Family, Work and the Work Family

The ground we stand on feels so shaky and unsure these days.  Some call us to return to the past.  Others push to a new future.  In a way, I think they’re both right.

Jen, Jack and I had the privilege and pleasure of sharing a Shabbos dinner with our Orthodox Jewish friends, the Torgows.  Talk about looking back.  In their ancient tradition, Shabbos or Shabbat (or the Sabbath, to Christians) is a centuries-old ritual, and they live it in just that way.  For 24 hours beginning on sundown Friday, there’s no cars, cell phones, TV, VCRs, X-Box, PDAs, you get it.  Instead, they remember G-d who did some awesome work before He rested on the seventh day.  And they savor – or kvell in – the gift of family.  The supper-service began with a beautiful prayer of tribute to the women of the family.  At another point the fathers stood and blessed each of their sons, with a Hebrew blessing the dads read while pressing their lips to their son’s heads.  Five baby-to-toddler grandchildren were passed about, or padded around, throughout the meal.  Jennifer and I reflected on our way home how this central experience of Shabbat in the Torgow family combines with the technology black-out to produce a highly counter-cultural experience: Their adult children tend to stay near home.  Three of the four adult Torgow children wheeled their children home that evening in strollers.  While many of us celebrated our Thanksgiving weekend as a once-a-year family gathering, bookended by snarling air and road traffic; these folks experience the family gathering every week.

In our worlds in which we’re too busy to eat together, technology invades every last minute, and “successful” families see their children cast to the winds, the Orthodox Jews have rituals that center them and build families of enviable closeness and support.

On the other end of the spectrum, great modern businesses also celebrate family. Some just invite family in.  You can bring your daughters and sons to work – even if once a year – or visit them in the onsite daycare facility to humanize the work place (Google and others allow the family members of the pet kingdom in, too).  Some great workplace democracies like Ann Arbor’s Menlo Innovations (see a bunch of such cool companies at encourage young moms to have their babies right there in their open workplace, and some force their workers to go home after 8 hours and to leave work at work.  Great businesses also create “family” among co-workers.  They beckon us into a world where work can be profoundly meaningful – not just because of what we do but also because of how and with whom we do it.  We are blessed in my wife’s administration to have built a community of people dedicated to making Michigan a better place and making their co-workers better people.  We hope in another year we will find places of such deep purpose, shared values, and kinship.  And we should thank the awesome business people who go to bed at night – especially in this great recession – thinking not just about how they will feed their own families, but how they will keep people employed and able to support theirs.

As we return from a weekend – a Shabbat or a Thanksgiving – we ought to fight the urge to depersonalize our work spaces and our fellow workers.  Whether you’re going back to centuries-old established traditions, or building new ones for a new culture, don’t lose sight of the great people about you and of the power of community,

As you lead with your best self,