Archive for July, 2009


Jewish Social Entrepreneurs and the “Right Stuff” – What Is It and Who Has It?

July 21, 2009

In marking the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, it has been hard not to get wrapped up in the nostalgia of America greatest space adventure to date, the Apollo missions and man’s first, and (so far) last steps on the moon. As we look back at that landmark of scientific and human achievement of a man walking on the moon, we cannot help but wonder when we will once again collectively experience a moment of such singular scientific and adventurous achievement. (Note: Just a thought, but maybe next time there is such a singular achievement it will be a woman rather than a man as the “first” of its kind?)

But even more than the amazing stories and visuals of those moments that we store in our collective memory, so much of what we admire about the Apollo missions relates to those who made the missions possible, particularly those astronauts that had the ability to convert promise into action and achievement. Those men that walked on the moon not only had the technical qualifications to participate in one of mankind’s greatest scientific endeavors, but they also had the dedication, stamina and courage to encounter the unencountered, and to boldly experience that which had yet to be experienced.

Those astronauts met the objective and qualifying criteria to be part of their mission, but they also had the intangibles to make their mission a success. Just like the astronauts in the Mercury missions before them, these astronauts had the “right stuff.”

Notwithstanding all of this talk about the moon though, my thoughts have still been squarely about a different group of adventurers here on earth, the cadre of social entrepreneurs that exist and are developing in the broader national and international Jewish community.  To that end, I have had numerous recent conversations with friends and colleagues involved in social entrepreneurship, and it seems that at one point or another we end up debating the “right stuff” in the context of two fundamental questions:

1.    What are the important qualities that social entrepreneurs need to possesses (or alternatively, need to have developed, supported and reinforced) in order to be successful?

2.    What are best strategies to identify and encourage social entrepreneurs who have those desired qualities to actively engage within the Jewish community (however small or large we choose to define that community)?

In other words: when it comes to Jewish social entrepreneurship, what is the “right stuff” and who has it?

Now I didn’t just fall off a lunar lander, and I know that there is substantial dialogue and resources in the Jewish community focused on these very issues. But notwithstanding the increasing number and volume of voices speaking on the topic, much of the organizational infrastructure and literature have not yet caught up with the rapidly changing face of Jewish (and general) social entrepreneurship. For example, we presume to know what skills are needed to successful serve on a board, but what about creating one for an emerging organization?  We presume to know what skills are needed to leverage volunteer leadership to perform conventional volunteer roles, but what about leveraging unconventional partnerships among leaders, professionals and organizations?

We think we know what the right stuff is – but do we? We might think we know who has it – but are we so sure?

Our confidence in our answers to these questions is important because we are making decisions in the Jewish community that require us to have boldness as well as confidence.  Case in point, even while facing increased needs for human services and support of educational infrastructure, the Jewish community is investing, with some risk, in the next (or “now”) generations of social entrepreneurs. This investment is aligned with, not contrary to, our collective focus on addressing broad community needs. But make no mistake, as a community we are more frequently redirecting funds from maintaining tried and true organizations to funding new and unproved entrepreneurs.  In doing so we are rightfully making small and large bets on individuals and organizations, bets that we hope will pay off in ways we can anticipate as well as in ways we can’t yet imagine.

As we make those bets we need to keep in mind a clear (although not uniform) understanding of what the right stuff is, who has it, and how we continue to cultivate it. But we shouldn’t hesitate to bet on the bold and the big ideas, even those longshot ideas that aim for the moon. Because you know what?

With the right stuff, I bet we can get there.


Memo to the (Federation) File: The New CEO’s Reading List

July 15, 2009

Books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time.” – E.P. Whipple

Notwithstanding their often harsh and withering expression of opinion, critics are often the most adoring supporters of substance, especially the written word.  E.P. Whipple, one of the 19th century’s finest literary critics knew this well;  even though he was well acquainted with numerous literary personalities, it was the books he held most dear.

I was recently reminded of Whipple and his famous quotation about books as lighthouses when a friend asked me my opinion of the news of the new CEO at UJC/Federations of North America.  I don’t know the new CEO, nor am I qualified to pass any opinion on the matter.  But I do know that the challenges he faces are great and the opportunities are even greater. And I know that he steps into his role in a time when there are many clouds and the waters are quite choppy.

In other words, no matter his skills as a captain, he could use a few good lighthouses to help guide his way.

So that got me thinking – rather than respond to my friends query with uninformed advice that would  be ephemeral and illuminate very little, I thought I might suggest a few books that could serve as lighthouses to the new CEO.  My list is as follows:

1.   Book of Joshua (Sefer Y’hoshua).  My friend Rabbi Joshua Heller recommended to me that I go back to Joshua (the book, not him) when I was experiencing my own leadership transition, and it was very sage advice. Wandering in the desert is one thing, crossing into the land is another. We are at an important moment of time in Jewish history where we are facing many of the parallels to the Book of Joshua;. a good reading of the book (and commentary) reveals those parallels and much more.

2.   The Roots of the Future by Rabbi Herbert Friedman. Everything old is new again, and this book makes the case that there is a compelling approach to our future that can be borne out of our past.  This book not only covers Herb’s amazing life, but speaks to the importance of the Federation movement and the power embodied in its ideals. Essential reading from an essential life.

3.   Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays by Abraham Joshua Heschel.  I am fond of saying that I am a big fan of H&H, but not the bagels – Herb and Heschel. This book is a perfect compliment to Herb Friedman’s book, if Herb’s is about experience and action, these essay by Heschel are about vision and audacity. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the current state of the Federation movement is we have lost some of the audacity and amazement that were hallmarks of its earlier days. Reading a bit of Heschel can make you believe in the need to bring it back; and we need to believe before we can begin anew.

4.   Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal.  We use language about reimagning organizations, but often what we really need is to reorganize our imaginations. Bolman and Deal provide an important source of knowledge on how we can enhance our organizations and ourselves. Any good leader understands that success is based on choices, and choices that are not only his/her own. The leader of a national Jewish movement needs not only that understanding, but a guide to converting that understanding into action. This book helps.

5.   Dealing with Darwin: How Great Companies Innovate at Every Phase of Their Evolution by Geoffrey Moore. He helped us cross the chasm, and survive inside the tornado, but Moore’s best book is the one where he helps us understand the power of engaging innovation as part of an organizational culture. This book is not the only book the new CEO should read on innovation, but it is a good start (especially Chapter 7 on renewal innovation).

6.   Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury. Bedside reading for negotiators, this could be one of the handiest books on the list for the new CEO. There will be negotiations aplenty, with donors, local Federations, partners, and governance, and the answer always need to get to “yes.” Negotiations can be adversarial, but if properly constructed they can be incredibly empowering and enriching for both parties –  and we need more enrichment in our local and national discussions. Special attention should be paid to Chapter 4 “Invent Options for Mutual Gain.”

7.    Marc Chagall by Jonathan Wilson.  Contemporary Jewish America is complex – rooted in Jewish heritage but colored by streaks of frustrating ambivalence. We paint pictures on tapestries of our own design, often using our own colors in painting images found elsewhere in society. In many ways we are like we are a community of talented and challenging artists. So in order to get a better sense of our collective inner Jewish artistry, I suggest reading about Chagall, one of the greatest Jewish artists in history. He is an artist that embodies our times, and Wilson’s book is a wonderful place to start.

8.   Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life by Shifra Broznick.  I previously wrote that the next CEO of UJC/Federations of North America should be an outsider and should be a woman. So, although one out of two isn’t bad, we should make no mistake – we still need more women leadership in the senior professional ranks of our movement, and this should be a priority of the new CEO. This book is an important resource, but not nearly as important as the resource we would all have if we had more women CEOs in Jewish communal life.

9.   Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff.  The new CEO doesn’t need to Tweet or blog, but he needs to understand those that do. It is a different world than it was a few years ago, and it is constantly changing – our movement’s leadership needs to not only adapt to that change, but to anticipate it as well. Part Two of this book is essential reading for anyone facing and embracing the groundswell.

10.   Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End by Dr. Daniel Gordis. In North America we hold a deep passion for Israel but often struggle to find the right voice to express that passion. Fortunately we have Danny Gordis to help us, and he shares that voice in a serious book for serious times. Our Federation movement needs to continue to reinvorgate American passion for supporting Israel, and its leadership needs to be a bold voice in this effort. On page 216 of the book, Danny writes “the purpose of Israel is to transform the Jews.” I suggest that a primary purpose of the Federation movement is to help in that transformation, and this book is an important resource to aid in that effort.

11.    And one bedtime story…  The Kugel Valley Klezmer Band by Betty Stuchner (a PJ Library Selection for 5 year olds). Between reading books for my own pleasure, I read books we get from PJ Library to my children. This is one of my (and my daughter’s) favorites. Not only does it teach history, but it teaches the power of music and the poetry that is created when many instruments join together in harmony. After reading the stack of books suggested above, a short nighttime story for the CEO would be in order, and this is a perfect choice. Joy, music, song… they are not just the stuff of children’s books, or at least they shouldn’t be. This book is a simple reminder of the music we can all make together in our families and in our communities when we play, and work, together.

So that’s it – ten books and one bedtime story that I have on my (initial) suggested reading list for the new CEO.  I welcome others to join in  (in the comments) with their suggestions – not only for the CEO’s reading list, but our collective education as well.

Few things are more ambitious (or exhausting) than a good, long reading list; and while I hope the CEO spends more time listening and leading, there is no substitute for some good reading.  But lighthouses can only help so much, especially in rocky and choppy waters – so safe reading one and all.


Shelved: How A Borders Bookstore Linked the Economic Crisis with the “Israel Lobby” (and why I won’t shop there anymore)

July 4, 2009

UPDATED 7/15/09:   As an update to the post below, I understand that the management of the local Borders has altered the  offending display after determining that an employee acting on his/her own accord placed the Mearsheimer and Walt book in “recommended books” display.  I also understand from individuals familiar with the matter that the display was not, as previously suggested to me by store management and  customer service, intended to include the Mearsheimer/Walt book.  While I am appreciative of the fact that this display was not by the design of Borders’ corporate headquarters,  I am nevertheless troubled that this incident occurred and could occur in the future. Borders has a responsibility to regulate its own employee’s behavior, especially when that individual is acting as an agent of the store in stocking and displaying books. I urge Borders to confirm is employee policies in regard to this type of occurrence so it can be limited from happening again.

I spend hundreds of dollars annually at my local Borders bookstore, purchasing books and periodicals that I consume at a pace (and to my wife’s chagrin, cost and volume) that makes it one of my largest discretionary expenses.  I love books, and despite the cost (and space in my home) I refuse to give in to the digitized/Kindle-ized future that I know is forthcoming.

But now I will refuse to do something different – I will refuse to shop at Borders bookstores. Here’s why – in its merchandising design and choice of book recommendation it made a choice that I find deeply irresponsible and equally offensive, both as a consumer and as a Jewish American.

In the front of my local store in Atlanta, Borders has a display that groups books together as a form of suggestive advertising (“Like these?  “Try these…”).  On this particular shelf, Borders suggests that if you like The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein, you should try:

•    Between the Lines:  A View Inside American Politics, People and Culture by Jonathan Alter

•    Reckless: How Debt, Deregulation and Dark Money Nearly Bankrupted America (And How we Can Fix It!) by Byron Dorgan

•    Now or Never:  Getting Down to the Business of Saving Our American Dream by Jack Cafferty

The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt

Photo of Bookshelf  (Like These? Try These...)

Photo of Bookshelf (Like These? Try These...)

Read that list and look at that picture closely. See something wrong with it?  I sure do – and it is why I won’t shop a Borders anymore.  Chaos, American politics, dark money, saving the American dream and… the Israel Lobby.  On one shelf, Borders visually (and not so subtlety) links commentary on the “disaster capitalism”  and the global economic crisis with reckless assertions (and conspiratorial theories) about the power and influence of advocates for a strong U.S./Israel relationship. On one shelf, Borders reinforces the perception oldest of anti-Semitic canards (that distressed economic environments are linked with the power and influence of Jews) while reinforcing the dangerously modern trend of delitigimization of Israel and its supporters in subtle and not so subtle ways.

With the stocking of one shelf, Borders reminded me of the subtle danger in every economic crisis – the danger that it will be used to question the Jewish role in economic and political spheres of influence.

Now to be clear, I am not asserting that Borders should not stock and sell Mearsheimer and Walt’s book, nor am I suggesting that Borders not display the book towards the front of the store. Borders is a commercial enterprise that has the right to market and sell all sorts of books in the manner it desires, and I don’t question that right or prerogative. I am also not suggesting that we revisit the substance and the merits of the Mearsheimer/Walt book. While I think it is a deeply flawed and strongly biased work that diminishes rather than enhances the debate about the basis and nature of the U.S. foreign policy relationship with Israel, there have been far more experienced critics that have taken Mearsheimer and Walt to task on the substance of their research and argument, and I will not rehash those arguments.   Although I would not encourage anyone to read its faulty reasoning and distorted analysis (other than to see it for what it really is), Mearsheimer/Walt’s book should not be censored.

Nor should it be suggested reading – especially by a national bookstore. And even more so, it should not be suggested reading to readers with an interest in the arguments about the current economic crisis.

That is what concerns me the most – how subtle the suggestion is, and how the association of contemporary American challenges and the “Israel Lobby” is not only displayed, but suggestively reinforced. When I first noticed the shelf I struggled to reconcile the display with common sense. Perhaps all the books were on “contemporary topics of political interest,” as I am sure Borders might suggest. But that argument doesn’t hold. The other books  focus on economic and domestic issues and the causes/challenges of our current economic environment  (even the Klein book, which makes some one-sided and dubious charges against Israel, is largely a book on the nature of global capitalism) – so what is the link with U.S. foreign policy, especially US/Israel foreign policy?  If a book on international affairs was to be included on that shelf, why not include a book about U.S./China economic relationship or a book about the influence of bank lobbyists (topics that are much more likely to relate to the current U.S. recession than U.S. foreign policy towards Israel)?  Why direct readers to this particular book when they have a particular interest in unrelated economic circumstances?

I hated to ask why, because I hated to contemplate the answer.

However, I did question store management and then, via phone, Borders customer service. Specifically, I asked who makes the decision how to stock shelves the particular “suggestion” shelves. Both representatives told me the decision to group books in that format, and the particular groupings, are determined by individuals at corporate headquarters. They didn’t know what the factors were in choosing the books, or who approved the selections. Regardless, those books ended up stocked on a shelf in one of Borders busiest in the Atlanta metro region (and presumably elsewhere) – directing curious readers about contemporary issues to a book of questionable academic veracity and one that openly questions the motivations of hundreds of thousands of Jewish and Christian Americans that actively support Israel.

We need to call this what it is – a bookseller of national influence’s deeply irresponsible decision that propagates a dangerous myth of an associated relationship between the current economic crises and the Jews.  It is offensive, and it is outrageous. And while we must be vigilant in not over-exercising the assertion that such decisions are in and of themselves driven by anti-Semitic biases, we must recognize that these types of decisions further establish an environment where anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attitudes do not garner the outrage they deserve.

Chaos, American politics, dark money, the need to save the American dream and… the Israel Lobby. On one shelf Borders connects dots that have no basis to be connected. And it does so in a way that even discerning shoppers may not realize. Borders may not have an obligation to advance public discussion and intellectual curiosity, but when it undertakes to do so it has a responsibility to do so in a conscientious, rather than in a biased and provocative manner.

Everyone has a right to shop how and where they choose, and stores have the right to attract and serve those shoppers in any way they see fit. Personally, I will not support booksellers who specifically recommend to buys a book that misrepresents Jewish political involvement as a nefarious activity, and especially when that book is suggested to readers who found unrelated books of interest. Accordingly, my support of Borders has been shelved, and I suggest readers consider shelving their support as well until Borders explains its rationale and utilizes policies that prevent theses types of irresponsible decisions from occurring again.

If we all don’t stand up now to these types of subtle messages that reinforce ancient biases and faulty reasoning, then there may be new chapters in the long history book of how times of economic distress have fomented anti-Jewish bias. And that is an updated history book I don’t want in my collection – no matter how much I love books.