By Roey Kruvi
Universities and cosmopolitan cities have something new in common – they are spending billions on spaces and buildings that are meant to “foster innovation.” Hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into the construction of buildings that are supposed to inspire more ideas for the people inside; ideas that are, preferably, better than the ones they had before. Designing physical spaces for innovation has become an increasingly important area in architecture in the last several years. But, what about the rest of us? Moishe House has offices in 16 cities and 7 countries – and many of them have only one employee. How can we foster a collaborative and innovative environment for new ideas to surface and thrive?
As the Senior Director of Immersive Experiences at Moishe House, the world’s largest organization engaging Jewish young adults in peer-led Jewish life through a number of different program models, I get to think about this every day. Moishe House empowers Jewish young adults ages 22-32 to be the builders of their own vision of Jewish community, and my department tries to find new ways to help them do it.
The Immersive Experiences department at Moishe House is sometimes known as “Moishe Labs.” On this team, it is our job to pilot new ideas for Jewish community building and Jewish young adult leadership development. We then prototype, iterate, scale, evaluate and either grow or ditch these new ideas. But we don’t have fancy offices or custom-built spaces intentionally designed to breed innovation. At Moishe House, which has more than 50 employees around the world, we believe innovation is born from multidisciplinary teams, a culture of curiosity and a continuing commitment to peer leadership. This flexible approach to programming is critical to working with the young adult population because they’re an ever-changing group who expect the organizations they invest their time in to match the pace of their constantly evolving lives.
Getting back to the heavy investments being made in innovation-specific architecture, at Moishe House, we don’t have the budget to do that, nor is spending a lot on our physical spaces part of our culture. So, when it comes to collaboration, we try to be much more direct. With 3.5 full-time employees, our Immersive Experiences Department is small. To accomplish the big impact that we do, we rely on working with team members from other departments to create the programs and inspiring environments we hope for. By constantly creating temporary teams, we allow for new ideas to surface, new processes to launch, and often, new, simply better ways of doing things to emerge.
As we continue in this spirit, we are placing a priority on fostering more departmental and geographic crossover. Camp Nai Nai Nai, a Jewish summer camp for adults, is planned, staffed, and designed by teammates from nearly every department, a true collaborative effort. A team of members from our two different program initiatives and our marketing team, along with the Immersive Experiences crew, executed two camps that brought more than 300 campers to gatherings in Pennsylvania and California in May and August 2018, respectively. Other recent projects like 4HQ Israel Encounters: A Year-Long Experiential Master Class and Act Now: Houston (service learning trips to aid in Hurricane Harvey Recovery efforts) were designed in the same manner.
Another crucial element to this environment of collaboration is a commitment to peer leadership. We spend time and resources to ask the right questions and dive deep into the needs of our constituency. Our CEO & Founder, David Cygielman, likes to remind me to chase demand, not try to create it.
At Moishe House, we are focused and committed to co-creating solutions with our constituents, not for them through in-depth conversations, internal and external evaluations and focus groups. Most recently, a few members of the team conducted focus groups with Hillel staff, graduating seniors and recent graduates, and we’re using that information to strengthen our partnership with Hillel and our own marketing structures and practices. Late last year, a team member from this department spent time talking with participants of our popular Peer-Led Retreat (PLR) program to dig deeper into what the impact truly is and where the gaps are between what people need and what we are providing. These conversations also taught us that our PLR facilitators see this program as a chance to explore Jewish topics that are of specific interest to them and drive them to pursue further Jewish learning. The organization-wide takeaway here is that self-guided exploration will lead to a pursuit of more Jewish learning.
We also couldn’t do what we do without maintaining a culture of curiosity. For me, this is the hardest element, because it means we have to be OK with failure. We must have courage to try new things and when they don’t work – and sometimes they do not – we learn all that we can and move on. Cultures of curiosity cannot exist alongside cultures of fear. Our teams must be able to talk to us when something goes wrong without fear of retribution, negative performance reviews, and even more simply, without us yelling at them.
At Moishe House, we have an open-door policy and sharing of our challenges and difficulties first go down the ladder, to give permission to front-line staff to send the same up the ladder. For example, any member of the Moishe House staff can reach out to the people in our C-Suite at any time, without preconditions. They can simply start a Slack conversation and/or book time on that executive’s calendar. And, when the executive team meets with the Board’s Strategic Planning committee they write up their learnings of the past quarter and share it with the entire staff, both the successes and the failures. This kind of communications structure and accountability gives permission and breathing room to the rest of the staff. Winning and innovating never happens without some losing and failing along the way. As leaders, we have to fully internalize that this is what it takes to create new programs that grow and transform far beyond what we could ever imagine.
All of our program models are individual platforms ripe for creativity and experimentation. Our community builders have the freedom and agency to create and execute their own visions of programs and spaces. Moishe House leadership is constantly learning and growing and, no matter where we work, we know we are helping shape the future of the Jewish community.
Many thanks to my colleagues Jen Rosen and Eden Banarie for contributing to this piece.
My office is in the MH HQ located in the Hive coworking space on the Leichtag Commons, a space that was intentionally designed for innovation and cross-organization collaboration.
Roey Kruvi is Moishe House Senior Director of Immersive Experiences.