You shall sojourn together: A lived experiment in interorganizational Jewish collaboration

Like so many Diaspora Jews, I had felt a desperate need to visit Israel after the events of Oct. 7. As much as I read the news, shared clips on social media, raised funds or wrote letters to soldiers, I felt like an outsider to this tragic situation and, in a sense, to the larger Jewish story. 

So, when an executive at Birthright invited me to join a weeklong mission to Israel to help the organization reimagine its postwar educational vision, I opted in without much hesitation.

As anticipated, the experience was a rich one. We visited some very difficult sites — Kibbutz Kfar Aza and Re’im, the location of the Nova music festival, in the south; Mt. Herzl, with its heartbreakingly fresh graves, in Jerusalem — and we workshopped aspects of the traditional Birthright journey, debating what must change and what must never change in light of the Oct. 7 calamity. All this I expected of our journey. 

There was, however, an unexpected subplot to the trip, one which unfolded organically and proved to me nearly as significant as what we witnessed traveling the country — and certainly promising.

Out of the silos

Nearly every campus in the United States and Canada features some level of services for Jewish students. Most ubiquitous — and to many, most synonymous with such services — is Hillel, present to some degree on over 800 campuses. Chabad on Campus reports 258 chapters across North America. Lesser known, but with a substantial footprint at larger or academically prominent schools, are Olami-affiliated organizations such as MEOR, which I direct at University of Maryland, College Park.

Overlaying these ground-level operations are Jewish federations, often major financial supporters of local branches of campus organizations, and service providers like Stand With Us and Israel Campus Coalition, which offer grants and other forms of support to university students in areas such as Israel advocacy.

One need not hold a graduate degree in nonprofit management to know that politics and infighting often plague Jewish institutions — sometimes from within, but especially from without. Sadly, university campuses, where a small constellation of organizations may “compete” for the affections of a finite number of Jewish students in a discrete geographical area, often become fertile ground for interorganizational strife.

Of course, many organizational leaders place great emphasis on building alliances with their local counterparts (or at the very least maintaining a baseline sense of peace). On rare occasions one might find groups that actively work together on specific events or initiatives. Still, writ large, friction certainly can and does exist, be it due to ideological disagreements or simple human insecurity and jealousy.

The Birthright forum I joined was unique not only in its stated objectives but in its composition as well. Our group of 20, mostly campus-based professionals included a multiplicity of Hillel directors and rabbi/educators, Chabad shlichim (emissaries), kiruv (outreach) operatives like myself, federation executives and an advocacy specialist from Stand With Us. Religious orientations ranged from Hasidic and “ultra-Orthodox” (generalized and imprecise descriptors, but indicative of something nonetheless) to Modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, and likely some other identities I didn’t capture. We were also joined by five veteran Israeli tour guides — “tour educators” in Birthright parlance — themselves representing a broad spectrum of religious and political persuasions.

Though it may exist, I am not aware of a similar experiment in the Jewish organizational world in which putative competitors in a particular demographic have united for a week of shared learning, bearing witness and processing our nation’s latest cataclysm. The experience prompted me to consider how the values it represented might be amplified. It also helped me formulate how, as Jewish professionals, we might convert “Jewish unity” from a platitude, or even a punch line, to an operative principle:

  1. Build relationships

As self-evident as it may sound, relationships form the bedrock of organizational rapport. After all, an organization is no more than a collection of individuals operating under a particular moniker. To the extent that we know our colleagues, even if they are nominally competitors, we can address issues (or perceived issues) before they metastasize. Likewise, it is far easier to discredit a faceless organization than an actual human being with thoughts, aspirations and aptitudes. 

Simply put, connection fosters empathy.

Ethics of the Fathers (2:13) teaches us: “Go out and see which is a good path for a person to attach himself to. Rebbi Eliezer said, ayin tovah (a good eye).” We tend to ascribe nefarious motives to those we do not know personally, and are more charitably inclined towards those whom we do. When we hear of a colleague’s or organization’s actions, do we assume positive intent or do we presume the worst? When we actually know individuals, the former attitude tends to prevail.

Yet how often do organizational leaders from within a single demographic sit together to discuss common interests and challenges? Or sit together at all?

  1. Communicate — don’t berate

Communication is often highlighted as a fundamental condition for healthy working relationships, but communication itself can be instrumentalized. I have seen situations in which larger, more established organizations summon a smaller upstart to “communicate” — by which the legacy group means “lay down the law.” Conversely, I have seen plucky new groups arrive on the scene, boldly declaring their presence in an aggressive manner and showing no acknowledgement or respect for the contributions and sacrifices of those who have labored in that same space for years or more.

Effective communication must be bilateral and designed to build rapport, not to enshrine particular power dynamics.

  1. Judge people, not movements

Each of us enters an encounter with members of other organizations with preconceptions about what they stand for and how they tend to operate. These beliefs may be borne of stories from colleagues, simple assumptions or even our own experiences. Yet an organization simply denotes a collection of individuals, and each member should be approached and evaluated as such. Viewing colleagues as unique and autonomous human beings rather than mindless embodiments of an abstract entity offers them the gift of human dignity. You might even learn that your views are not so different that you can’t find common ground from which to work, for the betterment of your movement and theirs.

  1. Be self-aware

As highly idealistic professionals, many in the Jewish nonprofit space might view their mandate in sweeping terms, such as, “protecting Israel” or “saving the Jewish People.” 

Imagine if we came to perceive competitors as assets in our greater goals for Judaism and humanity — if we possessed the humility to recognize that, actually, we cannot do it all, and that others might even be better equipped or suited to perform parts of what we see as our mission.

Of course, Jewish organizations will always face some level of overlap. No one can gatekeep Shabbat meals or trips to Israel, and every group is entitled to deploy their version of these experiences. But if we can evaluate what we do exceptionally, what we do adequately and what we don’t do well at all, we might make space for others, and even be brave enough to share our admiration.

  1. Ask yourself: Is this about ideology, or territory?

Once we are honest about the scope of our remit, we can also distinguish between ideological and territorial considerations. Am I perturbed by another organization’s activities or very presence ideologically or because of egoistic needs?

As a human being, my ego suffers when a student migrates to a different organization as their locus of engagement. I am prone to jealousy, occasional pettiness and even resentment towards students or cross-organizational colleagues. I personalize that which most often is simply not personal.

Of course, no one acts their best when they feel threatened. Returning to first principles in this situation is most critical: Why did I enter this field to begin with? To serve my community, to help others. By focusing on the outcomes over my own personal accomplishments, I can restore the proper attitude and reduce antagonism. For those more theistically inclined, perhaps consider that material success comes from above, and we likely will not be “penalized” for exhibiting grace towards others in the course of our efforts.

The Jewish world desperately needs a new ethic of organizational rapprochement, if not alignment. When enemies besiege us from without, we must consolidate from within. Of course, harmony is not homogeny. The multiplicity of options and approaches enriches us all.

Rabbi Ari Koretzky is executive director MEOR Maryland.