Finding Jewish Values at the Center of Strategic Visioning

By David E. Posner

In 2011, the Rady JCC in Winnipeg undertook a strategic planning process that began with rethinking what their organizational values would be, ones like customer responsiveness and quality, along with values rooted in Judaism. This wasn’t going to be an easy process, nor one they would undertake lightly. To be effective, the JCC would need to decide what desired competencies would be, what they wanted to be truly excellent at doing, what their primary strategies would be, and what their desired leadership profile looked like.

The process meant engaging the JCC’s leadership – the board of directors and senior staff – in a strategic thinking process that, according to executive director Gayle Waxman, would allow “our board to revise the JCC’s purpose and role in the community in a new and forward-thinking way.”

A critical piece of the process included bringing in JCC Association of North America, the continental leadership organization of the JCC Movement. Having guided many JCCs through such strategic thinking processes, we at JCC Association have seen how important it is for each JCC to understand what is at the core of its organizational culture.

Over the past 10 years, I have worked with Jewish Community Centers in the United States and Canada to help them uncover, reaffirm, or establish the substance of their organization’s values. This work covers two primary sets of values: those that can be applicable in today’s world for all types of businesses and organizations. – values such as safety, innovation, empathy, inclusivity, and ethical behavior – and those values that have roots in Judaism, and in Jewish life and learning.

While each JCC is unique, they are all similar in ways than they might readily recognize. JCC Association has discovered, time and again, during these strategic thinking processes that the same four values with roots in Judaism always rise to the top, regardless of size of the JCC, the country or region, whether urban or suburban. While it may seem an obvious outcome, it was not a foregone conclusion that these same values would resonate across the board. JCCs are independent entities, their populations do not consist of uniform Jewish identities, and all respond differently to the needs of their communities.

These four values taken individually are not unique to JCCs, but their enduring combination is. In every JCC that has undertaken this visioning process, these four values, perhaps in different orders among themselves, are prioritized among all else:

  • Kol arevim zeh ba’zeh – We are each responsible for one another. Commonly known as the “it takes a village” value, in the JCC setting it underscores the collective responsibility we have for and to one another. It informs the kind of adult modelling we seek to set for the youth we have in our charge. And that guiding behavior is not just the responsibility of staff, but of members and users.
  • Tzedakah, or righteousness. Not charity, as it is often thought of, but doing right by people by being just and correct. JCC leaders always end up determining that ethical behavior is not an optional value, but a given.
  • Derech eretz – Treating people with respect and with dignity. All people are deserving of such consideration. This value informs the kinds of programs that JCCs might offer to differently-abled people in the community, or how those people are themselves treated once in these programs, or even as simply as how the JCC processes requests for financial assistance.
  • Hachanasat orichim – How JCCs welcome. This means that we are inclusive and open in our approach to Jewish life and learning, and we can be meaningfully Jewish in a way that engages the entire community, and that whether you are a member or not, there is a place for you at the JCC.

With more than 1.5 million people walking through our doors each week, the JCC is an unparalleled place to put Jewish values front and center in our communities. Our underlying values are our difference – to Jews and those of other faiths as well.

When JCCs engage JCC Association in strategic visioning they do so in order to become the best versions of themselves. It is an intentional effort to reaffirm what is at the heart of a positive organizational culture, or to course correct if needed.

Eric Koehler, CEO of the JCC of Indianapolis has been through the strategic visioning process as executive at three different JCCs over his career. In each case, the professional and lay leadership updated or created the JCC’s vision and mission statements and took a critical view of core competencies.

“These became a new lens and framework that focused our efforts for mission-driven, high impact programming,” he told us. “The results were that we knew where to continue to spend more time, attention and resources. The increased focus improved our financial position, our philanthropic efforts, leadership recruitment and development and quality of our programming.”

It was never the goal of the strategic visioning process to reveal an underlying “bias” toward specific Jewish values as drivers of JCC culture. Yet JCC leaders like those at the Rady JCC, the JCC of Indianapolis and the many others that have undertaken this game-changing process, keep returning to these same four values. That this has been the case over time testifies to how deeply felt they are. Taken collectively they offer the kind of cultural transformation we seek to model and create both locally and globally – far beyond the doors of any one JCC.

David E. Posner is a vice president at JCC Association of North America, where he oversees strategic performance.