The Boston Globe has launched a weekly Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses, conducting ground-breaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at email@example.com.
This week’s conversation is with Rabbi Barry Dolinger, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Sholom in Providence and founder of three “spiritual startups” — Mitzvah Matzos, Lighthouse Kosher, and Thrive.
Question: Where did you get the idea for Mitzvah Matzos?
Answer: I read a National Public Radio article about the purchase of this country’s largest matzo producer by Bain Capital. While there’s nothing wrong with that per se, the thought of matzo as a hedge fund holding for someone’s profit seemed unrelated, at best, to the purpose of matzo. Upon further research, I discovered that matzo had originally been a bit thicker and softer but was thinned into a cracker to create a shelf-stable product that would not grow mold. While these thoughts were percolating, I was shopping in the supermarket and, while purchasing Newman’s Own nonprofit cookies, the “Eureka!” moment occurred. It was time to open up a nonprofit matzo freed from its own slavery to focus on the intention of the ritual itself. Further, all profits are donated to organizations that fight human trafficking. For our first year, we chose the Nomi Network, because of their focus on empowerment, perhaps the key value in the whole project.
Q: What is the purpose of Lighthouse Kosher?
A: Lighthouse Kosher is a new model of kosher supervision that seeks to solve three of our most important existential problems: 1) In our society, poor nutrition is one of the leading root causes of suffering and death. 2) In our economy, most people are entirely disconnected from the people who prepare food throughout the entire chain of production. 3) Food production has been one of the most significant contributing factors in our deepening ecological catastrophe. But it does not have to be this way. We’re only certifying high-quality vegetarian and vegan establishments, while encouraging our three dozen restaurant and consumer packaged good partners to source locally, choose organic, limit food waste, prefer compostable waste, and use toxin-free cleansers and materials. As a nonprofit, we’ve also flipped the classic business model. Rather than charging a fixed fee for our kosher supervision, we’re building a model that relies on the goodwill and voluntary donations of partner food businesses, while seeking funding from public supporters. In this way, kosher supervision no longer serves as a sort of tax on food — one that might be passed on to consumers in the form of higher costs, lower quality, or a combination of the two.
Q: What is the goal of Thrive?
A: Thrive is a spiritual retreat for the here and now. Formed with Rabbi Elan Babchuck (no longer formally with Thrive) and Nicole Jellinek, we’ve used teachings and practices from the worlds of mindfulness and positive psychology to promote human flourishing. The goal has been to provide access to these experiences for regular people, including those who can’t take weeks off or pay large sums of money. As the organization evolved, it moved from a more Jewish space to a multi-faith space, working with teachers from myriad religious and spiritual traditions and those from none at all. During these times of anxiety and fear, both personally and interpersonally, Thrive has allowed individuals to engage with the other, through deep practice. One extremely popular event has been our evenings of multi-faith meditation. We’ve also conducted day-long Sunday retreats, engaging traditional practices of meditation, yoga, and silence, and less traditional practices including theater, clowns, and art.
Q: How do the startups tie in with your work as rabbi at Congregation Beth Sholom?
A: Literally, rabbi can be translated as “my master” and has classically been an appellation attached to a learned teacher. The focus has often been on scholarship. But the role of the rabbis -- the original group that transformed Judaism from prophetic and sacrificial religious traditions through the first two millennia of the common era -- was to establish practices that were weighty enough to develop layers of meaning and nuance over centuries, while also holding them lightly enough to allow for a sort of evolution. I’m so grateful to work in a community where they not only tolerate but support, embrace, and attend to this broader work as vital. Successful startups seek to meet changed or evolving human needs. At this moment where cataclysms (such as environmental catastrophe and nuclear proliferation) loom large and connection and change have produced crises of identity and meaning across the globe, spiritual startups are a moral necessity.
Q: What is the main thing Rhode Islanders could do today to increase their mindfulness and sense of well-being?
That’s hard to answer because everyone is unique. As our tradition teaches, “Just as every face is entirely different, so too are everyone’s ideas.” It is fair, I think, to offer techniques that seem to work for many, and respond to common problems: 1) A few minutes of silent breathing. Inboxes, busy schedules, existential anxieties, financial strain, all of it weighs heavily. 2) Empathic listening: Choose one conversation a day to listen mindfully. 3) Put the phone away.
Q: What is your best advice for other Rhode Island entrepreneurs?
A: Rhode Island is a small state, which makes it one of the best places to try your entrepreneurial idea. People often cite the parochialism of Little Rhody as a negative, but there’s tremendous upside. Networking is simply different here, as you can quickly network with relevant partners because of the state’s small size. It’s also less cutthroat, and there’s a supportive friendliness among entrepreneurs that I simply haven’t seen in other places. So the simple advice is to network, accept good advice, and hold projects loosely enough to let them take on a life of their own.