Four Questions For The New Year About The Way We Do Business

4 MTEtMjExLmpwZw==By Dr. Hal M. Lewis

If 2014 is any indication we should anticipate that the new year will see these pages (and those of other Jewish publications) filled with editorials proclaiming the virtues of entrepreneurship in Jewish life. In this post-Pew epoch entrepreneurship has become the new continuity. As calls for the latter followed 1990’s National Jewish Population Survey, the former seems the prevailing response to 2013’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans.

Who among us has not caught the bug? In Israel and across North America, Jews are at the forefront of an entrepreneurial groundswell in technology and publishing, medicine and real estate. And as more and more baby boomers exit the Jewish organizational stage, it is natural that younger leaders, reflecting the Zeitgeist of a new generation, will insist that entrepreneurship and innovation inform the way our community does its work.

To be sure, these demands are not without authentic historical roots. Indeed, millennia of Jewish life provide inspiring examples of innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit. Bold Jewish leaders like Abraham, the quintessential iconoclast who saw what others could not, like Moses who was willing to withstand critique and risk everything despite the odds, and like Yochanan ben Zakkai, who embodied a capacity to reinvent and recalibrate in the face of failure and destruction, enabled Judaism to survive over the centuries. From King David to Theodor Herzl, from the rabbinic sages to the feminists of our day, Jewish leaders have understood that, as Peter Drucker, author of the classic Innovation and Entrepreneurship taught, “The enterprise that does not innovate inevitably ages and declines.” Far from being the end of Jewish life, innovation lies at the heart of our people’s vibrant and vital self-renewal.

Because inventiveness is our spiritual inheritance, and because increased calls for innovation and entrepreneurship have become de rigueur, I believe that we who care deeply about the Jewish future must be willing to ask ourselves some difficult questions about our institutions and the way we do business. We must, as Moses Maimonides taught, be willing to “consider the truth, regardless of the source.” And, where appropriate, we must challenge ourselves with the question Martin Linsky of Harvard’s Kennedy School likes to pose, “What is our piece of the mess?” To this end, now that Hanukkah is over, I would like to suggest (as an homage to a Jewish holiday we have yet to celebrate this year) four questions for our collective consideration.

First, is there something endemic in the nature of our community organizations that impedes effective innovation? I refer here to the system of philanthropy that undergirds the lifeblood of our communities. If challenging times demand boldness, risk tolerance, and a willingness to ignore the naysayers, and the world of Jewish institutions requires that we worship at the altar of consensus, ever fearful of offending community standards and donor sensibilities, then have we set ourselves up, however unwittingly, for a Kulturkampf, what Samuel Huntington refers to as a clash of civilizations?

Second, painful as this might be to contemplate, are we failing in Jewish life to attract the right players because of the way we do business? Beyond our often non-competitive salary scales, our misplaced obsession with low overhead, and our general reticence to experiment and tolerate failure, is there something about our style, our governance, our approach to metrics, and our definition of what constitutes real innovation that discourages dreamers and stands in sharp contrast to the entrepreneurial mindset?

Third, does our desire to please the widest number of constituents by endeavoring to be all things to all people, work against us? Sacred to the innovation process is what Peter Drucker famously called, “organized abandonment.” Drucker challenged his clients to ask themselves, “If you weren’t already in this business, would you go into it?” For many of us in the Jewish community it is not easy to walk away from established programs, particularly if some good is being done, and if they happen to be beloved by board members or funders. But our ability to innovate in response to current challenges is directly related to our willingness to be honest with ourselves about the long-term value of our programming.

And finally, are we simply too conservative, and perhaps too cocksure to be able to respond to what our community wants? One hears a great deal about the culture of a not-for-profit entity these days. But the truth is, organizational culture is often the antithesis of change. Past practice becomes an excuse for failing to try new things, and a justification for why the “incumbents” always know best. Too frequently, big dreams come to die, not incubate, in the culture of our community’s organizations.

I raise these four questions not because there is a single right answer to any of them, and certainly not to deprecate or cast aspersions on the work of my beloved Jewish communal sector. But if the past is prologue then the likelihood is great that calls for innovation and entrepreneurship will persist. Funders will continue to seek out entrepreneurial startups, boards will demand innovative solutions to that which ails them, and younger donors will pursue their desire to be part of something new and groundbreaking.

Before any of this can happen, however, we must be willing to consider whether the eleemosynary system as we know it, and the world of Jewish organizations as presently constituted are ready for real entrepreneurship. Are we poised to think like innovators? Are we prepared to act like entrepreneurs? Do we offer a serious and credible option for investors and venture capitalists?

It is not enough that we are the heirs to an entrepreneurial tradition or that there are great Jewish innovators in the corporate arena. Something is very wrong if we are unable to translate those same principles to our synagogues, our community centers, our schools, federations, cultural institutions, and beyond. We who have inherited the world’s greatest insights into effective leadership, and who are the heirs to a more than 5000 year-old legacy of entrepreneurship, we – whether we are employees or philanthropists, board members or professionals – we must be prepared to craft the changes necessary to make entrepreneurship and innovation a reality in the Jewish world that is now ours to lead.

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. A recognized expert on Jewish leadership, he has published widely in the scholarly and popular press. His books include “Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership” and “From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership.” He can be reached at president@spertus.edu.