Risk-Taking and Contemporary Jewish Communal Life

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September 1, 2000
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Jeffrey R. Solomon

The genesis of this piece emerges from the editor of Sh’ma reading this list posted in my office and wondering about risk at the top of such a list. Derived from the writing of Tom Peters, co-author of In Search of Excellence and other books analyzing management practices, the list often piques the interest of visitors.

Jewish communal organizations should be rewarded for risk-taking. The power of the new economy is in the use of information to advance progress. Do we support this type of approach in Jewish organizational life? Do our organizations conduct strategic planning by asking for real input, or are we so afraid of the answers that we don’t even ask the questions? The world is in an unprecedented moment of market-driven growth where consumer satisfaction is a highly developed value meriting serious investment. Yet in Jewish life, we seem to treasure the monopolies and oligarchies we have created. The high rate of disaffiliation and disaffection are the price we pay for this unwillingness to evaluate the necessity of change. Every Jewish organization should build performance improvement measures into their day-to-day operations and should expect honest self-assessment in the context of our being a “welcoming community” where, indeed, we care about amcha and the quality and primacy of service delivery.

In terms of risk, our history and tradition feel out of sync with many of our current practices. Picture Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah, or Nachshon ben Aminadav who took seriously Moses’ dictate to cross the sea before it parted. He led by entering the water, for he understood the subject of risk (or, alternatively, allowed his faith to guide his boldness) and also understood that obtaining a consensus at that moment would not have served the Israelites well. Throughout our history we admire the risk-taking of many leaders, and yet North American Jews have developed a communal corporate culture based on a model of consensus that, some would argue, leads us toward risk aversion.

Consensus was the right culture to develop at a time when there were extraordinary life and death issues facing our community. Crises such as the Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel, and virulent anti-Semitism have led to focused, visionary communal actions of extraordinary success that were driven largely by a communal consensus. Responses to these crises were bold, risky ventures.

Today, we are plagued by normality. Communal structures that were built as mobilizations to crises continue to operate on a crisis footing and now suffer from a loss of mission. Consequently, we need to rethink the position of risk-taking and the culture of consensus. Consensus reflects the diverse and divergent views of many people involved in community. But to reach consensus, one is forced to compromise, which moves forward the communal agenda. Does such consensus, however, proclaim the milestones we envision and seek to achieve as a community? One barrier to this approach is a consensus-driven corporate culture that cannot effectively dream with specificity and reorder its priorities.

In smaller, more focused organizations, consensus is still a model worth achieving. The organizational culture can nurture such an approach if alignment is possible between the organization’s mission and focus. But too often an organization’s leadership does not commit the resources to refine mission and focus, thereby making the alignment necessary to consensus far too elusive.

We are currently witnessing entrepreneurial philanthropists who are undertaking the risks that were historically undertaken by the community. Most recently, I was privileged to have been involved in one such risky venture – the launch of Birthright Israel. The range of negative criticisms about this bold concept – providing every young Jew in the world with his or her first living and learning trip to Israel as a gift from the Jewish people – was profound. And yet, Birthright Israel’s initial impact on the lives and identity of the first 8,000 participants from eighteen countries appears to be remarkable. Skeptics are rethinking their objections as evaluators’ early reports indicate success beyond all expectations.

How do we return to an era where noble mistakes are accepted as the cost of taking noble risks? We might agree that consensus need not be the corporate culture of our communal vehicles, that collaboration between like-minded people could also move the agenda, and that for larger communal decisions, democracy works. Communal decision-making for policy issues would mirror a powerful democracy where votes are taken and even losing voters support the decisions.

Philanthropic risk-taking, organized collaboration, quality assurance through performance improvement techniques, and democratic corporate cultures are among the approaches that would create livelier community. At a time when there is an unprecedented search for meaning and spiritual connectedness, we have an unprecedented opportunity to engage Jews in ways impossible in the past several generations.

However, that engagement will not come about until our organizational leadership internalizes the lessons of Abraham and Nachshon and the role of risk in assuring that we reach our potential as a community while meeting the challenges facing our people.

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Jeffrey R. Solomon is the President of The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. He previously served as Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of UJA-Federation of New York. He served as the consultant to the process that created the United Jewish Communities.

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