Innovators as Change Agents

June 1, 2006
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Larry Moses

While we often think of innovation in contexts such as art, culture, business, and education, innovation takes many forms. Beyond contexts, we identify certain individuals as innovators and tend to think of them as being creative change agents who produce and act upon new and different ideas. Organizational innovation is, in many senses, the enemy of habit. It calls into question our fundamental organizational assumptions, habits, and even our expertise, asking hard questions about purpose and relevance.

In Jewish life we tend to be sluggish innovators. Many of our institutions were developed decades ago, and while incremental innovations have unfolded, we have seen few organizations that invite fundamental questioning or create a healthy culture of dissent – both fertile ingredients for innovation.

It is difficult to be innovative in organizations that rely heavily upon tradition (with a small “t”) and where the patterns of the past are elevated as sacred. For example, both the American synagogue and the Jewish federation have retained the form, functions, and structure that were rooted in community realities of the 1950s and 1960s. In both examples, incremental innovations have raised the bar in various places, enabling some institutions to keep pace with the rampant challenges and changes in Jewish and American life. However, today, American synagogues and Jewish federations understand that entirely new questions and possibilities need to be addressed – large-scale innovation is needed. Jewish demographics have shifted radically in the past 50 years, and Jewish identity and affiliation are starkly different phenomena today than they were decades ago. We have not kept pace. Our organizational cultures are not agile, open, and probing, but rather self-contained, closed, and stubbornly conservative in response to dissent and diversity.

This is how would-be innovators – people seeking to make Jewish communities more relevant and responsive to an ever-changing set of challenges and constituencies – see our organizations. Who are those “innovators” who would endeavor to “lead change” in the face of the resistance most Jewish organizations and communities instinctively generate?

Innovators tend to be boundary crossers. In Jewish life today, we particularly need our leaders to cross boundaries. Jewish organizational life has become fragmented, localized, and competitive for scarce resources. As the Holocaust fades in impact for younger generations of Jews, and as the State of Israel decreasingly stands as the centerpiece around which Jews of all stripes rally and find commonality, American Jewish organizations have, understandably, followed individual paths. This phenomenon is further fueled by the emergence of private Jewish philanthropy as a major new entrepreneurial force in the community – usually operating outside the consensual culture of organized Jewish life. The result is a community where the parts function, increasingly, in an independent orbit; they do not communicate and build collaboratively.

Innovators and leaders must “connect the dots” of these increasingly disassociated groups, creating broad linkages, for example, between Jewish camping, day schools, Hillels, Israel programs, synagogues, and federations. Linkages are rarely valued, and they are not pursued. In fact, the whole has become smaller than the sum of the parts. Creating a whole that is greater than the sum of all parts is a true leadership challenge and, as such, a bona fide opportunity for innovation.

Jewish communities are challenged to develop institutional cultures that embrace the inevitability of change, strive to remain relevant, and encourage rather than fear dissent and diversity. If young Jews capable of innovation conclude that Jewish organizations are fundamentally hostile to change, innovation will be stifled. While the boundary-crossing forms of innovation are not poems, cinema, or high culture, they do require a certain artistry. In this mix is the challenge of building Jewish communal organizations for our grandchildren that look very different than the organizations of our grandparents. For this challenge, we need the most courageous innovators and leaders we can muster.

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Larry S. Moses is President of The Wexner Foundation, a foundation devoted to strengthening Jewish leadership and guided by the vision of Leslie and Abigail Wexner. Over the past two years the Foundation embarked upon a significant self-assessment, challenging itself to ask hard questions and to think innovatively beyond its own boundaries. Based in Columbus, Ohio, The Wexner Foundation is devoted to enhancing North American Jewish professional and volunteer leadership and Israeli public sector leaders.

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