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Breaking Stereotypes in Communal Arena Can Help Envision the Future

January 21, 2010 By:
Sanford R. Cardin, Ariel Beery and Aharon Horwitz
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The computer chip is nearly synonymous with Intel, the world's leading chip manufacturer. Interestingly, this corporate powerhouse came to rely on Israel for its front-line research. As recounted in Start-Up Nation, a book by Saul Singer and Daniel Senor, Israeli engineers had new ideas to build a more powerful chip, but their corporate leadership from abroad was reluctant to forego their old ways. The Israeli engineers prevailed and, as a result, Intel pulled even farther ahead in the field.

We in the Jewish community can learn a great deal from Intel's decision to scrap an old process in order to pursue new ways of doing business. This is true across the organizational board: local federations, private foundations and start-up organizations.

We should recognize that like Intel's management, we often project our preconceptions of how things "should be" on new opportunities that arise. As such, the way we stereotype institutions according to labels -- "federation," "foundation," "start-up" -- often leads us to assume both the form they should take in operations, as well as their function in the community.

We assume that federations are consensus-driven communal institutions that move cautiously and deliberately without creativity, while private foundations are independent entities, sometimes eccentric, that act quickly and by fiat, often placing the whims of board members ahead of the needs and desires of the community-at-large. We see start-ups as small entities that meet the narrow interests of their members, but lack the capacity and the desire to address basic communal problems.

An equally problematic stereotyping of Jewish organizations occurs in terms of function. Many believe that start-ups should focus on innovation, private foundations on the research and development of new programs, and federations on sustaining whatever good projects the other two create.

The time has come to end this simplistic thinking. We must move to an "open source" approach to Jewish communal life, one in which opportunity and competence dictate the flow of human and financial resources.

Not all start-ups are innovative and anti-establishment, not all federations lack inspiration and flexibility, and not all foundations operate solo. There are caring, concerned, competent and creative people in every corner of the Jewish communal world; we need to unleash and nurture their talent, regardless of the kind of organization in which they work.

Let's decide what we want to achieve as a community, how best to attain those goals, and how to evaluate our efforts, then turn our attention to who and what are best suited for the task at hand -- a process we expect could yield some surprising results.

And then we must act.

While the past few years have seen an explosion in the number of workshops, seminars and summits about the Jewish future -- many of which have generated good recommendations -- even the best ideas are of limited utility until they are put into practice.

The success of any initiative will depend in large part on the ability of the local federations, foundations, synagogues and other Jewish groups to move beyond their traditional roles, and work together to engage and inspire the members of their communities in new and effective ways. The early signs are promising, and other communities are learning from these efforts.

At the end of the day, what makes the Jewish people special is the content of our message -- and the values on which it is grounded. 


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