[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 9 – The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
by Maya Bernstein
The Jewish community is caught in a sticky paradox: can it preserve what is sacred and valuable in Judaism, while also allowing the tradition to grow so that it can remain relevant to us, and so that we can remain relevant to the world? What makes our challenge so difficult, and so exciting, is the amount of passion and commitment the various constituencies in the Jewish community have for preserving and protecting a tradition and a way of life that has resonated for thousands of years.
Warren Berger, writing for the Harvard Business Review’s blog, explains that today’s most successful companies frame their challenges with a three-word question: How Might We? He explains that though it may seem that the language we use to frame problems is trivial, it actually influences the way that we tackle these problems and the creativity we can access as we try to solve them. He quotes Tim Brown, the CEO of the innovation and design firm IDEO, to explain the significance of each word in that phrase:
“The ‘how’ part assumes there are solutions out there – it provides creative confidence,” Brown said. “‘Might’ says we can put ideas out there that might work or might not – either way, it’s OK. And the ‘we’ part says we’re going to do it together and build on each other’s ideas.”
As a Jewish community today, we are faced with the opportunity to reframe our challenges as opportunities, as “How Might We” statements: How might we ensure that Judaism remains vibrant? How might we navigate the tension between preserving what is sacred in our tradition and keeping it relevant? Perhaps the biggest question revolves around the “we” – given the diversity and passion of the various groups tackling this question, is it even possible to attempt to come together as a “we” to navigate these issues?
Commitment to Collaboration
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz tells a story about two Hassidim in Israel in the 1930s; one was complaining about the attitude of Rav Kook, and his openness to all types of Jews. The other listened quietly as the first talked about how wrong Rav Kook was to be in relationship with secular Jews. Eventually, the quiet one asked his friend, “so, how is your cousin Moishy? The one who is no longer religious?” The first Hassid says, “Oh, he’s OK, I talk to him every week … he’s no longer religious, but, you know, he’s mishpocheh – he’s family!” The first Hassid smiles and says to his friend, “Rav Kook thinks of the entire Jewish people as mishpocheh.”
The Jewish community’s diversity of perspectives is an asset. Our varying approaches but shared passion allow us to approach complex challenges with equal commitment and divergent perspectives. This can only enrich and strengthen our community. We need to create structures for all of those perspectives to be heard and included as we try to design meaningful opportunities for the engagement in Jewish life.
This dialogue can be most generative if we use appropriate language, language that creates possibility. Let’s adopt an attitude of “How Might We.” Let us believe that we can develop a set of relevant, meaningful solutions to the questions our community faces; let us be creative, flexible, and willing to experiment in order to come up with lasting, profound solutions; and, let us genuinely embrace the attitude of “we,” of “mishpocheh,” bringing our diverse and often conflicting perspectives together.
Include The Voices of Our Constituents
The most creative companies in the business world are currently using design methods, which include their customers in product development processes. The leadership in the Jewish world can benefit from adopting this approach, with appropriate tweaks, in its programmatic development processes. Begin any planning process with “empathy interviews,” conversations with constituents that genuinely allow the professional to understand the experience of and needs of the potential participants. Allow new perspectives to challenge the way the original program was conceived. Re-frame the challenge based on the input of the individuals. And then think creatively, involving the potential participants in the process, about how you might meet those needs.
Funders should create genuine (and “safe”) opportunities to listen to their grantees about what is working and not working in the system, and what is happening on the ground. Professionals should learn how to do empathic interviewing and observations of their constituents, and create opportunities for ongoing feedback. CEOs should create “brain trust” groups of employees from across their organization to share their perspectives about the organizational system as a whole and offer insights relating to the organization’s vision and values. Teachers should create opportunities for their students to take ownership of their own learning. Rabbis in established synagogue settings should partner with Jewish entrepreneurs challenging the way people experience Jewish spirituality and community.
Only when this type of collaboration and inclusive planning occurs, can the Jewish community begin to even articulate the challenges, and start the work necessary to address them.
Test Ideas and Programs
The software development world talks about a distinction between Waterfall and Agile approaches to product design. In the Waterfall approach, the linear path of product build-out, a group of designers articulates a problem, develops the software to address it, then launches a marketing campaign, and finally brings the product to market: and this process can take many months. In an Agile development approach, the software team analyzes costumer data to articulate a problem and then quickly mocks up a potential software solution, and puts it out for people to experiment and play with in a matter of weeks. The product is inevitably of lesser quality, but the team learns a tremendous amount from getting it quickly into the hands of its future users, and allows the designers to correct their products more often.
The Jewish community can also benefit from a more Agile approach to designing experiences and services. Jewish organizations need to become more experimental, and more open to risk and failure, those spaces where true learning occurs. Professionals should ask: how might we try out our ideas and put them in the hands of real people? And they then must be willing to adapt their original plans, and even scrap them completely, based on the reactions of the people for whom they are designed. The results will be better because the real problems of the community will have been more effectively addressed, and those results determined in a more cost-effective and timely way.
Embrace Growth and Change
Change and growth is not only necessary, it is inevitable. The question is to what extent we are involved in actively guiding it. We will be more successful in our shared goal to keep Judaism vibrant and relevant when we employ some of the guidelines of successful innovative initiatives – listening more empathically to each other and genuinely including the wide variety of often-conflicting voices to partake in an honest conversation about our challenges, learning to be more honest and fearless in the framing of those challenges, and acting more efficiently with our time and funds to learn about what ideas are most productive. This approach will also organically result in our interacting more effectively as a “people,” as it will lead us to embrace the diversity in our community, and include and value the perspectives that varying individuals have to offer to the broader conversation. If we are willing to approach our challenges with an attitude of “How” – believing that we can work together towards creative solutions – “Might” – bringing an approach of humility to the work – and “We” – inviting everyone to the table, then our conversations, and their fruit, will be more nourishing and sustaining for our entire family.
Maya Bernstein is the Strategic Design Officer at UpStart Bay Area, a nonprofit social innovation and consulting firm.