Archive for August, 2008


Target Panic

August 8, 2008

In last Friday’s edition of the New York Times, Katie Thomas penned an interesting article about the phenomena of target panic among archers. Like the maladies that afflict other athletes at a time of precise action (whether it is the ability to throw a ball at a glove or make a simple putt), target panic affects archers in connection with the targeting and release of an arrow, oftentimes causing the archer to impulsively release the bow when the target comes into their sights. It is an affliction that can mysteriously come and inexplicably disappear, but for the competitive archer it can be absolutely destructive.

This article got me thinking, how often do we find ourselves with a case of target panic in our own lives? When our focus and goal becomes clear, do we stay focused and release at the exact moment to achieve our intended result or, in our overanxious approach to hitting the target, do we release too early, therefore missing our target? At the moment in which we have should have the ability to become laser-focused on hitting the mark, do we suddenly lose sight and cause our shots to land astray?

And just as much in our personal lives, what about in the lives of our Jewish community organizations? How often do they fall into a bad case of target panic? Oftentimes they spend months developing strategic plans and setting specific organizational targets, but then at the exact moment in which they need to hit the target their leadership gets a case of target panic. While leadership often succeeds in getting everything ready for the moment of execution – gather data, develop identifiable targets, acquire the correct set of skills, and get into the appropriate positioning – they then often seize up at the exact moment of execution. It is those questions of panic that freeze them up and causes a case of organizational target panicking, questions such as:

  • Is this really the right time for change?
  • Will our stakeholders abandon the us if the road gets rough?
  • Do we have the organizational will to succeed?
  • Will success really change anything, or is this effort a waste of time and resources?

While those questions should be vetted in the strategic planning process, oftentimes they creep back in to an organization’s mindset at the moment execution is to unfold, therefore causing target panic.

In 2008, it seems there is not a Jewish organization that isn’t involved in some strategic planning effort. But as a collective Jewish people, we are also searching for strategic ways to target the collective challenges we face. Intermarriage. Assimilation. Apathy. Each of these areas of concern is a target of the urgent and intense focus of our Jewish community. The solutions needed to address these challenges require tremendous resources, skill and positioning. But it also requires exceptional targeting.

And as a Jewish people we can’t afford a case of target panic.


The 80/20 Rule (Not the one you are thinking of)

August 5, 2008

Some of my most favorite people to speak with are young professionals in the non-profit world.  In most cases they “do” what they “are” – and generally have a very authentic approach to their profession.  And in the Jewish communal world this is constantly evident – the professionals who work in our communities also pray in our communities, socialize in our communities and volunteer in our communities.  They are the personification of sense of Jewish community that we aspire to have felt by Jews throughout or community.  But in my conversations with them I often learn one important aspect of their professional lives…

They are frustrated.

About what?  Well, lots of things. And some things are what we all get frustrated with in our own jobs. The hours, the “customers,” the bureaucracy and the office politics.  Those are the issues all of us have to deal with at one time or another, so those issues are not so startling. But what is most surprising is the subject that often tops their lists…

They are frustrated about their ability to make a difference.

Now that is a big statement, and I don’t want to over-generalize. But I hear it as a constant refrain, regardless of the community they live in or the Jewish organization they work in.  Inevitably during a conversation I wonder aloud if it would be more interesting to be a professional in the Jewish community, rather than what I am – an engaged volunteer. And almost just as inevitably the professional says to me, often with a sense of resignation, “volunteers have a much greater ability to effect change than the professionals do.”

Think about that for a moment.  These individuals have dedicated themselves to a profession that is about effecting change in the Jewish community. Whether it is education, social services, religious, arts & culture or any other of the diverse community services non-profits perform, all of the professionals work in an organization that helps effect some sort of community change.  In children, in the needy, in the spiritually searching – their organizations help effect change.  And these professionals do it with economic sacrifice, personal sacrifice and even emotional sacrifice. And many of them believe…

“Volunteers have a much greater ability to effect change than the professionals do.”

As the quote goes, Houston, we have a problem.  And Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. you do too.  We all do. Because when our young professionals aren’t inspired by their own ability to effect change, it is difficult to imagine them inspiring non-professionals to effect change. And we need lots of inspiration, imagination and change. So we really need to have these young professionals, all of our professionals, have confidence in their ability to effect change – interesting important, transformational change.  We need to build that confidence institutionally, interpersonally and communally.  When it comes to Jewish community professionals, we all believe in the importance of them; but critically we need them to believe in the importance of themselves as agents of change.

And here is where the 80/20 rule comes in. But not the 80/20 rule that most of us are familiar with in fundraising – that 80% of the gifts come from 20% of the donors. I mean the Google 20%-time policy where Google engineers are offered the ability to spend 20% of their time on projects they are truly passionate about and that scratch their creative or inquisitive itch.  So long as the engineers spend 80% of the time on their designated efforts, they can use the 20% time on other endeavors. And what has been the result of these 20%-time types of efforts?  Products like AdSense and Google Suggest – products that have made a huge impact on Google and the business of Internet search in general.  All because engineers are given their freedom to pursue those efforts that personally inspire them and which they think will make a difference.

What if our Jewish communal organizations started giving its professionals 20% time?  What if we offered them the opportunity to pursue those efforts within their organization that they think might have a transformative impact but, in the mean time, don’t require 80% of their efforts?  What kind of new initiatives and approaches would be developed that would strengthen their respective organizations and our community as a whole?

Now I can already hear some of the critical responses to this idea. Sure it all sounds well and good, but how are we to be certain the professionals will use the time wisely? What about getting their other responsibilities done in time? How will this impact outcomes, TQM, performance metrics and all the other modern terms we use for attempting to measure organizational success?

Here is my simple answer. Trust them.

We trust our professionals to make good judgment calls with our students, our clients, or partners and our donors. Why can’t we trust them in this instance?  Their instincts are strong and they are committed to the cause – isn’t that justification enough to trust them to use their 20% time wisely?  And the freedom to create will create a renewed sense of ability to transform in each professional – with time comes ability, with ability comes results, and with results come change. The type of change, the type of difference, that inspired these professionals to choose their careers in the first place.

So I think the answers are fairly clear – for 20% of our professionals’ time, our communities would reap 100% of the benefit. And we would be enabling our Jewish community professionals to regain something that so many of them feel they have lost – the ability to make a difference.

And that’s what we need 100% of the time.


The Search and the Searchers

August 4, 2008

As an involved volunteer in a major-city Federation, the news of the succession planning for next year’s departure of Howard Rieger as CEO of UJC reached me almost as soon as the news was publicly announced. And with that announcement came the simultaneous news that a search committee would be promptly convened to create a seamless transition. Now for much of the Jewish world, this wasn’t news. Howard Rieger was likely not even a name they were familiar with. But for those who are involved with UJC or otherwise pay attention to these sorts of things, this was big news.

The search is on.

The search for what you may ask?  Well, not necessarily the search for a strategic vision – that is already in process.  And not the search for more dollars, for that search is always in process.  This is the search for a new leader that will be able to invigorate both of the aforementioned searches and the organization that houses them. With new leadership comes new opportunities.  Mr. Rieger brought his own brand of each, and the next leader will bring his/her own opportunistic vision.  And given the state of UJC, this is an important time and an important search.

As the search commences, I am reminded of one of my favorite lines in the 1956 John Wayne movie “The Searchers.” In that movie, when getting ready to lead the charge into the Comanche camp, Reverend Clayton (Ward Bond) yells ”Brethern, we must go among them!”

And go among “them” is exactly what the UJC search committee must do.

Who is the “them” I reference? I mean the Jews of North America.  I mean the national and international Jewish leadership. I mean the next generation of professional staff as much as I mean the large-city executive directors. I mean the campaign workers, the donors, the rabbis, the social entrepreneurs, the students, the bloggers and the artists. I mean the highly engaged and the relatively unengaged. The “them” is as broad as the constituencies of our Jewish communities. The “them” is all of us.

But that isn’t the only suggestion I have for the UJC search committee. So in my own small and not so influential way, I have a few suggestions to UJC leadership comprising the search committee.

1.    Look outside the system. I never cease to be amazed by the wealth of excellent community professionals we have in our local and national Jewish communities. And we have some true luminaries. I don’t know most of them, but I read what they right or hear what they say, and they are impressive. Not so impressive that they shouldn’t be challenged or otherwise questioned by volunteer leadership, but nonetheless impressive. They run Federations in large cities and small and they are also the foot soldiers in those communities as well. They have a lot to offer, and like Stephen Hoffman and now Howard Rieger, they bring an insider’s view to an organization rife with insiders.

Butt here’s the rub. When you only look at insiders, you risk the perpetuation of an insider mentality. Such an insider CEO, while adding their own unique vision of a new CEO, never can fully break out of the perspective they gained from the system they rose up in. How many Federation executives started in Cleveland, Chicago, Baltimore or Pittsburgh?  How many have passed through those cities on their way to more senior jobs? And how much of the vision of all of these professionals have been developed by similar experiences, challenges and successes?

That’s why we need to look outside. We need to look to executives in the Jewish world (profit and non-profit) who can bring a critical view to the state of UJC and its professional structure, its partnership arrangements and its national brand.  We need to find those visionary leaders that shift paradigms, and I don’t think they are all in the proximate circles of influence at in the UJC network. That is not to say they aren’t in there – they are. But they are outside that network as well. And we need to search for them.

2.    Find a visionary with help from the visionaries. When I was dreaming up my list of dream UJC search committee member it would include innovative business people like Sergey Brin at Google, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and Susan Decker at Yahoo. I would include people like David Lonner at William Morris and Steve Koonin at Turner, each who bring a creative and Jewish perspective to the table (and understands how to manage talent).  I would bring some wonderful rabbinic talent to the table like Robert Wexlerm David Stern, David Saperstein, Sharon Brous at IKAR and Mark Charendoff.   I would bring in some Jewish artists and writers as well – I mean, think about the perspective Michael Chabon and Matisyahu might lend when discussing the creative attributes the CEO of UJC must possess?

Now I don’t know any of those people, but I must believe that somebody somewhere in the UJC system knows each of those individuals. And while UJC might not be able to get them on a search committee, they should at least have the search committee spend some time with those individuals (or those types of individuals) to understand their perspective on leadership and vision, so that the search and be infused with those perspectives. That’s what this search should be about, not just a search for a CEO, a search for a visionary. And if seeking a visionary, doesn’t it make sense to seek help from visionaries?

3.    Transparency. Lastly, the search process should be inclusive, and most importantly, transparent to key stakeholders in the UJC system and the broader Jewish community Any hiring process needs to have elements that are confidential, but UJC is not a private company, so the process need not be too secretive. There needs to be a level of openness in the search process that allows stakeholders in the system (and aren’t we all stakeholders) to understand what UJC is seeking in its CEO and why. Just as the strategic vision of UJC needs to be open and transparent, so should the hiring of its chief visionary. Anything less would reinforce the view some have that UJC is clubby, insular and close-mined.

So let’s hope that the searchers go out among their brethren, seek the visionary leadership we need and be transparent about both.

Then they may truly find what they are searching for – a strong future for UJC, and an equally if not stronger future for our Jewish community.


The Point

August 4, 2008

For those of you (if there are any of you) who regularly check this blog for a dose of commentary on the state of our Jewish community, please indulge me a personal digression.

For the past few days I have been visiting my parents at their summer lake cottage in the Adirondacks.  It is located on the shore of Willsboro Bay of Lake Champlain and has been in our family since 1967.  I came here as a child and now I bring my children here – it is a place of continuity for me, and a place I feel most at home.

Now I will admit, the first days of my visit were a bit rocky.  As a special treat, I brought with me my five year-old and three year-old daughters, leaving at home my wife who is spending some one-on-one time with our two-month old son.  Now anyone who has had children knows, taking young children out of their regular routine can be difficult.  And taking them away from home can be especially challenging.  And taking them away from their mother is no easy task. Doing all three at one time?  Well, let’s just say that is hard.  Really hard. And so the first three days of the trip were a bit of a mixed bag.  A bunch of highlights, some predictable adolescent meltdowns, and a lot of in-betweens.

But today it all came together.  Despite a (typical) early-morning wake-up (their choice, not mine), the girls played beautifully together and despite the (typical) lengthy, albeit beautiful drive over the mountains towards Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, the girls had a wonderfully fun time at The Wild Center: The Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks in Tupper Lake.  They were sweet to their grandparents for treating them to such a nice day and tonight, as I was tucking them, in they couldn’t have been any more loving to me either.

It is days like this that outweigh all other days.

And then tonight I followed my usual ritual of walking to the Point. The Point is the northernmost point at the edge of the Willsboro Point peninsula on Lake Champlain, and is only a few minute walk from our family cottage.  It is a rocky little area that juts out into the lake where facing east on a clear day you can see Burlington, Vermont and facing west you look across the mouth of Willsboro Bay.

But to me, the Point is a whole lot more.

It is a place of repose, and a place where I can hear water all around me, see sky all above me and feel a calmness permeate through me.  It is only a short walk up a dirt road and down an even dirtier path, but when you walk through the edge of the tree line it is like a different world opens up to you. Everything else you know is behind you and the Point is the only thing ahead of you. It is exactly the last place you were before you got there, and there is nowhere else to go. It is a place yet it is no place. It is… the Point.

And today as I walked up the road to the path that leads to the Point, I looked over at the lake and studied the beginning of the sunset. The lake is high this summer, the rains have been heavy and quarrelsome, stubbornly persisting in a summer that is usually filled with much more sun. The path was muddy because all of the rain, and slippery under foot – at a result, this year it took me many more and smaller steps to get to the Point.  And as I approached the tree line I noticed the dissipating body of a fallen bird and resigned myself to noting that even while walking this year’s path to the Point the penumbra of Death was unavoidable.

But then when I walked through the tree line I was there… I was at the Point.  The majestic, inspiring, humbling Point.  It was the same Point I visited with last year, but like every year before, I saw it with different eyes.  I reached it by walking the same path, but with slightly different feet.  Was it the same Point and I was different? Or was I the same, but the Point had changed?

So standing on the Point tonight I was overwhelmed with questions.  Studying the water lapping around the Point’s cragged edges, I wondered if the water was winning its endless effort of domination or was the Point? When I visit the Point in my annual journey down the muddy path do I give it strength to persevere in the face of the swirling waters, or does it give me strength to do the same? And why come here in the first place, why is the Point so perfect in my mind?

And then I remembered my day with my children. And I remembered my day with my parents. And I remembered how I talked about both with my wife. And at the Point, my questions slowed and my answers emerged.

Was this day the perfect day? Is this place the perfect place?

I believe it was and I believe it is.

And I believe that is the Point.


Jewish Journeying With Purpose (and Peoplehood With Meaning)

August 3, 2008

As I referenced in my earlier post critiquing the current over-emphasis of the concept of “Peoplehood” in attempting to framing solutions for the Jewish future, I have been considering my own theory of “Jewish Journeying” in light of some of the stellar essays I have recently read. Among the best was the essay “Peoplehood With Purpose” by Yossi Abramowitz in the Spring edition of Contact.  In the middle of his essay Abramowitz makes some substantial statements with respect to the concept of Peoplehood, its importance and its role in the future of Jewish life. In particular, Abramowitz states:

  • “Jewish Peoplehood – and its universalistic, noble purpose – must replace the eroding definition of Jews as essentially a faith community.”
  • “Neither faith nor nationalism can continue to be the grand, unifying field theories of world Jewry. Only Peoplehood can, because it is inherently inclusive and encompasses religion, nationalism and culture.”
  • “The goal should be for a critical mass of our institutions, endeavors, philanthropists and leaders to be engines and agents of Jewish Peoplehood.”
  • “Peoplehood is… an organizing principle to recalibrate and synchronize the Jewish enterprise and philanthropy. It is our future blueprint.”

Abramowitz then summarizes, in a clear and convincing fashion that “the purpose – the essence of Jewish Peoplehood – is to be an ongoing, distinctive catalyst for the advancement of morality in civilization.

However, I am not convinced.

If you take all five of the statements I cite above, and recalibrate them into a summary statement of Abramowitz’s argument, it might read as follows:

A critical mass of our institutions, endeavors, philanthropists and leaders should become engines and agents in replacing the eroding definition of Jews as essentially a faith community with a conceptual understanding of the Jewish people as an ongoing distinctive catalyst of the advancement of morality in civilization. As a result, these actions will create an inherently inclusive conception of the Jewish people, encompassing religion, nationalism and culture, and serve to recalibrate and synchronize Jewish enterprise and philanthropy.

That is a pretty big statement, and I must admit, I really like it. But here’s the problem, I don’t think it works.

Why?  Quite simply because I think the catalytic nature of Jews is not simply from their distinctive values, but from their distinctive experiences as well. The catalytic impact on history and society has not only been by the values of the Jews, but by the “otherness” that has often resulted from adherence to those values.  The experiences of the Jews are not just ritualistic or faith-oriented, but also social and cultural. Not only are they communal, but also deeply personal.  Some of the most catalytic Jews were transformed into those catalysts by an experience (not a knowing expression of Jewish Peoplehood) that triggered an unawakened component of their personal value system.  And therefore it was not the overarching Jewish system of values, nor was it an awesome sense of Peoplehood that triggered the development of their own personal identity, but rather, it was a personal experience in their life journey, and as Jews, it was part of their Jewish Journey.

So while I agree with much of what Abramowitz articulates with respect to his conception of Peoplehood, I once again have to state that I don’t think that we should over-emphasize that concept at the expense of understanding Jewish Journeying as a central concept of Jewish life.

In understanding Jewish Journeying, we can understand the limitations of what we can achieve by focusing on Peoplehood exclusively.  The paths of individual Jews are distinctive journeys, and although we may try to infuse them with an understanding of Jewish faith, nationalism, history and culture, it is their journey and we can only act as influencers. But we need to be tactical in the way we endeavor to influence the identity of those on a journey, and using categorical terms such as Peoplehood is not tactical.  It is universal.  Which is all well and good when we are debating conceptual frameworks, but in practice it is a non-starter.

Abramowitz correctly articulates that Peoplehood “will not work as a rallying cry to the Jewish public, which is post-tribal in its inclinations and commitments.”  I whole-heartedly agree.  But then why focus on this concept as an organizing principle when we know its organizational utility is limited?  Each of those post-tribal Jews may not resonate with a conception of Peoplehood that is vague and amorphous, but they can inherently identify with the idea of journeying. They are each on an individual journey, emotionally, socially, religiously and Jewishly.  In the way Peoplehood won’t resonate, Jewish journeying will.

Let’s go back to Abramowitz’s statement that “Peoplehood is… an organizing principle to recalibrate and synchronize the Jewish enterprise and philanthropy. It is our future blueprint.” How would I revise that statement? I might say that Peoplehood should be a central experiential element of Jewish Journeying (as opposed to an organizing principle). And rather than a blueprint (which implies some sort of construction) it should be viewed as the topography of Jewish Journeying. Accordingly, I would then propose that the development of an individual-oriented understanding of Jewish journeying be an organizing principle used to calibrate and synchronize Jewish institutions.  Before we start understanding Peoplehood, we must understand the journeys of the people who comprise it.  And before we try to frame for individual Jews their experiences in the context of Peoplehood, we should use an understanding of their Jewish Journeying to better frame our understanding of how to meet them at the “peoplehood points” of their journeys.

Then we will understand Jewish Journeying with greater purpose, and an understanding of Peoplehood with greater meaning.


A Comment on Cabinet

August 1, 2008

This week I am writing from upstate New York (and when I say upstate, I mean the Adirondacks, not Poughkeepsie). But in the past day or so I have received several emails from friends from Atlanta and elsewhere in Jewish America asking, “Why am I not here?”

Where is the “here” they are speaking of?

Scottsdale, Arizona, This year’s location for the yearly summer gathering of UJC Young Leadership Cabinet.

No thank you – at least not for now.

Now to be clear, I believe there is value in the Federation system (see my prior posts on the topic) and I believe bringing young leadership together to meet, connect, learn and discuss the future of the Jewish people is an important effort that we should be undertaking constantly. Unfortunately, I think the way Cabinet is currently structured falls far short in reinforcing its value to the Jewish people and unlocking the value in its participants.

So what would I do to fix it? A few thoughts.

Participants.  One thing that I think UJC needs to do to make Cabinet a more meaningful convergence of national young leaders is to open up the way UJC defines those young leaders in the first place. Right now, the criteria to attend/participate in Cabinet is a substantial commitment to Federation campaigns and a demonstration of leadership ability within the system. While criteria is different in various communities and the ‘Cabinet brand’ holds different sway in different quarters, there is one fundamental trait shared across all communities – you already have to be investing heavily within the UJC system, financially or otherwise to attend Cabinet.

Right there is the major challenge and limitation of Cabinet. While we say it is the Cabinet of the ‘united Jewish communities”, we are convening leaders who are within the system, not those exceptional leaders in our communities who are not “in the system.” For example, I know several individuals in Atlanta who give a multiple of the minimum Cabinet commitment to various Jewish organizations locally and nationally, but have not yet understood the value (or personally appreciated the value) of federated giving, so they are not eligible for Cabinet.  What a lost opportunity (for our communities and our campaigns) – to exclude these impactful young Jewish philanthropists from Cabinet because they are not yet “in the system.” And what about those young leaders involved in innovative change in our various religious communities. What about our best young teachers? Our most influential young writers/artists/bloggers? Why not welcome them as well?

If we want a Cabinet to represent a collection of individuals that truly represent the diversity of young Jewish America and infuse UJC with the ability to engage and harness next generation leadership, we need to invite different people to be part of cabinet. People who challenge one another from inside and outside the existing institutions of Jewish life. We need to reimagine cabinet participation.

Location. The biggest complaint I often hear about the Cabinet conference location is  ”beautiful resort, but really, really hot.” It is hard to empathize with those types of complaints, but having experienced Jewish retreats at beautiful resorts I can appreciate the value of taking individuals to a place where there is a fun and relaxing environment to develop relationships with one another. But Cabinet is more than a retreat, and we should treat is as such.

Why not have Cabinet conferences in communities that need a vibrant injection of young leadership thinking?  Why not set Cabinet conferences up so that, as part of the program, these young leaders fan out across the host community to meet with volunteer and professional leadership facing local challenges and opportunities.  Cabinet members can then share ideas and engage in groupthink about creative solutions for local problems, helping impact the host community as well as themselves.  What community wouldn’t want to help host 400 Jewish leaders who bring with them fresh eyes, fresh thinking and fresh energy? The social element of Cabinet could still be maintained, but we could make Cabinet as much of a concentrated service experience as it is a social and educational one.  Where we host Cabinet says as much about it as the individuals who participate.  If we are reimagining the participants, lets reimagine where they meet.

Vision.  Lastly, we need to reimagine what we expect to receive from Cabinet, We don’t need only engaged individual coming back to our communities with increased pledges to our annual campaigns, but we need innovative visions for the future of the Jewish people. We need them to walk out of their meetings with collective ways not just to transform Federation campaigns, but also to transform community institutions. We get some of that today, but we need a lot more.  Where are the concluding statements and commitments that are made at so many other assemblies of great leaders? Where are the action plans for national initiatives? We need those too – and not just UJC action plans and initiatives but community plans and initiatives.

In this week’s hafotrah, we week read selections from Jeremiah, and in particular Jeremiah’s transmission of God’s lament that “… My people have committed two evils; they have forsaken Me, the spring of living waters, to dig for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that do not hold water.”

With Cabinet, UJC and young Jewish leadership have powerfully responded to part of God’s lament as conveyed by Jeremiah – by caring enough to gather as a group and to recognize the importance of servicing and strengthening the Jewish people it is clear this significant group of you Jewish leaders (and the organization that hosts them) have not forsaken God or His people.

But we still have some work to do on the second part of the lament. While he have been provided the spring of living waters – in this case dynamic young Jewish leaders, by continuing to engage a Cabinet with a process in need of reimagination, we may be digging for ourselves broken cisterns that do not hold the water.

Lets us built a better Cabinet, a better cistern, to hold a lifeblood of the Jewish people – our current and future young leadership. And then next year, when my friends write to ask, “why am I not here,” the “here” will truly be a center of Jewish future. And I will hope to be there.

Shabbat Shalom.