“C” is for…

by Micol Zimmerman Burkeman

If this were Sesame Street, “C” would be for cookie. If this were School House Rock, “C” would be for conjunction (what’s your function?). But within the Jewish community, “C” should be for collaboration. Words like collaboration, networking, and innovation tend to get thrown around a lot. In fact, so often are these words dropped in both the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds that you would think you were actually living in an episode of Sesame Street, with Big Bird teaching Mr. Hooper all about the magic of collaboration.

Yet cliches are cliches for a reason, and as the old cliche goes, “two heads are better than one.” You may be familiar with that quote, adapted from a much fancier and far more intellectual-sounding epigram created by the writer John Heywood, the man responsible for most of the popular cliches you hear on a daily basis. What you may not know is that this saying has its roots in a much earlier piece of writing: the Bible. In Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 we read, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” Seems pretty obvious doesn’t it? And yet many of us continue to work alone, whether alone in our movement, alone in our institution, or even alone in our office, working from within our silos, which often means that ideas have a hard time getting in and an even harder time getting out.

At The Jewish Education Project, the thread that weaves through all of the work that we do is from a spool of collaboration, both intra and inter-collaboration. Intra-collaboration is one that occurs within an organization itself, a table around which sit not just the professional leadership but also the lay-leadership, parents, and in some very forward-thinking cases, even the children and teens themselves. Yes, this can create more complication and sometimes more problems. But it also means there are more solutions and innovations proposed and more hands to implement them. It also means that there is investment and commitment created from the get-go, rather than an additional step necessary in which we desperately try to “sell” our idea or program to the various stake-holders. Inter-collaboration happens across institutions, across movements, and even across fields. There is so much wisdom, experience, and innovation happening all around us and yet so few of us lift our heads to see the possibilities, let alone embrace them. Through a networked-approach, we work to connect individuals and institutions to each other in mutually beneficial ways, which in turn (we hope and believe) will elevate our work and the field of Jewish education and create systems of support and sustainability.

For many of The Jewish Education Project’s initiatives, collaboration is an integral first step. For our early childhood population, our Gateways 2 Engagement (G2E) initiative gathers an institutional taskforce comprised of lay leaders, clergy, educators, professional staff, and parents themselves. Together, they re-imagine family engagement in their institution and help create a stronger partnership between the synagogue and the early childhood center and families. The initiatives for our congregational learning population, LOMED and Express Innovation, require the participating congregation to form a team, composed of educators, clergy, teachers and lay leaders, as the initial step in engagement. These teams are a key element to design and deliver powerful learning experiences that lead children and parents to meaningful and purposeful lives rooted in Jewish practice and community. For our teen population, our Operation Game Changer initiative engages not just the youth professionals, but also the institutional leadership teams made up of professional staff and lay leaders in re-imagining teen engagement in their institutions. The youth professionals in this program also create a collaborative community amongst themselves, sharing ideas and challenges, learning from and with one another, and providing a system of support (“pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.”). And through all of our initiatives, the focus on collaboration enables our partners to spark new ideas, approaches and innovations, and spread and cultivate them across institutions and denominations, elevating the entire field of Jewish education rather than just a few pockets within it.

“C” is for collaboration. Perhaps after this post you’re thinking “C” is for cliche, but once again, cliches are cliches for a reason and perhaps the time has come for more of us to adhere to them. Let’s make collaboration the word of the year. We need to open our doors and our conversations. We need to spread our good ideas rather than keeping them to ourselves. We need to expand our commitment beyond our institutions, and even beyond our movements, and extend it to our people. We need to recognize that we’re all in it together. And as the old cliche goes: “United we stand…”

Micol Zimmerman Burkeman is communal education networker at The Jewish Education Project, working to elevate the field of Jewish teen engagement. This article was written in collaboration with Jenna Corman Mandel and Abby Pitkowsky. 

A version of this article appears on the URJ blog.