By Aliza Mazor
The recent announcement (eJewish Philanthropy 9/30/14) by Project Zug and Mechon Hadar that they will join forces to exponentially expand the number of Jews around the globe engaged in on-line hevruta (partner) study is good news for all of us – especially those of us who keep a close eye Jewish innovation.
Over the past decade the global Jewish community has embraced the launch of hundreds (if not thousands) of new Jewish initiatives designed to reinvigorate Jewish life. I would argue that this has been one of the most positive trends in our community in this past quarter century. Innovators have advanced bold ideas, improved existing models, and brought an entrepreneurial approach to Jewish life that in turn has ignited passion and engaged (or re-engaged) disillusioned tribe members. Bikkurim, together with our capacity-building colleagues and visionary, risk-taking investors have contributed to this flourishing of new ideas. However at the same time, some of us hold concerns about the community’s ability to sustain so many good ideas, especially when the default seems to be that each new idea becomes an independent, stand-alone organization.
Launching a start-up is hard even when all the right ingredients (great idea, committed stakeholders, talented leaders, interested marketplace) are in place. Failure rates are high. The work is exhausting. Many Jewish entrepreneurs try to shop their idea around to established institutions before going it alone. They often find that established organizations are not open to new ideas or disruptive business models. The institutions that are intellectually open to new ideas often cannot figure out how to integrate those ideas into their systems and structures. As a result, each idea ends up becoming its own independent 501c3 and its leaders struggle to raise funds and recreate systems that have already been built elsewhere, especially distribution systems for content.
The recent announcement that Project Zug will “embed” in Mechon Hadar provides an interesting new model for collaboration, leverage, and advancing shared interests. The community often asks (and sometimes demands) that organizations with similar purposes merge. While mergers – under the right conditions – can increase efficiency and achieve economies of scale they are also time consuming, expensive, and irreversible. We need new “mutual benefit structures” that are short of a full merger and retain some measure of autonomy for each initiative while eliminating the need for duplicative organizational structures and other redundancies.
In this case, the benefits go beyond merely conserving resources or leveraging existing infrastructure. This embedding is an example of pluralism in action. Mechon Hadar is halachic and egalitarian with leadership trained at Conservative and Orthodox seminaries while Project Zug was founded by an HUC rabbinical student and consciously reaches out to secular Jews. Similarly, each organization has a very different model of engaging adult learners. Embedding enables them to leverage the best of each model so that more learners in more places can participate.
In 5775, I look forward to seeing more creative examples of embedding, grafting, and forging mutual benefit arrangements among organizations of all sizes and at all stages of development. We have a wealth of good ideas. Let’s put an equal amount of creative energy into helping them reach more people and have greater impact.
Aliza Mazor is the Executive Director of Bikkurim: Advancing New Jewish Ideas.