Dvar Acher – Another Opinion: Have We Not Learned Since the 2nd Temple?

by Lou Feldstein

This week, two uniquely different blogs were posted that paint a poignant and powerful picture of where the Jewish community’s core problem really exists.

Seth Godin is world renowned marketing guru and a keen observer of organizational impact. He is also a harsh social sector critic. In his Sunday blog he wrote:

You work at one, or the other.
At the lab, the pressure is to keep searching for a breakthrough, a new way to do things. And it’s accepted that the cost of this insight is failure, finding out what doesn’t work on your way to figuring out what does. The lab doesn’t worry so much about exploiting all the value of what it produces – they’re too busy working on the next thing.
To work in the lab is to embrace the idea that what you’re working on might not work. Not to merely tolerate this feeling, but to seek it out.
The factory, on the other hand, prizes reliability and productivity. The factory wants no surprises, it wants what it did yesterday, but faster and cheaper.
Some charities are labs, in search of the new thing, while others are factories, grinding out what’s needed today. AT&T is a billing factory, in search of lower costs, while Bell Labs was the classic lab, in search of the insight that could change everything.
Hard, really hard, to do both simultaneously. Anyone who says failure is not an option has also ruled out innovation.

Clayton Christenson in his influential work, The Innovator’s Dilemma, affirms Godin’s perspective. Christensen posits based on his extensive research, that established organizations can rarely be innovative because their core clients demand what they have today rather than what they may need tomorrow. He suggests that the tension between serving the existing client and innovating for tomorrow’s is usually only successful when an organization either sets up a completely separate enterprise, or the innovation takes place on the edges in new start up enterprises.

Godin’s and Christenson’s arguments, which affirm the universal challenge of innovation, paint a dichotomy that truly challenges the Jewish community and the tension between serving existing needs and innovating for tomorrow.

This tension became very real last week, with the publication of a second blog, and more importantly, the publication of the notice that the blog writer had been terminated from her position for having published the piece.

For those away on vacation last week, or too busy doing their jobs (and thus not reading blogs) and may have missed it, Ms. Michal Kohane, a professional at a local Federation wrote a challenging and provocative piece (which interestingly she seems to have initially published in her personal blog back in May) concerning her frustrations with the Jewish community’s love affair with under-40’s and why more resources should be devoted to other populations. Suffice it to say, the next day she was fired. In response eJewishphilanthropy notified its readership and added the following editorial.

We must ask, why is it that our organizations cannot accept criticism? Why is it that our largest organizations behave vindictively towards anyone – employees, lay leaders, the media – that say anything critical of any initiative or policy? Are their CEO egos so fragile? Are their missions so questionable that some behave like the worst dictatorships in history?

And the flood gates opened. Whether it was eJewishPhilanthropy, JEDLAB or private postings on Facebook the venom spewed forth. The animosity and hatred for the establishment (the Factory), gave rise to more and more. Ms. Kohane became the folk hero of the disgruntled, the anti-establishment, and the prognosticators of what the Jewish future should look like.

As I read the words blasting the Federation (the ultimate Jewish communal “factory”) I began to wonder what would have happened if she had instead worked for, let us say, the Schusterman Foundation or Bronfman Foundation. Experience teaches me that under the same circumstances, and based on their own policies, as well as their deep financial commitment to under-forty strategies, she probably would also have been fired. In that case would the hatred and vitriol have been so quick to fill the pages (I think not)?

What struck me, as one who travels between multiple organizational sectors, was that the comments concerning Ms. Kohane’s firing reflected the two world views of the Lab and the Factory and more importantly, within the Jewish world, an “us” (outside the “establishment”) versus “them” (“establishment”) world view.

As we struggle to confront the litany of problems in the Jewish community, the central issue of “us versus them” remains at the core. Until we can get past these “Lab” versus “Factory” mentalities, and recognize we are all in this together, we will never intersect and find the solutions needed to impact lives and bring meaning from Judaism.

To have read the comments in the blogs about the firing of Ms. Kohane is to have a window into a world of resentment, anger and frustration towards the established Jewish world. The undertones of hatred toward federations, synagogues and other of the same ilk are apparent to any reader.

Was it appropriate to not like the federation’s decision? Sure. We are each entitled to such opinions (just as others will understand and agree with the decision). And yet, it wasn’t the lack of agreement with the decision that was so fascinating, but rather the knee jerk animosity and hatred to issue forth. That is what is clearly beyond reason. Ahmadinejad is worthy of such hatred. So, too, Stalin and Hitler. Federations? Really? Can one honestly compare the Federation’s actions with worth dictatorships in history” Seriously?

Are Jewish “Factory” organizations (including synagogues, JCC’s, federations etc, etc.,), that at their core are trying to do good work and improve lives, really worthy of such hatred and animosity? Even Apple, one of the most innovative companies in the world, would not have stood by while one of its division heads publically attacked one of its products. There are ways to challenge the status quo that can be quite productive. We don’t know the inside story, and yet we allow the basest of our instincts to rise forth and immediately decry foul. This says less about the Federation and Ms. Kohane (who wrote a beautiful post firing statement), and more about our perspectives, insecurities and frustrations.

In a few short weeks, we will be observing Tisha B’av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Temple(s). The rabbis of old taught that the 2nd Temple was not destroyed because God no longer loved us, or because the Romans were more powerful. Rather, they suggested (anticipating by a few millennia the words of Pogo) that the Temple was destroyed because of “sinat chinam”, the causeless hatred of brothers and sisters. As we were being attacked by Rome, rather than unifying and fighting against the common enemy, we spent our energies fighting each other. While being attacked on the outside, we fought one another on the inside … and Jerusalem burned – not to be rebuilt for thousands of years.

Is it fair to challenge and ask tough questions? Absolutely. Is it appropriate to critique the status quo and stand up to leaders and say, “You are wrong? Of course. But if Tisha b’av teaches us anything, it is that when such questioning begins from the perspective of “us” vs.” them” or moves to the perspective of “us” vs. “them” then we are doomed.

We cannot afford to align ourselves in battling camps of animosity and futile hatred. We cannot confront our problems or seek solutions in an “us” camp and a “them” camp. We can only thrive if and when “us” and “them” become “we”.

The comic Pogo suggested “we have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.” Are we prepared to spend our time, energy and resources overcoming this enemy and working together, or will we remain comfortably ensconced at our keyboards throwing darks and arrows at those we disagree with in the Jewish community?

Where do you stand?

Rabbi Louis Feldstein is the CEO of Dynamic Change Solutions, LLC an organizational enhancement and change management consulting firm focused on the nonprofit and faith-based sectors.