Archive for July, 2008

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Partners: Equity, Income and the Jewish Dilemma

July 30, 2008

A few years ago, as an associate in a AmLaw 100 law firm, I was consumed with the concept of partnership and how best I would be able to achieve the status of partner. Partnership seemed like a far and distant nirvana – once I got there everything would be wonderful and unencumbered by further desires to achieve a level of status.

Now, a few years later as a partner in that same firm, my naiveté is gone.  Partnership is not nirvana, far from it. It involves its own opportunities as well as challenges and it is filled with all sorts of issues and encumbrances that sometimes make associate life (in retrospect) look like nirvana.

Chief among the issues one faces as a partner in a law firm is the recognition of the fact that while we refer to ‘one partnership’ there are often two types of partners – equity partners and income partners.  For those law firms that distinguish between partners, each partnership arrangement varies in terms of the division of the rights, responsibilities and economics of the dual classes of partner. But fundamental in the division of the two is that equity partners have actual ownership equity in the partnership, while the equity partners do not. Accordingly, the ability to influence the partnerships decision-making and fundamental actions are often tied to whether one is an equity partner.  Nonetheless, on all other matters of course and in the day-to-day functioning of a firm, the distinction is rarely acknowledged and all the partners refer to one another as partners, regardless of partner status.

But on many firms, there is one fundamental impact of the distinction between equity partners and non-equity partners.  Non-equity partners recognize, inherently and oftentimes explicitly, that they are not true owners in the business.

And they act accordingly.

Now what does that mean?  Maybe they are less loyal to the firm when other opportunities arise.  Maybe they are less-likely to feel like they need to make investments in the firm (with time or money) than they otherwise would if they were equity partners. Perhaps they may even fall into the habit of using “us and them” language and acting as part of a group distinguished from those who have a deeper sense of ownership in the firm.

So why the essay on partnership?

Because it is a word we use in the Jewish community to describe almost every element of Jewish existence. We are in a partnership with God.  We are in a partnership with our spouse. We are in a partnership with others in the community. We are even in partnerships between organizations (Federations/affiliates), between communities (Partnership 2000) and between large centers of Jewish life (Israel/Diaspora). But in the context of our use of partnership in the community setting, we often miss a critical question.

Do Jews in our community think of themselves (and conversely, do we think of them) as equity partners or income partners in the broader Jewish partnerships that we seek to maintain? In other words, do they individually view themselves as owners in this great Jewish endeavor or are they of the opinion that they are one of the ‘others’ that are partners in the broader experience  (maybe benefiting from some ‘income’ of Jewish experience) but nonetheless distinct from those that truly have ownership in it?

My guess is that Jewish communal life has a lot of income partners that need to be transformed into equity partners. Just go read the blogs, talk to the unengaged or marginally engaged and look to the state of Jewish philanthropy at a grass-roots level The attitudes of income partners permeate Jewish life today.  There are plenty of Jews that truly believe they are in a partnership with Jews around the world, but they nevertheless inherently understand that global Jewish partnership to have levels of status and influence. They resist and challenge this community partnership structure, but ultimately their frustration only reinforces it.

Therefore we need to enable the transformation of our understanding of Jewish communal partnership on multiples levels and through multiple strategies.  We need to make sure Jewish life isn’t perceived to be owned only by its prime benefactors (whether it is Federations, foundations or other substantial philanthropists) but is truly understood to be owned by all of us.  We need to make sure Jews get a sense of ownership that transcends whether or not the send their children to day-school, go on Federation missions or give to Jewish causes,

And that desire for a sense of ownership must permeate each aspect of Jewish engagement, ranging from the language we use to the tactics we deploy. How telling is it that in many of our Jewish institutions volunteer leadership and other community members often are required to wear nametags that designate them as guest or visitors. Why not have name tags that identify these individual Jews as owners. They are aren’t they? Don’t we want them to think of themselves as owners – especially as owners of the future of their Jewish community?

When we move to a model where we are cultivating a sense of ownership at every level, everyone feels like they have some equity in the Jewish people. They are less likely to migrate away from the Jewish experience because they feel like it is THEIR experience, not somebody else’s experience they are just visiting. Their sense of partnership is truly deeper and they are unlikely to fall into the us/them dichotomy because there is only a great sense of ‘WE.’

And to that end, WE need to strengthen Jewish partnership on individual and communal levels. But we need to do so by cultivating the individuals to be impactful partners.  Ones who have a sense of ownership, not just income.

Because that makes all the difference.

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On Jewish Peoplehood – The right word, the right concept?

July 27, 2008

In my spare time I endeavor to be a good student of Jewish communal issues – the language we use, the approaches we take and the ongoing combination of the two. Recently I have been considering the ongoing dialogue about Jewish peoplehood. Like other ‘buzz words’ before it, the term ‘peoplehood’ has taken on a life and dialogue all its own. In the few years those who are concerned with the future of the Jewish people have, at least in part, rallied around the exploration of what ‘peoplehood’ means in order to discern the paths forward for the Jewish people.

And I have recently been reading essays on ‘peoplehood’ from some of our global Jewish community’s finest thinkers. Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, Leonard Saxe, Rabbi David Gedzelman, Rabbi Joy Levitt, Dr. Alan Mintz, Professor Douglas Rushkoff, Rokhl Kafrissen, Ruth Ouzana and Yossef Israel Abramowitz each wrote thoughtful essays on peoplehood in the Spring edition of Contact, a publication of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Before that, I read The Peoplehood Papers published by UJC that included thoughtful essays by Dr. Shlomi Revid, Dr. Misha Galperin, Jay Michaelson, Einat Wilf, Barbara Lerner Spectre, Ahava Zarembski, Alan D. Hoffman, Jonathan Ariel, Eric Levine, Wayne Firestone and Gil Troy. I have read countless books on the subject and topics ancillary to it. And I have tried thoughtfully struggle with the question of how one can best understand the Jewish experience and the opportunity embedded within that experience.

Now I am not classically trained in Jewish thought, history law, social services or education. Nor am I an academic or a Jewish communal professional. Everything I have leaned is the result of my (reluctant) congregational schooling as a child, my experiences as an adult learner (including my experience in the Wexner Heritage program) and as a constant reader. It is important that I share that information because what I am about to say needs to be put in the context of my limited knowledge – I am humbled by what I do not know – and therefore this statement is made in the most humble of ways.

I think we are getting it all wrong in the way we focus on ‘peoplehood’ as a centralizing term of the Jewish experience. Read the rest of this entry ?

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The Open Center and the Honor of Shabbat

July 25, 2008

For the past week the big news in Jewish Atlanta has been that the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA) is expanding its hours of operation so that it will be open during Shabbat. The public reaction started last week with the announcement by the MJCCA, continued with the obligatory sermons in shuls across the community and reached its crescendo with a cover story in this week’s Atlanta Jewish Times titled “Open on Saturday – JCC decision to open on Shabbat draws mixed reactions” and devoting three and one-third pages to discussing the topic.

Reactions may be mixed in the community – but mine is not. I think it is the right decision.

Read the rest of this entry ?

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On Problems, Prizes and PaRDeS

July 23, 2008

There is an interesting article in yesterday’s New York Times about the use of competitive challenges and financial prizes in prompting innovative solutions to technological problems. The article discusses the model used by Innocentive, described in the article as “a company that links organizations (seekers) with problems (challenges) to people all over the world (solvers) who win cash prizes for resolving them.”

Seekers. Challenges. Solvers.

Sound familiar?

Now this model is by no means entirely novel, competitions to prompt solutions have been around for a very long time. But what has changed is the way technology can facilitate these competitions. In an ever-shrinking world where technology facilitates rapid communication and collaboration, these competitions are now accessible to everyone who has an interest, some knowledge and creative itch to combine the two in exchange for a chance at some money.

And we have seen evidence of this trend in our Jewish community – just this year Brandeis University and the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation sponsored a competition for “the next big Jewish idea” of how the Jewish community can transform itself. The prize in that case, won by Yehuda Kurtzer (a Harvard doctoral student), was the appointment as the Charles R. Bronfman Visiting Chair in Jewish Communal Studies – a two-year visiting professorship at Brandeis with a commission to publish a book. In that competition, 231 applicants submitted their “big ideas” (myself included), validating that, at the very least, there are people who believe in their “big ideas” enough to compete with them.

But what I wonder is whether this model of developing big solutions as part of big competitions is the right one. While it is important to think big – isn’t it just as important to think small? Yes, we have big systemic challenges, big communal issues and big existential concerns. But we have small problems too – small problems in need of answers. There aren’t competitions for the small, tactical ideas. There aren’t many prizes for the solutions that face our communities on a day-to-day basis. In searching for the big ideas, are we luring our bright thinkers too far astray from the most proximate and precise needs of our community? As was exceptionally well-stated in a recent column in the Jewish Daily Forward by Noam Neusner, “[p]erhaps instead of commissioning yet another book about the future of the Jews, we ought to hire people to organize fundraising dinners lasting two hours or less — now that would be a true stroke of genius.”

In Jewish learning, when we look to understand the meaning of biblical text we are studying we oftentimes use the PaRDeS method of interpretation, approaching the challenge of the text by means of the Peshat (the literal meaning), Remez (the allegorical meaning), Derash (the midrashic, homiletic meaning) and Sod (the mystical meaning). Using the PaRDeS methodology, when faced with the challenge of a text, we have four paths to finding a solution. Each one no less valid than the other, each one worthy of the ‘prize’ of understanding.

Juxtapose the PaRDeS approach to meeting the challenges of text to the competitive model of meeting the challenges of our community. While the latter is nuanced, taking into account a variety of approaches each with an equally rewarding result, the latter requires a selection of an exclusive answer – one that is more valid (however validity may be defined) than the other.

What if rather than creating competitions, we challenged Jews to look at our community challenges through the nuanced prisms of Jewish understanding? Perhaps if, rather than hand-wringing about the need for big-thinkers to compete with big ideas, we motivated individuals to create bite-sizes ideas to solve bite-size problems? If we did that then perhaps our Jewish problem-solvers, using whatever methodologies they might choose, literal, allegorical, moral or mystical, might find deeper Jewish meaning in their search for solutions. And we would benefit from their ideas, small and big.

And who knows, cumulatively all of these small ideas might add up to the achievement of one really big idea – the redemption of the Jewish people.

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A New Model?

July 22, 2008

So there is an interesting pair of posts over at Rejewvenate in which the blogger responds to my ‘Jewish Builders, Not Fixers’ post and then riffs a bit about tikkun olam. But the question the blogger asked in a comment to my post is… so what do I suggest is the new model of Jewish communal life?

Great question, and one that I think about often. I agree with Rejewvanate’s articulation of the status quo of Jewish Federations as a ‘needs based’ model – linking those ‘who have’ with organizations and initiatives ‘who need,’ particularly a financial need (whether it is for social services, education or other engagement and ‘continuity’ initiatives). A review of illuminating history of the Federation system, its colorful participants and its substantial (and meaningful) impact, makes it clear that during its evolution, and in its prime, the Federation system responded to needs of the Jewish community (and I use that term broadly) in a way that could not have been undertaken but for that system.

Critically, I do not agree with those who might argue that the Federation system is beyond repair and should be ignored as an ancient relic from a time in our past. I think there is an important role, a vital role, for Jewish organizations that create connections between those ‘with’ and those “without “and facilitate the financial impact of those connections. Federations are important institutions, but are nonetheless a product of their time and its place, and therefore their relative importance must be placed in a broader context of today’s American Jewish community. As a result of this shifting relevance, we should allocate our energies appropriately. Although we must continue to build Federations in a way that helps adapt them to current trends in Jewish living, structurally we can’t depart too significantly from their core mission, lest in the process they suffer from doing too much but with an impact that is too little. In addition, we must create new tools – while Federations are an important tool in building community, they are only one tool in the model – not the whole model.

So what is the new model? One, part of the new model must include morphing Federations into more broadly relevant organizations (perhaps not even being referred to as Federations) that don’t stick with the methodologies, biases and limitations of their needs-based orientation, but adapt to the Jewish communal dynamics of the late ‘00s in startling speed and adaptability. Without losing sight of missions, Federations must remodel themselves into flexible organizations with permeable walls, not hierarchical structures that build communities not only by engaging financial assets of Jews, but by empowering the Jews themselves in building community engagement.

In essence, we need to put the “move” back in the Federation movement. Federation staff should be distributed within our communities rather than centrally located and move among the community – helping instigate, challenge and incite Jewish building and creativity. The strength of communities should not be measured by dollars alone but by the numbers of those engaged, the number of ways in which they are connected and the depth of meaning in which those connections reinforce themselves. We should modify our language at Federations and refine the tone in which we speak that language. Lay leadership needs to be challenged forcefully to lead, and professional staff need to be dynamically challenged at all levels to deliver professional (and self-rewarding) excellence. And just as importantly, volunteer leaders and professional staff should each hold the other accountable for the success of their joint initiatives. That, together, is part one of the model.

The second part of the new model includes creating other service organizations, synagogues, religious and spiritual communities, learning, and social initiatives, however informal or formal (i.e. independent minyanim might eschew the label of organization, nonetheless are organizations in their own informal way), that harness the technologies and sensibilities of modern Jewish life in this ‘Bowling Alone,’ ‘Jew Within,’ blog-reading, Facebook-friending and hyper-diverse era. Jewish life has become ‘bursty’ – most of us engage in bursts of episodic communal Jewish activity and some of us experience more consistent activities that create longer-lasting and individually-oriented socio-religious experiences. Our Jewish communal infrastructure needs to be able to respond to these ‘bursty’ demands and needs to have a flat leadership dynamic that leverages the urge to create in this era of mega-creativity.

Binding these two parts of the new model together must be an element that is old as the Jewish people themselves – Jewish learning. The new model must be imbued with a sense of Jewish learning that is not just a goal (and not just a predicate) but also an inherent element of the development of Jewish communal life. Our organizations must be learning organization. Our leaders must be learning leaders. Our creators should have a sense of the Jewish context of their creation and our Jewish skeptics should use their learning to enhance the impact of their skepticism.

Refining the old. Building the new. And learning the Jewish importance of each.

I will think and consider further, but I think that is one approach to the development of a new model of Jewish communal life.

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Reality Check

July 22, 2008

While several of the posts on this blog have been personal ponderings about Jewish life here at home in the United States, today’s despicable terrorist attack in Jerusalem is an important reminder that while we may wonder how to improve ourselves as a community, there are individuals who are dedicated to destroying us as a people. And we must be vigilant.

Just over a year ago my wife and I were walking along on King David Street, talking with friends and busy making our plans. Tonight we are praying for those who were injured in today’s mayhem… the mayhem in those very same footsteps we walked.

That is the lot of the Jewish people – to plan and to pray.

May our plans be realized and our prayers be answered.

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Builders, Fixers and Tikkun Olam (A Response)

July 21, 2008

So it seems like my “Jewish Builders. Not Jewish Fixers.” post generated some interesting feedback from a few individuals. I have a few posts to react to some feedback I received, but first and most interestingly was a comment from Jameel, who correctly points out that there is room for both fixing and building the Jewish community. But then he states, after an observation about the significance of tikkun, an interesting proposal:

“Maybe it should be the 80-20 percentage – 80% should be fixing, and 20% should be new building.”

An interesting thought, although I disagree. And it is not because I think that the percentages should be reversed, although I do think that putting such a low percentage on true innovation is imprudent. Why I disagree with Jameel is because I think a more sensitive analysis of what tikkun means is needed, because I think that we oftentimes use the concept of tikkun as a crutch when the more bold approach is to not fix an organization, but to create around it. Now I have to admit I have been thinking about this concept recently because of the excellent recent article by Hillel Halkin in the July-August, 2009 issue of Commentary magazine. In the article, titled “How Not to Repair the World,” Mr. Halkin articulates an interesting analysis of the textual and modern conceptions of tikkun olam, and ultimately makes a critical argument against the more clichéd use of the term by the progressive left. Now I consider myself more on the progressive left side of the political spectrum, and I generally find some of Mr. Halkin’s arguments to be a bit stuffy, but I can’t help be a bit persuaded by his reasoned analysis about the casual use of the term tikkun in modern contexts.

In partial agreement with Mr. Halkin, I find that I too am critical of the position that can often be found in the Jewish community that says we are obligated to blindly repair Jewish communal institutions for the sake of tikkun olam. This argument is often articulated such that individuals feel the essence of repairing that which is already built is the essence of Judaism. Yes, there is an element of this that is true, and as Jameel points out, we are reminded of the responsibility to perfect the world when we express it in the Aleynu each day. But I would also argue that so much of our modern organizations urges for their leaders to undertake acts of tikkun are based on an overwrought, self-serving and ultimately self-defeating reliance on a twist of he Lurianic conception of tikkun olam.

In the Lurianic approach, it is thought that we as Jew must gather up divine sparks and help return them to their place. But what if these sparks are to be found outside the organized Jewish community – shouldn’t we be seeking them out using new methods, approaches and experiences? Or are these sparks only found within the institutions that exist today? Rather, in gathering these sparks, aren’t we empowered with the act of creation – truly recreating what was – not simply fixing what is? I would suggest that the Jewish olam, and the olam in general is bigger than the existing Jewish organizations. By creating new efforts and recreating the essence of unity that once was (rather than spending a majority of time fixing existing organizations that represent what “is”), perhaps then we are truly gathering the shattered vessels of light that can bring about the unity of our people.

Yes, by fixing Jewish organizations, we might be engaged in an act of tikkun, and that is an important responsibility we have as a community. But in the act of creating, of building Jewish life in a myriad of new and diverse ways through new and innovative initiatives and organizations, perhaps we are then truly undertaking tikkun olam.

By building, not just fixing.