Last week in St. Louis, Rabbi Hayim Herring called for collaborative efforts as one response to “overbuilt, under-resourced” Jewish communities. Rabbi Herring, who has been ranked as one of America’s top 50 rabbis by Newsweek, spoke to some 140 leaders of the Jewish community in St. Louis convened by the local Federation. According to the St. Louis Jewish Light, Rabbi Herring recommended that “organizations should focus on what they do best and network with others to achieve the rest.”
It’s hard to argue with the idea of cooperating for the greater good, but it’s also hard to bring about in practice. Some forty years ago the bioethicist Garrett Hardin wrote his famous essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” about how the interests of the individual conflict with the greater good when resources are limited. If community of herdsmen uses a pasture that is open to everyone, it’s in the interest of each individual herdsman to graze more animals on the pasture. But it’s in the interest of the community to limit the grazing to sustainable levels.
His essay is sometimes remembered as a caution against greed. But as an ecologist, Hardin was not making a point about human nature so much as about the management of scarce resources. He recognized the attractiveness of asking others to sacrifice, but as a practical matter did not think much of the idea. “To conjure up a conscience in others is tempting to anyone who wishes to extend his control beyond the legal limits,” he wrote. “Leaders at the highest level succumb to this temptation.” As for appealing to communal responsibility: “Responsibility is a verbal counterfeit for a substantial quid pro quo. It is an attempt to get something for nothing.”
Rabbi Herring acknowledged that mergers are a touchy subject, but he sees them as an important part of the solution. “We have to recognize the loss in that, the fear, the pain that’s involved – and also the good for the community,” he said. Garrett Hardin saw such appeals as involving mixed messages. The overt message is that you risk being labeled as irresponsible if you disagree; the covert message, however, is that if you don’t continue to act in your own interest you will be seen as foolish.
Several of the attendees of the St. Louis conference said they embrace Rabbi Herring’s recommendations. “He’s 100 percent on target,” said one. “How can we collaborate in ways that are mutually beneficial?” asked another. But Hardin would probably say that, without a tangible quid pro quo, there is little incentive for them to change their ways. And there are lots of incentives not to. Collaborating, as one wag put it, takes twice the work for half the credit.
Rabbi Herring is right to want communal resources to be used in more effective ways. But appealing to what’s good for the community doesn’t work; that’s the tragedy of the commons. Organizations and individuals are going to act in their own self-interest most of the time. They will make a different choice only if there are rational incentives to make that different choice. That’s one reason the Los Angeles Jewish Community Foundation supports a project for “next generation” activities that includes small grants specifically to enable collaborations.
The St. Louis Jewish community can make a substantive commitment to collaboration by creating a fund that rewards organizations for networking and eliminating duplication. Without such an incentive, the rational choice for each entity is to keep talking about working together while pursuing its own private agenda. With such a fund, on the other hand, the community would move beyond discussion to action, and institutions would have a compelling reason to align their interests with the community’s greater good.
Bob Goldfarb, a Harvard M.B.A., is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity and a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy. He can be reached at bob [at] jewishcreativity [dot] org.