening to the podcast is like hanging with a group of friends who tell their stories with honesty and humor. This same openness is what the four hosts look for when booking guests.

“We want guests who have self-awareness, insight and are comfortable … showing vulnerability,” Brohner-Schneider said.

Some guests are regular folks talking about their struggles, like couple Jenn and Eddie Gonzalez, who discussed infertility and their eventual decision to adopt.

Other guests are experts in their fields, such as Nina Savelle-Rocklin, author of “Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders,” who spoke about the inevitability of diets failing and making peace with food.

And because this is Los Angeles and “The Other F Word” crew has entertainment industry connections, quite a few guests have come from that world, including actors Jon Cryer, Greg Grunberg, Tony Hale and Sharon Stone. Television writer Elizabeth Craft talked about her fear of being fired and how she overcame it. Tom Kenny, the voice of cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants, recalled coming close to a job on “Saturday Night Live” many years back and how, in retrospect, it might have been for the best that he didn’t land it.

For now, the podcast is a labor of love, albeit one that has grown a nice little audience. The 5-month-old show is getting around 20,000 downloads a month and has reached a popularity ranking as high as No. 4 in the self-help category on iTunes.

“I feel like people, probably because of the work I do, are busting at the seams — not only to talk about [failure] but to hear other people talk about it,” Brohner-Schneider said.

Still, after some awkward exchanges early on, she and her colleagues quickly learned to be strategic in how they approach potential guests.

“I’ve learned to reframe it,” Brohner-Schneider said. “Like, ‘Because you’re so successful, along the way we figured you’ve encountered some failure. And maybe you can talk about it to inspire others.’”

On Conservative Judaism, why all the talk about failure?

“In the United States, ‘Conservative Judaism’ is a synonym for failure.” So writes the Israeli journalist Yair Ettinger after interviewing a spectrum of American Jewish religious leaders. If, as it seems, this judgment has become the new conventional wisdom, we reject it as both inaccurate and destructive.

The rationale for such a gross generalization lies in the decline in numbers of Jews who identify with the Conservative label. In the decades after World War II, and as recently as 1990, the plurality of American Jews self-identified as Conservative. More recently, the Pew Research Center found that by 2013, the Conservative proportion had fallen to 18 percent. That quantitative loss has resulted in a shrinking population of synagogue members, fewer students enrolled in Solomon Schechter day schools — though not in Ramah summer camps — and more limited financial resources for the Conservative movement.

Shorn of any context, these trends seem to point to failure. But a more thoughtful approach might first ask: as compared to what?

True, the declines in Conservative identification are noteworthy relative to surging haredi Orthodox populations and the growing modern Orthodox numbers. But those are standards that no non-Orthodox group has matched. So the more pertinent question is: How do Conservative Jews stack up against the other non-Orthodox populations?

We might begin with “market share.” According to the Pew study, Conservative Jews comprise 20 percent of non-Orthodox Jews 45-59 years old and no less (20 percent) among those aged 30-44. In other words, the Conservative proportion of the non-Orthodox Jewish population is holding steady.

By comparison, 47 percent of non-Orthodox Jews 45-59 identify as Reform, but among their counterparts 30-44, the Reform share drops to 30 percent (with the no-denomination Jews picking up the slack).

What’s more, Conservative Jews have higher birthrates than Reform and non-denominationally identified Jews. Their intermarriage rate is far lower than for other non-Orthodox Jews. For those marrying since 2000, 39 percent of Conservative-raised Jews married non-Jews, as compared to roughly 80 percent for those raised as Reform or nondenominational. Conservative Jews are far more likely to enroll their children in more intensive forms of Jewish schooling and summer camping than other non-Orthodox Jews.

Among members of Conservative and Reform synagogues, large gaps open between them when they are asked about their attachment to Israel, attendance at Shabbat services, involvement with Jewish organizations and the importance of being Jewish in their lives. On all of these and other measures of Jewish involvement, Conservative congregants are far more engaged than their Reform counterparts.

The positive effects of a Conservative Jewish upbringing are most dramatically evident in the 30-44 category. In comparing Conservative-raised with Reform-raised individuals in this age group, we find that the former are far more likely to fast on Yom Kippur; twice as likely to belong to a synagogue and to feel that being Jewish is very important to them; three times as likely to send their children to day school; four times as likely to light Shabbat candles usually; and five times as likely to maintain what they regard as a kosher home.

Why, then, all the damning talk about failure? As the movement in the center, Conservative Judaism has taken fire from groups to its right and to its left since its founding.

Today, some in the centrist Orthodox world are campaigning to stamp out more open-minded approaches to modern Orthodoxy and find it convenient to belittle their foes either as crypto-Conservative Jews or as going down the same “failed” path as the Conservative movement. To the left, it has long been convenient to create the illusion that the Jewish population divides into merely two camps — between the Orthodox and everyone else supposedly marching under a so-called religiously “liberal” banner. The dichotomous language of “Orthodox” and “liberal” blurs very real distinctions in Jewish commitments and outcomes among Conservative, Reform and nondenominational Jews.

If we seek to strengthen American Jewish life, it makes no sense to demean and dismiss a movement with a proven track record of producing and retaining more highly engaged Jews than any other in the non-Orthodox world. And if the goal is to rebuild what we term “the Jewish middle” as a necessary step to reinvigorating Jewish life outside of Orthodoxy, bashing Conservative Judaism is self-defeating.

Wouldn’t the more responsible approach for those who profess to care about the vitality of American Jewry be to help the Conservative movement — even to praise it — so that it can continue to produce, mobilize and serve committed Jews?

(Jack Wertheimer is a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Steven Bayme has been a visiting professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Steven M. Cohen is a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at Stanford University.)

Ehud Olmert era comes to ignominious end

(JTA) – A day after Ehud Olmert formally submitted his resignation as prime minister, Israeli President Shimon Peres officially tapped his Kadima Party successor, Tzipi Livni, to form a new government.

Livni now has 42 days to put together a coalition government. Though Olmert still heads the interim government until Livni is sworn in, Sunday’s resignation effectively spelled the end of the Olmert era.

Before meeting with Peres on Sunday evening, Olmert informed his Cabinet of his intention to resign.

“I must say that this was not an easy or simple decision,” Olmert said. “I think that I have acted properly and responsibly, as I promised the Israeli public from the beginning.”

Olmert congratulated Livni and said he would help her form a coalition government, and the two shook hands.

It was an ignominious end to a premiership marked by multiple corruption scandals, a failed war in Lebanon and unfinished business on the Palestinian, Syrian and Iranian fronts.

At first an accidental prime minister following Ariel Sharon’s crippling stroke in early 2006, Olmert won his first election as Kadima leader a couple of months later under the banner of maintaining the path of unilateral disengagement Sharon had begun. Olmert would do in the West Bank what Sharon had done in Gaza: unilaterally extricate Israel from its adversaries, even if those adversaries were unready or unwilling to make peace.

But the shortcomings of Israel’s unilateral approach became evident early on in his premiership. The 2006 summer war with Hezbollah exposed the deficiencies of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000 under Ehud Barak, and the increasing rockets attacks from Gaza and Hamas’ takeover of the strip in June 2007 exposed the limitations of Sharon’s pullout.

The violence shattered Olmert’s plans for unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank.

Olmert adjusted his approach, but his responses to Israel’s challenges were seen as inadequate. The prime minister’s approval ratings plummeted as each crisis seemed to be shadowed by one corruption scandal or another.

After Hezbollah launched a cross-border raid in July 2006, the Olmert government launched a war to recover the two soldiers taken captive in the raid and neutralize the threat to Israel from Hezbollah. But the war failed to recover the soldiers or deliver a mortal blow to the Shi’ite terrorist group in Lebanon.

Rather, Hezbollah rallied as a political force in Lebanon after the war and became a veto-wielding presence in the Lebanon Cabinet. Hezbollah also rebuilt its forces and missile arsenal to three times its prewar size, according to Israeli estimates.

In Gaza, Olmert watched as Hamas routed the more moderate Fatah faction from power and took over the strip in June 2006. Hamas kept up daily barrages of Kassam rockets into southern Israel, and the Israeli army was unable to impose quiet.

Unwilling to risk the same approach in Gaza that had failed in 2006 in Lebanon, Olmert held off on ordering a major invasion of the strip.

The need to isolate Hezbollah, Hamas and especially their backer, Iran, drove Olmert to push harder for peace. It led to the re-launching last year of peace talks with the Palestinians at Annapolis, Md., and to this year’s renewed talks with Syria under Turkish auspices, but Olmert ended his abbreviated term with those major policy initiatives unfinished.

Now it will be up to Livni, who led the Olmert administration’s talks with the Palestinians, to see the process through—assuming she succeeds in assembling a governing coalition.

Israel’s next prime minister also will inherit an unsolved Iranian problem. Iran’s suspected march toward nuclear weapons has been Israel’s central foreign preoccupation during Olmert’s term, but Olmert did not manage to rally sufficient international pressure on the Islamic Republic to bring its uranium enrichment activities to a halt.

Throughout his 2 1/2-year term, Olmert was dogged by corruption allegations that cast a shadow over nearly everything he did.

Even his decision to re-launch the indirect peace talks with Syria and sign a cease-fire deal with Hamas in Gaza in June—finally bringing quiet to southern Israel, with the exception of the occasional violation—were viewed with suspicion by some who derided the moves as ploys to ensure his political survival.

The major corruption scandal that erupted in May, in which American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky said he gave Olmert $150,000 in cash over the course of the decade and a half before Olmert became prime minister, crippled Olmert’s ability to govern.

Calls for his resignation accelerated several weeks later with the revelation by police that Olmert was suspected of double-billing overseas trips to various Jewish charities.

Though he always denied any wrongdoing, Olmert acknowledged at the end of July that it had become impossible for him to continue as prime minister, and he announced that he would resign as soon as his party, Kadima, chose a new leader in September.

After Olmert handed his resignation letter to Peres on Sunday, the president offered a few solemn words.

“This is not an easy decision, and I am convinced that this is a difficult evening for him,” Peres said. “I wish to take this opportunity to thank the prime minister for his service to the people and the state over the course of many years of public activities—as the mayor of Jerusalem, as a minister in the government and as the prime minister of Israel.”

Ron Kampeas in Washington and Marcy Oster in Israel contributed to this report.

Making the Grade

A story is told of a man who came to his rabbi complaining of depression. His life lately seemed like an endless string of failures, disappointments and missed opportunities. Why, he asked, had God condemned him to live such a frustrating existence? The rabbi listened carefully and after some moments of contemplation, he asked the man to reach behind him and remove a large volume from the bookshelf. Assuming this was some tome of ancient spiritual wisdom, the man reached for the volume. He was surprised to notice that his volume was no tractate of Talmud, but an almanac of sports statistics. Read page 543 aloud, the rabbi instructed. And the man began reading the life-time batting averages of baseball’s greatest hitters: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams. Not one of them more than .400! the rabbi observed. That means more than six in ten times, the greatest of the great struck out, popped up or flied out. More than six in ten times, they failed. Are you better than they were? Why do you expect more of yourself than they did?

Jewish kids all have to get A’s. It’s a fact. They’re all above average. But what happens when they don’t excel? What happens when they fail? “You’re not working up to your potential,” a teacher once told me. And I suffered. It was only years later that I realized that no one really “works up to their potential.” Such a demand is limitless. Such a requirement can never be satisfied. Like the horizon, one’s “potential” is never meant to be reached. If you’re “working up to your potential” it’s only because your potential was defined too low. My teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis once observed that we Jews practice a particularly cruel form of child abuse. It’s called “disappointment.”

Is there room within the Jewish family for failure? Is there love and forgiveness for the child who tries and can’t succeed?

I’m told of a young engineer at a giant technology company who made an error in calculations and an entire product-line went down in flames. Called in to the chairman’s office, he was fully prepared to tender his resignation and accept a biting castigation. Resign? asked the astonished chairman, I can’t let you resign! I’ve just spent $120 million dollars educating you!

If it doesn’t break us, failure can be life’s greatest teacher. What can we learn from failure? That we can start again. That we can ask for help. That we can be forgiven. What does failure teach? That we are limited, finite, fallible, vulnerable, but still worthy of love.

I worry about children who are told they must get every answer correct. I worry about kids told there’s no room for second-best. I worry about kids constantly measured, evaluated, tested and graded. Surely there’s more at stake in education than admission to the next school, the marks on the next report card, the scores on the next exam. If we demand success each time, if we leave no room for failure, our children’s dreams will shrink to fit their certainties. They will play it safe and never try too hard, never reach too far, never put too much of themselves into any pursuit. It is entirely possible to exalt the mind while crushing the soul.

Those who dream big, fail big. Einstein spent a lifetime looking for a theory that doesn’t exist. Babe Ruth holds a record for most strike outs. Columbus never did make it to India. And Moses never made it to the Promised Land. Imagine that, the entire Torah ends in failure: Moses never gets to see the fulfillment of his dream. Is he any less of a tzadik?

The weekly Torah portion recounts the deathbed blessings and instructions Jacob offered each of his sons. What’s remarkable is that they’re all present: the beloved Joseph, the mighty Judah, inept Reuven, tempestuous Simon and Levi. All have a place in the family. Abraham had but one blessing: Isaac was chosen, Ishmael was cast out. Isaac had but one blessing: Jacob was favored, Esau rejected. But Jacob finds words for each of his sons. Each belongs to him. And all remain children of Israel. Were we so wise.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Tangled Web

These are the weeks that we read of our heroes. The book of Genesis tells the stories of the faith and tenacity of the fathers and mothers of our nation for whom every day was another stride in the uncharted waters of living in covenant with God. It was their passionate determination to keep the vision of a righteous and holy people alive that ultimately produced the Jewish people. But it wasn’t always easy.

There were many times when it was hard to know where the right path lay. And as a result, there were decisions made and actions undertaken that, in retrospect, appear morally very troubling. Today’s parsha presents one of the marquee examples of this phenomenon. The Torah presents it to us in great detail, for successes and failures alike are our teachers.

By the standards of Jewish law, the deception of Isaac that was conceived by Rebecca and executed by Jacob, was flat out sinful. It was Isaac’s intention to bless Esau, and Rebecca and Jacob exploited Isaac’s blindness to steal from Esau what was intended to be his. The questions we are to ask ourselves are these: What are we, the inheritors of this purloined blessing, to make of these facts? What is it that the Torah intends to convey to us in so explicitly describing our father Jacob’s actions?

For the record, similar questions can be asked concerning a central episode in the parsha a couple of weeks ago. There, our mother Sara was determined to insure that only Isaac, and not Ishmael, would inherit the blessing of Abraham. The method she chose to obtain her goal was none too savory. She demanded that Ishmael and his mother Hagar be summarily evicted from the household. Abraham sent them out with only minimal provisions, and were it not for divine intervention on their behalf, they would have perished. What are we supposed to make of these events? What are they meant to tell us about ourselves, about our story, and about the aspiration to bearers of God’s blessing?

It is important to note that the rabbinic tradition does not whitewash either of these stories. Nachmanidies, for example, explicitly labels the actions taken against Ishmael to have been sinful, and proclaims that they are responsible for the enmity that exists between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael to this day (Nachmanidies lived in Spain in the 13th century). We can find similar candidness in the rabbinic tradition regarding Jacob’s actions. The Midrash portrays Leah as upbraiding her husband Jacob for his having deceived his father. It is clear that the stories are presented so that we can learn from the holy errors of our parents.

I’d suggest that the premise of the intended lesson is that Isaac and Jacob would have emerged as the fathers of Israel regardless of the machinations that they and their mothers performed. God had already chosen them, and regardless of the steps that Sara, Rebecca and Jacob would — or would not — have taken, this divine will would have been fulfilled.

These aren’t stories about how their selection came to be. Rather, they are stories about how easy it is for the aspiration for greatness to accidentally turn into the trampling underfoot of others. Sara, Rebecca and Jacob were completely committed to the vision that God spoke to Abraham. They wanted to “be a blessing” for the nations of the earth. They wanted to be the embodiment of God’s wishes for the betterment and growth of humankind. And when that aspiration seemed threatened by an Ishmael or an Esau, they acted forcefully and aggressively to counter that threat. At the time it probably seemed to them that this was the only way to go. We, their children who inherited their dream, are obliged to question their methods, and draw the lessons about the privilege and perils of being commanded to be great. It would have been irresponsible of the Torah to have presented the idea of our chosenness without also presenting for us the inherent dangers of this idea — dangers which if not minded, could undermine all that we strive to do.

I know that there are important segments of our Jewish community that are quite uncomfortable with the notions of chosenness, and of divine selection of Israel from among the nations. The idea that the Torah itself is sensitive to the complexities of the issue can, I believe, further enlighten and inform the lively and holy discussion over this issue.

Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi at B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles.