Archive for November, 2009

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Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship: A Horrible Combination to Waste

November 29, 2009

“Inventing is a combination of brains and materials. The more brains you use, the less material you need.” –  Charles. F. Kettering

At no time in history has mankind been presented with greater opportunity for the global interaction of innovation and imagination, unbounded by time or geography.  The advancement of technology has created communication networks that allow global challenges to be addressed by international networks of problem solvers using instantaneous communications and unlimited perspectives. The enormity of this opportunity, however, is met by an equally great number of challenges. Throughout the word billions of men, women and children live in need – need of a more sustainable life, more sustainable communities, and a more sustainable world.  Indeed, in an era where global opportunity is almost blinding, we can’t lose sight of those who may live in our collective blindspots.

Given the way that technology has become a fundamental aspect of contemporary problem-solving, it has become easy to casually assume that any human challenge can be met easily by the application of existing or advancing technology.  But that isn’t always the case; some problems require custom technologies that deviate from existing technology pathways that might otherwise go unexamined. Also, the casual observer often assumes that simply providing technological tools to communities is a satisfactory substitute for the systemic integration of entrepreneurship and technology in communal development.  Rather, it this systemic integration that does more than respond to a need, it helps stimulate communal (and collective) imagination and innovation.

With this in mind, perhaps one of the best examples of this integration is the work of Jack Sim, a social entrepreneur, Ashoka Fellow and founder of the World Toilet Organization (WTO).

Now truth be told, I learned of Jack’s work by accident.  My birthday was November 19th and unbeknownst to me (until a friend duly pointed it out), that date is World Toilet Day. Putting aside my friends chiding (insert your own birthday/toilet joke here), I was genuinely curious and even more genuinely amazed by what I learned about that day.  For over a decade, Jack and the WTO have been vital voices in developing global improvements in sanitation that provide millions of individuals the opportunity to live healthy and dignified lives in communities with sustainable sanitation programs. Seeing a need, Jack helped shape and pursue a vision of a world where sanitation is not an aspiration, but rather an actualization of a community’s ability to care for itself.

But identifying a need, sharing a vision and having an entrepreneurial spirit wasn’t enough; something more was needed.

Jack’s success wouldn’t be possible without technology and innovation as well. There has been a steady progression of improvement in sanitation technology including the recent development of compost toilets for public use. Just as importantly, there has been innovation in the ways communities are educated about sanitation needs, innovation in the way funds are raised and allocated for the enhancement of global sanitation, and imagination in the way communications technology can be leveraged to create global awareness of the fact that over 2.5 billion people worldwide don’t have access to sanitation.

And that is the lesson – because of Jacks’ entrepreneurial spirit, the accompanying technological developments and systemic innovation, the WTO and organizations in 57 countries across the world are now focused on an issue that for far to long has been in the outhouse of global awareness. Proving once again that the combination of entrepreneurship, technology and social innovation are a terrible thing to waste  – literally and figuratively.

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Strange Love of National Organizations (or how I learned to stop worrying and love my local community)

November 18, 2009

Do not separate yourself from community – Hillel (Avos 2:5)

All politics is local – Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill

Quite simply, the GA is a reminder of the gravitational force of national Jewish organizations and the important role they play in connecting us to one another. We often exhort one another to ‘not recreate the wheel’ in our respective community efforts, but if it wasn’t for networked cadres of national leadership and large conferences like the GA there wouldn’t be opportunities for the mass in-person sharing of new ideas and lessons learned in order to avoid such redundant efforts. Certainly technology has given us all the ability to communicate more quickly (even instantly) and has removed geography as a barrier to the exchange of ideas. But nevertheless, there is no substitute for harnessing the collective power of diverse and distributed Jewish leadership so that together, under the umbrella of a national organizational endeavor, they can meet challenges and seize opportunities that are continental and even global in scope.

And having watched some of my friends ‘go national’ I also know the seductiveness (and impact) of being engaged in community discussions that transcend ones own local community. Whether it is the national young leadership cabinet of The Jewish Federations of North America in which many of my friends participate, or the boards of continental endeavors like Joshua Venture Group (in which I am involved), the involvement in initiatives that have a scope beyond one’s city limits are often perceived as a form of ‘graduated’ leadership. For others, however, ‘going national’ is a matter of necessity – to effect the level of transformative change they seek to achieve, local communities (especially small ones) may be too limiting. Whatever the reason one decides to expand his or her role in more national endeavors, there can be no question that it can be extremely educational and enriching.

But it can also be distracting.

There are a few reasons why involvement in national organizations and initiatives can present both challenges and opportunities related to the success of Jewish leaders. First – the challenges. “Going national” is a substantial commitment to individual resources and time commitments, and requires a high level of patience with long-distance communication, collaboration, and politics. While not always the case, the exhaustion from national involvement often limits activists from greater engagement in their own local communities. But there is another issue of greater significance (and often related to the first issue) – often national endeavors can feel a bit disconnected from local needs and issues. While solving issues on a national scale may involve a level of grand planning and implementation, it ultimately is often excellent local execution that make those solutions achieve their intended results. In sum, while passions may be national, needs are still local.

But on the other hand, the positive impacts of national involvement are clear. Engagement in national (or international) activities often give scale and scope to the imaginations of local activists. Connecting and sharing with peers is one of the best ways to meaningful exchange ideas and experiences, and the ability to connect with different people with different perspectives is a true benefit of national involvement. Also, as one of my friends reminded me at the GA, often in small communities the opportunity to become more engaged in the Jewish community is limited and becoming involved in national endeavors is the most meaningful way to provide engaged Jewish activists a way to make a Jewish impact. Lastly, understanding that there is a large community of which we all are a part (and that requires some of our attention and effort) is a key benefit of exposure to national initiatives – the more we feel a part of something bigger than ourselves, the more we are empowered to view ourselves as vital instruments of empowerment and change.

But with all that being said, I think that one can’t lose sight of the fact that community starts at home; first in our own home and then in our home communities. Sure, the lure of the faraway is great – its often feels more significant and less limited. But the ability to invest in our own communities is great as well, and there is no lack of need to impact the communities around us in the smallest and most significant ways. While we may worry about issues that transcend just our individual cities and towns, the love of our local communities – the communities that care for us – must remain great. Whether it is innovation, connection with Israel, Jewish arts and culture or otherwise – if there is a national need, that means there is a local need. And if there are local needs, we need local activists just as much as we need national ones.

So with that in mind, and the GA in our rearview mirror, lets make sure we all think communally, learn and interact nationally, but not forget to act locally. It makes a difference – a difference that can change a nation of Jews one community at a time.

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Encountering Israel at the GA

November 18, 2009

Partialness gathered all its parts and the whole wasn’t formed

How was the whole not gathered from all the parts, though

All their recesses fit and their crevices, how was

the whole not formed though all the components were set one by

one…

–       excerpt from “Partialness Gathered” by Rivka Miriam (Israeli poet)

At its most basic, the GA is a gathering of Jewish people and ideas, mixed together among and around shared passions and diverse interests. A modern-day Council of Four Lands, it brings together Jews from across North America and around the world collectively discuss to challenges, seek opportunities and create bonds of fellowship around the common cause of community.  And while the conference is convened by the (newly renamed) Jewish Federations of North America, one never loses sight of the fact that the attendees are not only North American, but representatives of the larger collective of the people of Israel – a people rooted in (and in some cases from) the land of Israel.

To that point, during my time at the GA I was struck by the fact that even though we were in the heart of Washington D.C., at the heart of my experience was the number of conversations and encounters I had that related to Israel.  Of course there were political discussions – with Prime Minister Netanyahu addressing the attendees it was hard not to be cognizant of the challenging political winds that constantly blow around (and in) Israel. But there were also conversations that touched upon the collective desire of the Zionist dream, a strong and enduring Jewish state with a compassionate and cognizant Jewish society living in peace with and among its neighbors.  Danny Gordis writes in his recent book Saving Israel that the purpose of Israel is to transform the Jewish people, and while I believe that is correct, I also believe that the purpose of the Jewish people is to transform Israel – to make the partial whole. With that in mind, perhaps the most impactful conversations I had were those that reminded me the Israel is still not yet complete – that it is a work in progress that requires the countless efforts of passionate advocates and constructive critics in order to become more perfect.

Those transformative efforts are not always easy though, and often challenge our very understanding of our own personal encounters with Israel.  One example of these efforts and challenges is Encounter, an educational organization that provides Jewish Diaspora leaders from across the religious and political spectrum with exposure to Palestinian life. Co-founded by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub and Rabbi Miriam Margles (and a product of Bikkurim), Encounter takes Jewish groups on one and two day encounters with Palestinian counterparts in Bethlehem, Hebron and East Jerusalem.  During my discussions with Rabbi Weintraub at the GA, I was struck not only by the passion of her commitment to Encounter, but the power and the opportunity of the type of transformative experience she and her organization offers.  If our perception of Israel is always partially constructed by our personal histories, experiences such as Encounter help build stronger understandings of Israel even if they disassemble some perceptions once thought to be unshakable.

Like my meeting with Rabbi Weintraub, at the GA there were opportunities to meet individuals passionate about creating a more complex and complete understanding of Israel were everywhere you looked. Whether it was the professionals of the Makom, a program of JAFI with a mission is to empower Jewish communities to develop deep, sophisticated and honest Jewish engagement with Israel through imaginative content and dialogue, or with the founders of AlmaLinks, a start-up program that connects young Jewish professionals around common interests, there were creative leaders and promising endeavors discussing the future of Israel.   But as we know from our local communities, passions about Israel are common, but are not always congruous and often require effort to connect diverse in our collective Jewish puzzle.  As my friend Eryn Kallish at Project Reconnections (a program that helps facilitate such dialogue and deliberation) recently impressed upon me, only when we encounter other perceptions and passions in a respectful way do we truly understand how we can play a part in creating greater respect for Israel and its people.

So, in the spirit of my encounters of Israel at the GA, let us all continue to gather the partial pieces of our common love of Israel, and let us remember that while the ingathering of our people is powerful, it is the ingathering of our ideas and efforts that can truly transform Israel’s encounter with the world – an encounter where the whole is certainly more than the sum of its parts.

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A Moment in Time: Sunday Night at the GA

November 15, 2009

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” – Henry David Thoreau

Anyone who has been to a GA knows that there are two schedules – the one that is published in the program book and the one you make for yourself.  Between the plenaries and the salons, there are meetings squeezed into bar booths and between sofas, old stories being recalled and new opportunities being explored.  Whenever so many people from so many places come together, there is often too much to discuss in too little time; the GA is a microcosm of the Jewish world – passionate, exhilarating and exhausting. Yet somewhere among the hectic schedules there are moments both superb and sublime that comprise the GA, moments that sometimes reflect upon the past and other that portend the future.

One such moment was Sunday night at the GA.

Convened by the grassroots efforts of Nina Bruder of Bikkurim, Keith Greenwald, a Vice-Char of the National Leadership Cabinet of Jewish Federations of North America, Shawn Landres of Jumpstart, Toby Rubin of UpStart Bay Area, Felicia Herman of Natan, Matt Abrams Gerber and Miryam Rosenzweig of Jewish Federations of North America, along with the support of myself, Steve Rakitt, the President/CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and several others, over 120 Jewish leaders and professionals crammed into a  room in the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel for almost two hours in the late evening hours of the first day of the GA. The room was a cross-section of the modern Jewish communal landscape, with representatives from National Young Leadership Cabinet, members of the Jewish social entrepreneur community, professionals involved in building and sustaining community capacity, as well as over twenty executives of Federations from across the country. Intermingled among the tables in the room were artists and journalists, fundraisers and philanthropists, passionate supporters of overseas needs and activists for the most local of causes.

The purpose of the gathering was to have a conversation among a group of engaged volunteers and professionals about how to strengthen and expand local Jewish communities by encouraging new ideas, new leaders and new approaches to Jewish community life.  An important and interesting topic for sure, but what made the room so compelling, however, is that for many participants in the room, this was the first time they had the opportunity to truly sit around the table taking to community members from communities other than their own – not just geographic communities, but communities of interest as well.  The sheer density of the room broke down silos, if for no other reason than there was no room for the silos to remain standing. Moreover, while many of the participants had shared their aspirations and frustrations of their respective communities with members of their respective communities, this was an opportunity for the various groups to fund common ground if not always common cause.

As pointed out by many attendees, the night wasn’t flawless, and in several respects it could have been improved. Although the hope was that there would be a healthy dialogue, naturally there was the occasional monologue. And without true facilitation, many of the table discussions left participants frustrated with the pace and progress of the conversations. Some suggested that guiding questions might have been a bit vague and next steps might have been unclear.  Lastly, just as much as one could marvel who was in the room, one also had to stop and wonder who wasn’t in the room and what it would take to get them there.  Nevertheless, the volume of the voices in the room made it clear that of those in the room nobody was keeping quiet and no opinion was left unexpressed.  In a GA filled with moments, Sunday night was a noisy, messy, and exhilarating one.

So what to make of this moment?  Sometimes a moment is just a snapshot in time, nothing more and nothing less. Sometimes it is the drop of a pebble that makes a ripple, which turns into a wave that transforms a landscape. It is hard to guess exactly what kind of moment that Sunday night at the GA was – a moment that captured the desire for people to more closely connect with one another in transforming their communities, or a moment where silos fell momentarily only to eventually be reinforced again over time.  Perhaps it was a moment in the present that was a reflection of moments that could have been, or much preferably, perhaps it was a moment that foreshadows the promise of what can be.   To realize that promise, there is no question that there is much work to be done in the moments and months ahead, especially if the participants hope to continue the conversations around those tables and tables in their local communities. Yes, perhaps Sunday night at the GA was a moment in time –

but in time, anything is possible.

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Not Too Small to Matter: Hybrid Organizations and the Challenge of Jewish Innovation

November 3, 2009

A few weeks ago one of my friends suggested a new game – innovation bingo. The rules are simple, sit in a room full of under-40 Jewish volunteers and professionals and wait until the word ‘innovation’ (or some variant) is used. Then yell bingo, and you win. The real fun, my friend joked, is not whether someone wins, but how quickly it takes for someone to win. Unfortunately, nothing about Jewish innovation is as simple as the rules to my friend’s proposed game.  Inspiring and nurturing Jewish innovation is still easier said than done, and the manner in which the rapid increase of Jewish start-ups are supported and integrated into the broader fabric of contemporary Jewish life presents not only opportunities but  challenges as well.  Whereas the last Jewish century has been, in part, built on a foundation laid by large community organizations that are too large to fail, the next Jewish century may very well be shaped by Jewish initiatives that may seem limited in size, but are definitely not too small to matter.

Some interesting thinking that has influenced my own opinion on the role of small, entrepreneurial organizations in the Jewish world is the concept of a hybrid organization.  This type of organization, most succinctly defined by Mark Surman, the executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, is “a mix of social mission, disruptive market strategies and web-like scale and collaboration.”  One of the reasons why I like the definition Mark proposes so much is that it encompasses fundamental aspects or organizational structure (mission), strategic orientation (market strategy) and tactical strength (scale and collaboration). I also think that truly strong hybrid organizations are do not mash-up so many ideas and tactics that they lose their cohesiveness, but are entities (or initiatives) that also leverage core values and incorporate the best practices of learning/changing organizations.  Given the challenges of reframing large organizations entrenched in history and (oftentimes) complexity, the development of small hybrid organizations are frequently the easiest way for engaged social activists to organize an efficient response to a social need they have identified.

While theory is interesting, the facts are even more compelling.  A cursory survey of the Jewish communal landscape results in an interesting an energizing set of Jewish start-ups that address a wide rang of social needs. Ranging from organizations that address shifting approaches to Jewish prayer and learning (Mechon Hadar), to organizations that address issues related to environmental education in the orthodox community (Canfei Nesharim) to initiatives that leverage Jewish values to change the broader world (Repair the World, American Jewish World Service), there are hybrid organizations being created to address every flavor of Jewish social mission imaginable. But it is not just in North America – in Europe and Israel you can find a similar explosion of Jewish start-ups, from organizations helping share a Jewish vision of a positive and inclusive Europe (CEJI) to the expansion of Jewish knowledge and social action in Hungary (Marom Budapest), to organizations developing new pathways of Jewish microphilanthropy (JGooders) new relationships between Israel/Diaspora young adults (Parallel Lives). One gets the feeling that the world of small Jewish start-ups is just beginning to unfold and that, while these organizations may be limited in current scale, their ability to expand the frontiers of our global Jewish community may be unlimited.

But there are limits.

These organizations, just like larger more established organizations, often suffer from shortcomings that can and do impede their broader development and success. First, the proponents of Jewish start-ups tend to overly fetishize Jewish innovation and assume that all small start-ups are going to be the paradigm shifting hybrid organizations they promise to be.  While mixes of mission, strategy and scalability may provide solutions that are engaging and invigorating, they will not be an all-answering (or even an adequate) substitute for larger, historic and impactful organizations. Second, their leadership is often in need of greater training, maturity and reflection – characteristics that entrepreneurs sometimes lack (or resist), but which our broader community desperately needs. Third, we need to make sure that we do not overly invest in a cult of personality, but rather in a cult of excellence. New is not always better and fresh is not always transformative.  While we should not discourage Jewish innovation, we also should recognize that blindly encouraging the development of hybrid organizations to the exclusion of renewing our established organizations might result in community infrastructure that is diverse in spirit but insufficient in capability to address social needs in an efficient and impactful manner.

Nevertheless, the real question then is not whether there should be a role in the Jewish community for these emerging hybrid organizations, but how to make sure that we support their development in a way that doesn’t assume their small size is a reflection of their small potential. Just as much, however, we need to make sure that our value of their high-level of “buzz” is not a substitute for our expectation of their high-level of performance.  In any case, a better understanding, encouragement (and mentoring) of these small, developing (and sometimes disruptive) hybrid organizations will no doubt help the Jewish world mature in a way that, like my friend’s game, would be a no-lose proposition.

Bingo indeed.

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Too Big to Fail: Large Jewish Organizations and the Imperative of Success

November 2, 2009

Unless you have been in a cave for the past year, you have no doubt heard the debate about how certain financial institutions are too big to be allowed to fail (therefore necessitating government intervention/support). And unless you are totally unengaged from the organized Jewish world, you have no doubt heard debate about whether certain Jewish organizations are too big to survive. Local Federations (and the national Federation system) as well large multi-national organizations such as the Jewish Agency for Israel are the subject of ample criticism (sometimes much deserved) for being too big, too slow to change, and possessing leadership that is too entrenched and myopic to successfully transition to a new era of Jewish communal life.  It is said these large organizations and others like them are at the doorsteps of obsolescence and they are outdated infrastructure for a time that has passed.

I believe, however, these organizations are too big to fail and that the support they need is not from the government, but from all of us.

Now to be clear, these organizations suffer from deficiencies that need prompt remediation. But like the financial systems that are essential to the endurance of an efficient economy, these Jewish organizations serve important roles in the maintenance and endurance of strong Jewish communities.  Their history alone does not require their continued existence, but the legacy of their successes should give us pause before we cast these organizations off to the bookshelves of Jewish history.  Billions of dollars raised by Federations and millions of olim assisted by the Jewish Agency have helped transform Jewish life in Israel and in communities around North America in a magnitude that cannot be quantified.  Also, we often say that if these organizations did not exist, we would need to recreate them, subtly recognizing that their shortcomings should not override the merit of their continued existence.

But just as status does not equal merit, existence does not equal success. While these organizations may be too big for us to allow them to fail, disputing and denying their shortcomings will not help in renewing them for the next Jewish century. The missions encompassed by their initial development may still be sound –  but the environments in which they pursue their vision have changed. With respect to Federations, while the amount of communal need has not diminished the impact of communal giving, the demand for philanthropic choice has increased the need for organizational flexibility. And with respect to the Jewish Agency, core aspects of the role it must fill have changed; Aliyah has become an evolutionary project not just an existential one and the need for the development the social capacity of the Jewish people should now be on par with its other historic roles.  Yes, they may be too big too fail, but they cannot be to small-minded in redefining what success looks like.

In their influential study on the lifecycle of organizations, Danny Miller and Peter Friesen categorized troubled organizations with similar characteristics. While our large Jewish organizations might have aspects of all of the archetypes, perhaps the most fitting  for some large Jewish organizations is the ‘Stagnant Bureaucracy’ category.  In that case, the organization has ossified to a point where it is neither receptive nor responsive to changing dynamics around it and where the weight of its own organizational infrastructure make it less likely to adequately adapt.  These characteristics do not mean the essential purpose of the organization is outdated, but they do make a clear case that the strategic and tactical approaches taken by the organization must be updated.  Organizations, however, cannot update themselves. The success of their ability to change requires committed and visionary leadership as well as the prodding and patient constituents; in other words, it requires all of us.

So as we embark on this next great chapter of Jewish organizational life, we should remember there are Jewish communal organizations that are too big to fail. It is not the size of their payrolls that make them so, but it is the size of the ideas they embody.  And in a world where the smallest and most instantaneous message can often be the most impactful, we should not underestimate the potential impact of the renewal of our largest and most enduring organizations on the success of our collective Jewish future; a future that is also too big to fail.