By Rabbi Sarah Bassin
When I applied to rabbinic school a decade ago, I had absolute clarity that I would never work as a congregational rabbi. Ever. When people asked me why, I replied that “synagogues are where innovation goes to die.”
No, I am not a self-hating Jew. Far from it, I became a rabbi because I have a deep passion for making Judaism relevant in the 21st century. But it seemed to me that my community’s established institutions had little desire and even less ability to make the transformations needed for an era of shifting demographics and non-compulsory affiliation.
During my rabbinic training, I sought opportunities outside the traditional synagogue internships to cultivate a different kind of skill-set. When I graduated, I took a position as executive director of NewGround, an emerging Muslim and Jewish organization. That job opened a door to the world of Jewish start-ups and social entrepreneurship. I joined the Schusterman ROI Community for innovative Jewish leaders. I received a Joshua Venture Group fellowship.
In those spaces, I found a vibrant Jewish world utterly separate from the “mainstream Jewish establishment” of Federation and synagogues. This start-up world offered a thousand different access points to meaningful Jewish identity – through farming and sexual politics, hip-hop and meditation.
The turn of the millennium brought with it a boom of these Jewish start-ups. They came into existence because they sensed a growing irrelevance of the establishment. In those early days, the establishment looked at many of these start-ups as quaint but not strategic or replicable.
Mainstream organizations largely ignored entrepreneurs and went about their business. For at least a decade, there was little love between the two realms. They were adversaries.
But by the time I was ready for my next professional challenge, I found myself in a very different position than I had been in just three years before – both in how I felt about the mainstream organizations and in how they felt about me.
I had started to look at some of these established organizations with envy. The life of an entrepreneur is exhausting – trying to become an expert in everything from websites to tax forms and fundraising. The administration and penny-pinching can often feel detached from the passion that motivates us into the work.
I also felt a different energy from the establishment towards me. Synagogues and other mainstream organizations were intrigued by the success of the Jewish start-up world. They saw in organizations like mine the creativity and energy that they wanted infused in their base.
So I chose to do exactly what I had sworn I never would. I became a rabbi at a synagogue – the place I had once believed innovation went to die. I swallowed my words because they no longer felt true. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills invited in the transformative energy I had expected them (and every other mainstream institution) to reject.
And I was not alone. As I made my transition many of my entrepreneurial friends were also being enticed into the establishment. My friend Josh Feldman had recently transitioned from heading Six Points – a start-up supporting emerging Jewish artists – to a new role at the renowned American Jewish University where he would help reimagine their work in arts and culture. It took no time to create a list of people who made similar transitions in the past year. Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman of the grassroots Jewish learning organization LimmudLA reinvigorated education at Temple Beth Am. Gamal Palmer, who had become an expert in cutting-edge leadership initiatives, took his talents to Federation. The historic Wilshire Boulevard Temple swooped up Rabbi Susan Goldberg – the Highland Park and Silverlake rabbi with the famously edgy East Side Jews and Temple Beth Israel.
We realized that we were the start of a new trend. The five of us (and undoubtedly many others) represent the crumbling of the barrier between the established and entrepreneurial worlds. Each side has something to offer the other. Mainstream organizations bring to the table resources, buildings, organizational infrastructure and support. And the entrepreneurs bring methods and processes and ways of thinking that are not held captive by the way it has been.
The five of us call ourselves intrapreneurs. We aspire to transform organizational culture from the inside. We choose not to abandon the institutions that have been our stalwart for the past century. We see potential for them to be them relevant and resilient in the next hundred years. As intrapreneurs, we are disruptive and a bit irreverent in our new homes – and that is exactly why we were hired.
When we were entrepreneurs, we were accustomed to working fast with few resources. In our new positions, resources abound but the pace of change is much slower. These culture-clashes are the inevitable byproduct of the convergence of two worlds. So our group meets monthly to support each other and strategize through once foreign challenges and forge a new way forward. Through navigating our different organizational cultures, it is clear that there is no one way to be an intrapreneur and each of us embodies a slightly different model. Perhaps because of these differences in context (and in identity and experience), I find this space to be infinitely more expansive for my professional development as a rabbi than the more traditional professional clergy conferences.
When reflecting on the Jewish landscape as a whole, it seems that we are witnessing a classic Hegelian process. The thesis spawns its antithesis and eventually they merge into the better synthesis. The establishment spawns the start-ups and eventually, they merge through people and institutions willing to make a leap of faith. I believe that this new trend of fusing entrepreneurs into establishments and combining the best of both worlds is precisely what the Jewish community needs to be effective in facing 21st century challenges. Neither established institutions nor start-up entrepreneurs will survive without the other.
Rabbi Sarah Bassin is the associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. She serves on the boards of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change and UpStart.