If you’ve never stepped into a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath), I can tell you from experience it is an exercise in vulnerability more intense than just leaving your clothes in the locker room. The full nakedness of immersion comes from letting go of the protections layered around your heart and spirit. Stepping down into the living water requires you to be strong enough to be vulnerable, open to whatever rushes in.
Rabbi Sara Luria, founding Executive Director of ImmerseNYC, says leading a startup is much like a mivkeh experience. You have to keep yourself strong and able to face whatever comes your way, including the possibility that your startup may not make it.
ImmerseNYC, founded three years ago, is a pluralistic feminist mikveh in New York City that has facilitated over 460 ritual immersions for men and women in times of life transition such as divorce, infertility or aging. The organization helps to create a Jewish framework for life transitions through ritual experiences, peer communities and educational programs.
Today, three years after its initial launch, ImmerseNYC has a full time staff, a committed board and developed funding streams. Although Sara says things are never 100 percent, her startup is in a much better place than it was in the early days. “In the beginning there was a feeling that if the next grant didn’t come through, we’d have to throw in the towel.”
I asked Sara how she managed to stay strong in those most uncertain times. Her advice:
- Do a lot of listening.
In the beginning, Sara prioritized meeting with the people she was hoping to serve. “I spent a lot of time listening to people’s stories. I spoke to women in synagogues, for example, who wanted a spiritual life but were not finding it.” She recalled hearing “over and over again that there was no place for people to go with feelings connected to body, to sexuality, to intimacy.” When obstacles arose for her startup, Sara held on to the images of people yearning to overcome their isolation.
To stay strong, startup leaders have to uncover and address unmet needs in the community.
- Build a professional support network.
Individual passion is a necessity when launching a startup. But it is not enough. “There were many times when I would have given up if I didn’t have a support network. I was lucky to benefit from the incubator Bikkurim,” said Sara. “They gave us office space and a stipend for two years. It sounds funny, but not working out of a coffee shop was a big help. Professionals like Aliza Mazor and Pippi Kessler were there to keep me going on days when I thought I should go find another job.”
To stay strong, startup leaders need to remember this work is not a solo sport.
- Keep your eye on the mission.
Sara works hard to craft meaningful experiences for participants. “I love the programs we’ve created, but I’m not married to them. Part of the mission of ImmerseNYC is to embody the kind of Jewish community we hope to create. We model a diverse community where Jews support one another through life transitions with love and authenticity.” With a holy sense of purpose she says, “This is my calling, but if a certain program doesn’t work, it is okay. We can find another way to achieve our mission.”
To stay strong, startup leaders need to remember that programs are only the inconstant moon to their holy mission.
- Act like you matter too.
When deciding where to spend time and energy Sara says, “I’m not a commodity. Judaism is the counterpoint to a market economy approach to measuring human worth.” She says it would be easy to fall into a market economy mindset but reminds herself that “being part of a loving family is more important than writing a logic model.” Sara manages to be home every day by 5:00 pm to be with her husband and three young children.
To stay strong, startup leaders have to treat their participants and themselves like they are God’s children.
I have to thank Sara for sharing so honestly. Not everyone is willing to reveal the tenuous early days of a startup. Enacting Sara’s advice to listen, get support, focus on purpose rather than program, and care for oneself will keep a budding entrepreneur strong enough to face the certain unknown.