Bringing ‘Hevruta’ into the Boardroom

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November 1, 2012
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Rebecca Voorwinde AND Mishael Zion

Rabbi Hama said: Just as in the case of iron, when one implement sharpens another, so, too,  do two Torah scholars sharpen each other when they discuss questions of halakhah together.

Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah said: Why were the words of Torah analogized to fire? For just as fire cannot be made to burn with one piece of wood alone, so, too, the words of Torah cannot be retained by someone who studies alone.

(Talmud Bavli Ta’anit 7a)

(zh zf hkan) ch,fs htn :tnj hcr rnt
rnuk ?[uvgr hbp sjh ahtu] sjh kzrcc kzrc
;t urhcj ,t ssjn sjt wvz kzrc vn :lk
/vfkvc vz ,t vz ihssjn ohnfj hshnk, hba

vru, hrcs ukanb vnk :vbj rc rc vcr rnt
hrcs vf tkv (yf df uvhnrh) rntba ?atf
:lk rnuk w[gkx .mph ahypfu] ‘v otb atf
iht vru, hrcs ;t shjh ekus ubht at vn
/hshjhc ihnhhe,n

All too often in the Jewish professional world, where much of the work requires diverse skill sets, executive directors and rabbis are placed in positions that are bigger than any one person can handle. As a result, we hear of “director burnout” and of amazing professionals fleeing the Jewish communal world for ”more sane” work environments.

At the same time, perhaps because of the way new technologies are helping us to think and work, there is a clear move beyond the traditional “do-it-all director” to structures that enable collaboration and teamwork. These more collaborative structures have their own challenges, but as participants in one such model for the past year, we feel it has much to offer. Together, we serve as co-directors of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a 25-year program whose mission is to develop and strengthen young Jewish leaders. We found inspiration for our collaborative arrangement in our tradition’s “playbook”: the hevruta, or study partnerships. Whether in the office or in the boardroom, there is much to learn from the way a generative partnership is cultivated in the beit midrash, the Jewish house of study.

Our co-directorship invests two leaders with equal responsibility for the vision and mission of the program. With a rabbi and a managerial professional at the helm of a Jewish educational program, our model may appear straightforward in its division of labor and responsibilities. But what makes it distinct is how we share responsibility. As co-directors, we develop and debate the big questions concerning what we stand for and together set the course for what we’re trying to achieve as an organization.

This arrangement is not simple, and it is not right for all organizations. A significant financial investment in senior leadership is needed, as is the time commitment required by each leader to work as one of a pair. And, of course, any collaboration requires an enormous amount of trust and great facility with communication. But even more essential for such a partnership to truly thrive is the development of a “hevruta personality.”

What does this require? A good collaboration is the sum of two disparate — and seemingly contradictory — modes of interaction. First is the practice of sharpening each other: meaningfully and wholeheartedly confronting new and difficult ideas, and criticizing and challenging each other’s suggestions in order to strengthen and focus them. As Rabbi Hama describes in the Talmud, it is only by using two metals of different strengths that sharpening can occur. By bringing together two leaders with disparate perspectives, our co-directorship allows for new ideas to be fielded and new concepts to be sharpened for everyone’s benefit.

As opposed to the corporate two-in-a-box model of CEO/COO, our leadership design is not divided along the classic lines of external voice and in-house organizer. We both serve as the face and voice of our organization and handle the day-to-day details. While we have separate portfolios, we make room for each other in our various fields of expertise, and we constantly surprise each other when we ask sharp questions and make innovative suggestions in realms that “traditionally” belong to the other. It is this “outsider’s perspective” that elevates our work from the humdrum to new levels of efficiency and effectiveness.

A successful hevruta must not only be one of sharpening; it also requires mutual investment and support. One’s hevruta partner serves not only as a devil’s advocate in discussions but also as a key support and sounding board. The hevruta is a place of vulnerability and self-reflection — a place to be challenged. Our best moments occur when we can safely receive feedback and real-time reactions to our leadership approaches and styles from each other.

We set aside regular times for check-ins. In addition to sharing our mutual to-do lists, the check-ins allow us to talk about how we’re
growing as leaders and what we’re thinking about — interesting conversations and experiences we’ve had, articles we’ve read, people we’ve met. As professionals with young families,
we feel that time is sacred. But time is what we need to let these conversations deepen
our collaboration. On the flip side, when family requirements or projects take one of us away from our regular work, the other picks up
the slack.

The lessons and skills of collaboration are not confined to an official collaborative leadership model; they are applicable wherever colleagues feel comfortable saying, “Please sharpen me,” or “Please, right now, I just need support to get through this moment.”

The Jewish values that inform our organization also inform its model of leadership: diversity of perspectives, reflectiveness, and an eagerness to grow and learn. At the end of the day, hevruta requires both individuals to know their strengths and yet to have the humility to turn their limitations into a place of relationship and opportunity.

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Rebecca Voorwinde is the director of strategy and community engagement for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships (Bronfman.org), where she oversees the strategic planning for all aspects of the fellowships in Israel and the U.S., including work with the global alumni community of nearly 1,000. Prior to her work with Bronfman, she worked in the Corporate Responsibility Group for Ernst & Young LLP in New York and also for Diversity@Work in Melbourne, Australia. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Michael, and their daughter.

Rabbi Mishael Zion, originally from Jerusalem, is director of education at the Bronfman Youth Fellowships (Bronfman.org). He was ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York in 2012, and he has served on the faculty of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning in New York. He is co-author, with his father, Noam Zion, of the celebrated A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices and the Israeli bestseller HaLaila HaZeh: Haggadah Yisraelit, a new Israeli Haggadah in Hebrew. He lives in New York and blogs at Text and the City.

Voorminde and Zion serve as co-directors of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.

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