From San Francisco to Synagogue: Can Startup Culture Invigorate Jewish Organizations?

By Gabi Weinberg

Talking About the Next Generation: A Brief Review

In November 2017, thousands gathered at the annual “Lean Startup Week” run by Eric Ries and Melissa Moore of the “Lean Startup Co.” in San Francisco. In the tens of presentations, Ries and Moore, as well as many others, teach the replicable pieces of startup work that can be transferred across platforms and organizations, from a nonprofit to a Fortune 100 company, and everywhere in between. These meetings spur discussions, Twitter debates, and opportunities for those willing to take risks – whether in high positions or entry level roles – to take a crack at bringing “startup methodology” into their particular workplace.

Can Jewish organizations build a culture to do just that?

Some certainly think so. In Next Generation Judaism, Rabbi Mike Uram makes the claim that: “The Jewish institutional world is already struggling to maintain its position and in some cases even to survive. There are countless outside forces that disrupt the way we are doing business. Let’s get ahead of that curve and create our own disruptive innovations.”

His premise is that through applied method – some that echo startup method and some that do not – and cultural change – a more amorphous, but still essential change – across Jewish communal organizations, more Jewish people will participate in Jewish experiences and become more involved in Jewish life.

He does an accurate job depicting “Millennials.” He also conveys the power of self-driven experiences on the students he interacts with on a daily basis. Many Jewish organizations like Moishe House and OneTable follow a model of entrusting millenials with significant financial capital to create self-guided Jewish experiences for their peers and Uram begins that work at an earlier stage: when these students are in college. In his broader sociological analysis, Uram questions the assumptions of a unified “Jewish people” that needs one type of Jewish experience. He describes that there are issues that we disagree on and sub-groups that would happily join together if the Jewish angle was under their banner and brand of Judaism, but then there are others who don’t agree, and would find themselves “outside” of the group.

The author weaves conceptions of the modern “disruptive innovation” language adopted from the business world with the more familiar Jewish organizational structure. This merger of ideas proves an essential tenet of his organizational philosophy. Uram’s track record at University of Pennsylvania Hillel speaks for itself, with over 1,750 Jewish students on campus. He has been the executive director and campus rabbi for nearly a decade and has managed to run two parallel organizations. In Hillel they focus on “in-the-building-people” – namely the students that come to the Hillel itself – and in the other, called the Jewish Renaissance Project, they focus on the students that would never step foot in Hillel. Between the two organizations, they reach almost the entire Jewish student population.

In reflecting on his experience, Uram suggests that developing “grassroots” infrastructure to empower members of the broader community to work with professionals one-on-one and then bring those teachings to the comfort of their own apartment, dorm room, or common area (using college language) can be replicated in other iterations of Jewish life.

Limitations to Implementation of Next Gen Method

An important thing to realize in his presentation is that Uram takes the approach that an organization’s staff can drive culture change within an organization. While on the face of it this sentence should ring true, when it comes to organizations that are strongly defined by the constituents who utilize the space or the service (read: synagogues, schools, Hillels et. al.), the culture a staff brings will often be dwarfed by the populations they serve. In the Hillel model, as relayed in the book, the students are viewed as a type of hybrid consumer/producer that should take the lead from the professionals at Hillel (or some other named organization) and that will create change.

However, there are other players in this space that might also be necessary to make changes like these happen in organizations that don’t have as much organizational education and capital like Hillel. To its credit, Hillel International supports annual conferences and professional development opportunities to share best practices. Repackaging this for synagogues just does not hold up. A motivated rabbi and executive director, assuming a synagogue has both, would still need constituents willing to adopt the language and take volunteer leadership roles that will move the needle to a more design thinking approach to organizational leadership.

An Alternative Approach to Spreading aNext GenMethodology

In this vein, Uram does not offer a comprehensive “playbook” to bring the volunteers of an organization into the conversation. In my theory of how to bring this method into communities and synagogues, the largest part of the battle goes into sharing with the constituents of these communal experiences the mechanism that the leadership wants to spread into the community. By giving the members the tools, which isn’t clarified in this book, the community members can become producers and think with more precision about the goals of an event or the purpose of a meeting. When that language gets implemented by members of the community it is more likely that the method will seep into the broader community.

To bring this back to where Uram derives a lot of his evidence, I am curious to find out how many of the Penn alumni actual apply this methodology in their lives and in their Jewish communities? The potential for Hillel to train thousands of future members of Jewish communities with the tools for them to try and solve Clay Christensen’s “innovator’s dilemma” that Uram discusses in the book (in short, why large organizations usually don’t see new markets emerging) would have an exponential effect on Jewish institutions soon to be populated by these alumni.

It would seem that the best way to place community members into communities that would adopt these methods would be by teaching the method as it was employed. A sort of peeling back the curtain so students can see how and why successful Hillels make such a big impact and then see if the “users” themselves buy-in enough to develop this outside of the institutions that they found it in.

So much of Jewish life is a result of lived experience, and if “consumers,” even “empowered consumers” don’t get exposure to how organizations make decisions, the odds of the method expanding past the walls of Hillels across America are slim. Discovering and sharing how these methods have been applied by the students outside of their time in Hillel would be incredibly useful to see if this method truly is replicable in the way Uram lays out.

What would it look like to change the language of entire communities regarding how we innovate? What would the f-word, failure, look like in synagogues, communal organizations, and in small micro-communities? I posit that we need to change the language, embrace experimentation, and spread that beyond a proximate community. Students in college would seem to be a great place to start, but stopping with them would certainly not be enough to effect a sea change in the way the community approaches challenges. This startup approach, just as applied by those in the Lean Startup Co., of spawning groups trained with the language and the method to create experiences for others has incredibly high upside for long-term impact on the Jewish community. Perhaps it’s time for us to have a Lean-Startup Conference of our own.

Gabi Weinberg goes by @startuprabbi on social media, and started Invigorate Group to bring startup-method into practice in Jewish communal organizations. He currently serves as the Associate Director of Academic Programs at the Tikvah Fund and is a Wexner Graduate Fellow at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He can be reached at

Originally published in Lehrhaus; reposted with permission.