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Aliza Kline: “Prioritize relationship building”

What if we got points for showing kindness? Little things: like holding the door for someone, letting someone who’s in a rush pull their car in front of you, allowing your sibling to take the last cookie, hosting Shabbat dinner for your close friends; too big things: working for more equitable education, opening our homes to foster children, volunteering our time, inviting strangers to your dinner table.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aliza Kline, Founding Executive Director of OneTable.

Aliza is a dynamic leader and social entrepreneur. Aliza was also the founding executive director of Mayyim Hayyim Community Mikveh and Education Center in Boston. In 2009, Aliza was awarded an Avi Chai Fellowship. A trained coach and design thinking facilitator, Aliza has worked with clients throughout North America and Israel. She earned her BA from Washington University in St. Louis and her MPA from New York University. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband Bradley Solmsen and their very smart and talented daughters Ela, Gila and Nomi.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Aliza! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I am a product of my family — my mother is an artist, my father is a scholar. To be more specific, my mother was a professional dancer and founder of the local dance theater in Colorado Springs, my father was a congregational rabbi — serving as a central leader in our city. They both led with passion and conviction, with distinct styles; my mom the entrepreneur and extrovert, my dad the teacher and introvert. Integrating ritual and art was a given; the more creative the better.

Our home was always busy, always loud, always full of people… dancers from NY, community members, other faith leaders… let alone my siblings’ friends from soccer, choir, youth group. Shabbat dinner was a time, albeit brief, when we all sat still, around the table, covered with a carefully ironed white tablecloth, fresh flowers, sweet wine and fresh challah. The ritual of coming together around the table grounded our family.

Seriously, just thinking about it slows my heart rate down. I am a physical, emotional type. I lead with my gut, informed by data and strategy to be sure, but my life’s work is dedicated to helping others live maximally. Our world moves fast and is a total mess, it’s easier to keep our heads down and work, or dive into our phones and just ignore the world around us. Yet, we are so much happier, more productive, wise and kind when we look others in the eye, engage in conversation and mark transitional moments with some form of ritual.

To be sure, my background is not common; I don’t expect others to adopt religious rituals as I have, but I do want them to have access to find, adapt and ultimately integrate ritual into their lives in a personally meaningful way. I’ve spent the last 20 years working on it.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

To be sure there are some amazing stories that happen every week across the country, like the person who is in recovery finding a Sober Shabbat in Atlanta and crying with relief, or the person hosting campaign workers for Shabbat in Iowa just before the Caucuses, or the person hosting Shabbat on Fire — creating a community for gay men on Fire Island in NY — or the incredible desert celebrations of Shabbat at Burning Man. But in truth, I am not at those dinners. They happen without me — which is the beauty.

A couple of months ago I received an invitation from Facebook — to come to Menlo Park and meet with a group of researchers about social cohesion and what Facebook could do to help rather than hurt people suffering from social isolation. Scholars included Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, the seminal work on loneliness in America, now in its 20th year. I was deeply curious to learn from others in that conference room — and also determined to share what we’ve learned while supporting 30,000 micro-communities — one Friday night dinner table at a time. I realized that OneTable is actually one of the larger-scale interventions and that we can inform the way tech giants are re-examining their own practices.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Before landing on the name OneTable, we tested a range of brand ideas. Shabbat begins at sunset — which is lovely and so relatable, it just makes you want to exhale. In fact when we scanned Instagram to look for references to #blessed or #calm or #happy (all emotions we wanted associated with our brand) the most common image was of sunsets. It seemed perfect. We generated a long list of sunset related names and then held focus groups in October. To our surprise, they HATED the names — they made them feel angry and stressed at worst and disappointed at the least. It turned out that the sun was already set when most left work on Friday evening and they felt like they’d missed out on Shabbat. I am pretty sure that if we had tested this idea in May we would have a totally different name and who knows, maybe a lot of surly users.

The lesson? 1) Don’t fall in love too fast with a particular idea (or name), 2) trust your users, and 3) don’t beat yourself up for trying and failing, it’s exhausting and you will need your energy to get back up and try again.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Millennials and Gen Z are the most stressed out and loneliest generations in the US. But we know they’re connecting via screens all day long. So, the question is: how might we empower them to create a weekly in-person community that engages them and lets them unplug with intention, and how might we use technology to make it even easier?

OneTable is designed to meet those exact needs. With the ritual of Shabbat, or the sabbath, which begins each week with Friday night dinner, complete with multi-sensory rituals around candlelight, intention setting, gratitude, wine and delicious, sweet bread. Done right, it’s the perfect antidote to social isolation, with deep ties to an ancient practice that ground us, freeing us from pulls of technology and distraction. Like Bloomberg Business wrote about us, “If there ever was a moment when Shabbat was poised to become the new yoga practice, it’s now.” Every Friday night provides an escape from the stress of the week and a reason to welcome friends and strangers into your home and connect.

OneTable is a nonprofit empowering Jewish young adults to build inclusive and diverse communities through their own authentic Shabbat practice. Like Airbnb, we take the technology they already know and leverage it to help them create and find dinners that are right for them. Events are posted and managed through our web platform and iOS app.

OneTable began in NYC in 2014 and has grown to 12 “hub” cities, with dinners in more than 400 US cities. We’re close to 150,000 participants at 30,000 dinners. We’ve seen the way Shabbat dinner is changing lives — it’s forming communities where there was absence, it’s healing people from the ills of the week and the world, it’s giving people a framework for caring for one another. It’s also granting permission for people to take ownership of ancient rituals and give it new resonance and relevance in their lives.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?

Here’s a favorite, Avigayil from Texas, moved to NYC and searched for a community where she could feel at home as a multiracial Jewish woman. We launched a national campaign, “#TogetherAtTheTable” following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Avigayil saw the campaign and reached out to tell me this:

“The first OneTable Shabbat dinner I went to was hosted by a guy named Joshua.

“I had seen OneTable but I had always been too nervous about going and feeling ‘alone.’ …My friends invited me to go with them to Joshua’s, and I immediately felt relieved when not only the host but another person looked like me… We spoke about the struggle of embracing our roots as Jews of Color but not quite always being accepted. It felt safe; even the other dinner guests were supportive.

“Without even knowing what I was going to, I was able to experience what OneTable is all about. For me, it was a perfect environment.”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Prioritize relationship building
  2. Facilitate intimate gatherings
  3. Fund the big existing ideas that allow individual citizens to be change-makers

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is recognizing when something could be better and then taking the steps to make it so.

My mom moved to Colorado Springs to support her partner’s career — a significant sacrifice given that she was a dancer and choreographer and the art scene in Colorado was nowhere near as robust as the one she’d left on the East Coast. She worried that without performing arts, our city would afford fewer creative outlets for people of all ages, but especially us, her three kids. She identified pockets of art appreciation as well as art desserts in our city and began presenting professional dance companies.

She did the painstaking and essential work of building audience awareness and strategic partnerships. She convened public schools, community colleges, symphony and theater supporters, local dance schools and philanthropists. In some cases she was in front, doing the teaching herself, in other cases, she led from behind, identifying others to speak, write and promote. As her daughter, I got to hand bouquets to Martha Graham, Mikhail Baryshnikov and countless other dance heroes who made the trek to Colorado Springs, as though it had always been a receptive community with flourishing arts.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

One — When someone reacts totally irrationally, it might be caused by something else, not you. (On more than one occasion I have had someone angrily respond to a question, only to find out later that they had just come from a difficult meeting at work / or home and I was the first person they engaged with. Sometimes it sucks to be the recipient of residual anger, and it’s helpful to remember these are people with lives and that something else might be going on.)

Two — Don’t assume you know what someone else values. (When I was just two weeks on the job at OneTable I described my vision for the organization to a millennial friend as “giving people meaning” — and she called me on it. She has meaning in her life, and would like that to be recognized — not dismissed. This reminded me to practice curiosity, asking her to describe a moment that feels meaningful instead.)

Three — 80% rule Forget perfection. It’s better to fail forward fast. Just get something out the door and then make it 80% better. OneTable launched with the name “StartUp Shabbat” and did our first 1,000 dinners on a third party social dining platform — giving us a chance to just get started while still working on branding and tech development.

Four — Take a breath, don’t feel like you have to give an immediate answer to a difficult question. (You can always say, “great question, let me find out more and get back to you on that.” It’s also a good idea to have a glass of water during meetings so that if you are stumped, you can pause, take a sip of water while collecting your thoughts and then answer.)

Five — Be kind to yourself, ask for help. Get a coach, find people to help you process ideas and think things through and then, for goodness sake, delegate. No idea can grow inside your head alone, nor can it come into reality if you are controlling its execution. I have been working with a coach for eight years and steadily built my group of thought partners. Also, a good haircut goes a long way.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I have SO many dreams about what it would look like if we rewarded moral courage, kindness, and curiosity. The question is why the hell aren’t we all more kind, generous and open? What or who are we so afraid of? What would it take to get over our xenophobia — or at least name it — and then take steps to address it?

One idea would be a Loving Kindness Campaign — I know, it sounds terribly woo woo — but don’t let that scare you (save your fear for real threats).

What if we got points for showing kindness? Little things: like holding the door for someone, letting someone who’s in a rush pull their car in front of you, allowing your sibling to take the last cookie, hosting Shabbat dinner for your close friends; too big things: working for more equitable education, opening our homes to foster children, volunteering our time, inviting strangers to your dinner table.

As I write this I realize it sounds a bit like the premise of The Good Place — one of my favorite TV shows where our eternal damnation/salvation depends on the points we earn while living, or conversely those we lose by being a forking ash-hole. Maybe Kristen Bell could kick off this campaign on her Instagram? Let’s redirect the power of social media to inspire generosity.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“It takes a village.”

As a nonprofit executive, one of my core responsibilities is to partner with generous philanthropists. We work closely on strategy, articulating and measuring against desired outcomes and ensuring that their hard-earned dollars are as effectively invested as possible. My work is literally impossible without their partnership.

AND, I have the support of a village. My husband, children, parents, in-laws, siblings and close friends all help me live a full life and all care for my family while working my tail off. No one does it alone.

AND, I have a kick-ass, magnificently talented and passionate professional team. This work doesn’t happen on its own.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

So, I have this massive poster of Michelle Obama in the “Rosie the Riveter” pose with “Yes We Can!” on my living room wall, I bought it from a street artist in Soho. I am inspired by her because rather than shunning the limelight, she leans into it, somehow maintaining her integrity and her truth. She calls out BS and leads with such extraordinary grace and style. I would love to be described that way. I met her once at a White House Hanukkah party — “met” her is a bit of an exaggeration but I did smile at her and briefly touch her hand. I was high for days. I see her as the kind of person who makes those around her shine, who elevates rather than denigrates. I would LOVE to talk with her about keeping her cool while also being passionate, raising strong daughters (I have three who are mighty), being a good partner, daughter, friend and fearlessly engaging in the world even when it’s messy.

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