Dvar Acher – Another Opinion: Have We Not Learned Since the 2nd Temple?

by Lou Feldstein

This week, two uniquely different blogs were posted that paint a poignant and powerful picture of where the Jewish community’s core problem really exists.

Seth Godin is world renowned marketing guru and a keen observer of organizational impact. He is also a harsh social sector critic. In his Sunday blog he wrote:

You work at one, or the other.
At the lab, the pressure is to keep searching for a breakthrough, a new way to do things. And it’s accepted that the cost of this insight is failure, finding out what doesn’t work on your way to figuring out what does. The lab doesn’t worry so much about exploiting all the value of what it produces – they’re too busy working on the next thing.
To work in the lab is to embrace the idea that what you’re working on might not work. Not to merely tolerate this feeling, but to seek it out.
The factory, on the other hand, prizes reliability and productivity. The factory wants no surprises, it wants what it did yesterday, but faster and cheaper.
Some charities are labs, in search of the new thing, while others are factories, grinding out what’s needed today. AT&T is a billing factory, in search of lower costs, while Bell Labs was the classic lab, in search of the insight that could change everything.
Hard, really hard, to do both simultaneously. Anyone who says failure is not an option has also ruled out innovation.

Clayton Christenson in his influential work, The Innovator’s Dilemma, affirms Godin’s perspective. Christensen posits based on his extensive research, that established organizations can rarely be innovative because their core clients demand what they have today rather than what they may need tomorrow. He suggests that the tension between serving the existing client and innovating for tomorrow’s is usually only successful when an organization either sets up a completely separate enterprise, or the innovation takes place on the edges in new start up enterprises.

Godin’s and Christenson’s arguments, which affirm the universal challenge of innovation, paint a dichotomy that truly challenges the Jewish community and the tension between serving existing needs and innovating for tomorrow.

This tension became very real last week, with the publication of a second blog, and more importantly, the publication of the notice that the blog writer had been terminated from her position for having published the piece.

For those away on vacation last week, or too busy doing their jobs (and thus not reading blogs) and may have missed it, Ms. Michal Kohane, a professional at a local Federation wrote a challenging and provocative piece (which interestingly she seems to have initially published in her personal blog back in May) concerning her frustrations with the Jewish community’s love affair with under-40’s and why more resources should be devoted to other populations. Suffice it to say, the next day she was fired. In response eJewishphilanthropy notified its readership and added the following editorial.

We must ask, why is it that our organizations cannot accept criticism? Why is it that our largest organizations behave vindictively towards anyone – employees, lay leaders, the media – that say anything critical of any initiative or policy? Are their CEO egos so fragile? Are their missions so questionable that some behave like the worst dictatorships in history?

And the flood gates opened. Whether it was eJewishPhilanthropy, JEDLAB or private postings on Facebook the venom spewed forth. The animosity and hatred for the establishment (the Factory), gave rise to more and more. Ms. Kohane became the folk hero of the disgruntled, the anti-establishment, and the prognosticators of what the Jewish future should look like.

As I read the words blasting the Federation (the ultimate Jewish communal “factory”) I began to wonder what would have happened if she had instead worked for, let us say, the Schusterman Foundation or Bronfman Foundation. Experience teaches me that under the same circumstances, and based on their own policies, as well as their deep financial commitment to under-forty strategies, she probably would also have been fired. In that case would the hatred and vitriol have been so quick to fill the pages (I think not)?

What struck me, as one who travels between multiple organizational sectors, was that the comments concerning Ms. Kohane’s firing reflected the two world views of the Lab and the Factory and more importantly, within the Jewish world, an “us” (outside the “establishment”) versus “them” (“establishment”) world view.

As we struggle to confront the litany of problems in the Jewish community, the central issue of “us versus them” remains at the core. Until we can get past these “Lab” versus “Factory” mentalities, and recognize we are all in this together, we will never intersect and find the solutions needed to impact lives and bring meaning from Judaism.

To have read the comments in the blogs about the firing of Ms. Kohane is to have a window into a world of resentment, anger and frustration towards the established Jewish world. The undertones of hatred toward federations, synagogues and other of the same ilk are apparent to any reader.

Was it appropriate to not like the federation’s decision? Sure. We are each entitled to such opinions (just as others will understand and agree with the decision). And yet, it wasn’t the lack of agreement with the decision that was so fascinating, but rather the knee jerk animosity and hatred to issue forth. That is what is clearly beyond reason. Ahmadinejad is worthy of such hatred. So, too, Stalin and Hitler. Federations? Really? Can one honestly compare the Federation’s actions with worth dictatorships in history” Seriously?

Are Jewish “Factory” organizations (including synagogues, JCC’s, federations etc, etc.,), that at their core are trying to do good work and improve lives, really worthy of such hatred and animosity? Even Apple, one of the most innovative companies in the world, would not have stood by while one of its division heads publically attacked one of its products. There are ways to challenge the status quo that can be quite productive. We don’t know the inside story, and yet we allow the basest of our instincts to rise forth and immediately decry foul. This says less about the Federation and Ms. Kohane (who wrote a beautiful post firing statement), and more about our perspectives, insecurities and frustrations.

In a few short weeks, we will be observing Tisha B’av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Temple(s). The rabbis of old taught that the 2nd Temple was not destroyed because God no longer loved us, or because the Romans were more powerful. Rather, they suggested (anticipating by a few millennia the words of Pogo) that the Temple was destroyed because of “sinat chinam”, the causeless hatred of brothers and sisters. As we were being attacked by Rome, rather than unifying and fighting against the common enemy, we spent our energies fighting each other. While being attacked on the outside, we fought one another on the inside … and Jerusalem burned – not to be rebuilt for thousands of years.

Is it fair to challenge and ask tough questions? Absolutely. Is it appropriate to critique the status quo and stand up to leaders and say, “You are wrong? Of course. But if Tisha b’av teaches us anything, it is that when such questioning begins from the perspective of “us” vs.” them” or moves to the perspective of “us” vs. “them” then we are doomed.

We cannot afford to align ourselves in battling camps of animosity and futile hatred. We cannot confront our problems or seek solutions in an “us” camp and a “them” camp. We can only thrive if and when “us” and “them” become “we”.

The comic Pogo suggested “we have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.” Are we prepared to spend our time, energy and resources overcoming this enemy and working together, or will we remain comfortably ensconced at our keyboards throwing darks and arrows at those we disagree with in the Jewish community?

Where do you stand?

Rabbi Louis Feldstein is the CEO of Dynamic Change Solutions, LLC an organizational enhancement and change management consulting firm focused on the nonprofit and faith-based sectors.

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  1. says

    Rabbi Feldstein, how can you in one breath decry the comparisons that you claim were made between Federations and the worst dictatorships in recent history…. and then yourself assert that such critique is comparable to what led to the destruction of the Second Temple?

    I don’t think, by the way, that your characterization of the critique of the SF Federation as ‘venomous’ or ‘hateful’ is at all accurate. Maybe you’ve been exposed to a particularly extreme slice of the conversation. Most of what I’ve read, across eJP and JEDLAB has been thoughtful, passionate and constructive commentary. Kol haposel b’mumo posel – perhaps your heightened sensitivity to this kind of criticism has led you to overreact.

  2. says

    Thank you for the time you took to comment. I am not sure I understand your first point. Please forgive me. If you would like to explain it differently, I will gladly comment.

    In terms of your second point, I stand by what I wrote, not because I have a “heightened sensitivity” but rather because I don’t think my reading was that off target. My key point was, and remains, that it appeared to me that many of those who commented on what unfortunately happened to Ms. Kohane, saw a grave injustice based not on the actual facts, but on their personal perceptions of a “lab” vs. “factory” world. They then, starting with their personal perspectives of the “lab” vs. “factory” (rather than the facts), used in some cases extremely strong language to affirm their world views.

    This reminded me of a recent Facebook posting I saw concerning something that a political conservative had done. The person was then skewered for this action. After about 3-4 posts, someone wrote that the event had never occurred and that it was an urban myth. The next comment was telling. It said, and I paraphrase, ‘it might not be true, but you could see her actually doing that couldn’t you.” That is why the rabbis teach we shouldn’t even say good things about people (as it will quickly lead to lashon harah).
    In terms of my “heightened sensitivity” I am perplexed by what this means. I have no special sensitivity to this issue other than a growing awareness of what I see as the increasing divide between these world views (“perceived truths”). It is a divide that truly troubles me and one that reminds me of the tensions and animosities that the rabbis affirmed led to the destruction of the Temple.


  3. Rabbi James Greene says

    Rabbi Feldstein – I first say how much I appreciate your calm reading of this terrible situation. I think you are correct that there is a lot of energy around this story (rightfully so, I would argue). Your response was appreciated.

    However, I disagree wholeheartedly with your assertion that organizations, whether factories or labs, would have all made the same choice. Disagreement and dissent is an important part of the development process and should be accepted and encouraged, not silenced and punished. It is shameful what has happened to this woman who spent her life in service of the Jewish community. I would also argue that established institutions are all relegated to factory status. I know of many community organizations, JCCs, Federations, synagogues, etc where creativity is the norm.
    I am part of the Jewish community establishment. Yet I am also troubled and dismayed by what has occurred. You refer to an us vs. them mentality – but I see something entirely different. I see a woman who was unjustly fired for speaking a truth that did not inherently impact her organization. She did not say that Federations were dying or useless. She suggested that serving other populations besides my generation would be a good idea – I happen to think she is quite correct.
    The anger expressed in the response to her firing was not baseless. It is rooted in a search for justice and a sense that there was no justice here, just expedience. And if we want to create a lab of creativity in the heart of Jewish innovation (the Bay Area) perhaps we could do better than to stifle someone who is trying to reach beyond the norm.

  4. says

    Rabbi Greene,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your understanding of my “calm reading of this terrible situation”.

    I don’t think I was asserting that both the labs and the factory would have made this same decision. Nor was I suggesting that dissent should not be encouraged and supported. I also agree with you that there are in fact many Federations, synagogues, JCC’s where creativity is or can be the norm.
    All I am suggesting, in this context, is that based on what we read, and without any facts, the community quickly divided into “us” and them”. In addition, I think that if we were to take a random poll and asked what orgs are like labs and which like factories (using Godin’s paradigm) that we both would have a good idea of where people would place certain types of organizations. It is these types of knee jerk reactions that cause me concern and led me to write the column.

    I do not know the facts, but I truly do feel for Ms. Kohane and what happened. As one who has paid the price for what I have written in these pages, I am well aware of the lack of open dialogue. That being said, I also clearly understand that with dialogue comes responsibility and, yes, sometimes even risk.

    While I understand your point about the anger expressed, I also found in her words, after the firing, a powerful calmness and even respect for the organization that fired her. Was she made to write it. Who knows, but nevertheless, the words were impactful.

    For people to be that angry, I only had to ask…was it really because of their righteousness indignation at what occurred, or because this gave vent to feelings they already had about the organization (and its peers)? Truth be told we may never know the real intention, but then again do we know what the intensions were of our ancestors as they battled each other while the Temple burned?


  5. says

    My first point was that you can’t excoriate Dan Brown (we can be adults here, Dan is the one who publicly made the dictator comment) for making that comparison by comparing his actions to those responsible for the destruction of the Temple. What moral high ground do you stand upon if you use the same inappropriate comparisons?

    As to the rest, your description of the tenor of the conversations doesn’t reflect what I’ve witnessed. Fifty comments on the original post, and aside from Dan’s harshly-worded comment, I’d hardly describe the rest as “venemous”. In fact, I’d hold up those fifty comments as a sign that mature people can in fact use the internet to have respectful and meaningful discussion of challenging issues. I was proud to be the member of a community that could deal with a difficult issue out in the open, without descending into name-calling. JEDLAB was a similarly thoughtful and productive place to converse, with no venom I could detect.

    When someone overreacts, we can usually assume it’s because they are hypersensitized. I’d say Dan Brown, working as a publisher in a ‘closed’ world, probably overreacted to the actions of the Fed when he made his comparison. He’s naturally sensitized to issues of censorship and speech. Perhaps your own long personal and professional history with Federation and UJC/JFNA have made you a bit too defensive, and a little tone-deaf when it comes to criticism of Federation.

    I encourage you to re-read the comments and the conversations, and try and see how much respect for others is in them, how much love of Jewish community, and how much honest and fair critique they contain.

  6. Michal Kohane says

    to clarify: no one made me write my statement, or anything else I’ve written and that bears my name (many of which can be read through my blog [www.miko284.com], the J weekly, JCF blog and elsewhere). those who know me, have heard me say the same things I write about, and with a lot of the same passion.
    the (carefully chosen) prevailing pronoun in my original article is “we”. I do not share the “us” and “them”. I see the jewish people as a family, with all sorts of factions (and thus the rooms needed for each-); I see the jewish people as a one body, and to have the eye and the ear argue with the leg about who’s more important and who should digest the food – completely futile. any criticism is equally directed inward and I include myself as part of that “we”.
    not for a minute did I think this would be federation’s reaction. it would have been thousands times more wonderful if they said something like – ‘hey, this is a little rough writing here, but you’ve raised some valid points and you’re getting some traction so let’s take the summer and start working on it’, which – btw – is still an option!! as to the “we dont know exactly what happened”, things happened so fast, I didnt even have a chance to make it up. this is also evident in the reactions from within and without.
    regardless, I would like to stop being the issue and go back to the original topic, and – especially now, with time and no job – help create the next phase: we’re doing a lot for the young ones, teens and young adults. we’re also doing some for the elderly. it’s not perfect and not bad. it’s time to pay attention to the middle – 40 plus and not screwed.