In Times Like These

by Martin Levine

Disruptive times threaten the Establishment, organizations and structures which have been developed in response to yesterday’s reality but are still the framework of today’s organized Jewish Community. Those of us, who lead them, lay and professional, must make decisions about how we should guide our organizations during a time of great social turmoil and change. We need to choose what to keep, what to discard and what innovations to embrace.

These are painful choices; they involve the lives of those we serve, the people who make up our organizations and the larger communities we are a part of. They will disturb the programs and services we have creatively nurtured into action and shake the buildings we have built. They are decisions for which the outcomes are uncertain. They cause us to stop programs and services that have been effective in order to try a new way forward. We should never be cavalier about the human impact that these choices will have on those we serve and on other stake holders. That is what makes times like these so hard and difficult to navigate.

A number of years ago I was a member of a public high school Quality Improvement Team. Our work quickly brought us to such a moment. We concluded that we saw the future clearly enough to know that the success of the school into the future required making radical changes in how the school operated, how the school connected to other elements of their larger community, and what and how the school taught. The mother of an incoming freshman taught me to understand how critical these conclusions were. When she heard our analysis and the conclusions we had reached she told us what we were asking her to risk her child’s very future. Since he had only four years in high school to give, if we found along the way that further changes were needed he might have lost something that could never be regained. She was right, and so was our conclusion that if we did not make the necessary changes the four years would certainly be wasted and lost. Leadership is about facing these choices head on and making risky decisions.

In times of rapid and significant change, failure to make change happens quickly enough to risk losing everything. We have only to look at RIM (Research In Motion) to see this reality played out before us in real time. RIM launched the new era of mobile communication devices with their invention of Blackberry technology. Because of its obvious improvements on what had come before, it quickly captured a dominant share of the market place, becoming the favored device of corporations and governments. It seemed to have such market dominance that it was impregnable to competition. And then they misread the changes that were occurring around them. They did not grasp the meaning of new technologies being developed by Apple and Google. In almost the wink of an eye, they fell from their dominant position to impending bankruptcy.

Could RIM have seen what was going to happen if they only continued to move forward with small improvements in their existing reality? I think so. Would it have been risky to make radical change? Of course. But the fear of losing all if they made too great a change got them to exactly that outcome. Because they did not recognize that just doing what they did a little better than before was not going to be enough, they lost their place in the market and their customer base.

So the real question for those of us who dare to lead is what to do next as we recognize that changing too little and too slowly may be every bit as risky as changing too much and too fast.

The first step forward must be a willingness to look at our reality clearly. We need to see it as it is and not as we want it to be; we need to see it from the outside in, rather than from the inside out. While we may lead organizations and movements, we also serve, and those we serve ultimately have much to say about whether we will continue to serve them. We must remember that once we were the results of similar moments of radical change. We need to look outward with clear eyes and minds.

I had the opportunity to present my vision of the disruptive changes effecting the Jewish community and greater environment at Limmud Chicago two years ago. The audience included some who were heavily involved in “establishment” Chicago Jewish organizations and a group of Birthright alumni. In the discussion that followed the “establishment” folks talked about their recognition that they were having trouble bringing younger and newer members into their institutions and of their need and desire to do so. The Birthright alumni spoke of their desire to be more involved in Jewish life but that they needed radical change in these existing organizations if they were to connect to them. Those who represented the established institutions pulled back, not sure they were ready to give up control. And so the challenge is well illustrated.

This is where we seem to fail most dramatically. We look around us and see what we wish to see, not what is there to be seen. I would suggest that this is all too often just another way for us to create a reality that is comfortable because it fits our notions of the way the world should be. That reality confirms that, with just small adjustments, we already have the right answer. It allows us to blame those outside our walls for failing to recognize what we are doing for them and our skill and wisdom. We are blinded by consciously or unconsciously ordering information in patterns that fulfill our expectations. We cannot accept that the emperor may be utterly naked as she parades in front of us so we mentally clothe her in the robes we think befits the monarch.

JCC Chicago was once the Jewish Community Centers of Chicago, an organization committed to the local neighborhoods that once made up the Chicago Jewish community. Our structure was spot-on for a Chicago Community with a limited number of dense and stable Jewish communities. It maximized our ability to be close to those we served and responsive to local needs and wants. But Chicago’s Jewish geography and demography changed dramatically from a small corridor along the Lake Michigan shore line to a box fifty miles by fifty miles with a growing number of locales with Jewish presence. In seeing this change occurring we were challenged to either leap to a radically different framework, “One JCC” or retain our structure of multiple, neighborhood centers. In concluding we needed to morph JCC Chicago, to become one JCC serving the entire metropolitan area, we recognized that tweaking the existing JCC was no longer sufficient to remain effective. And when we made radical changes, we did not know if they would work. But we knew standing pat had a large risk of failure built in. The decision meant our entrenched and invested stakeholders were going to be challenged and threatened. Looking back it was on target with what was needed, but no one could be sure when we made that decision that this would be so.

Leaders need to be clear on what they are leading. Is there a purpose higher than protecting the forms and shapes of the institutions we now lead? Or is there a purpose that transcends current strategies and tactics?

I was shown what the answer is one summer afternoon driving back home after spending a day at camp with the President of my Board of Directors. With the kind of clarity we must seek he said “I now understand that JCC Chicago is not really in the camping business, not really in the early childhood business, these are just the things we are doing today in order to Bring Jewish Values to Life.” He understood it clearly. He had seen in action that we always need to know our core purpose that we are here to accomplish and not be blinded by the current tactical reality we have chosen to follow.

He had learned over the preceding months as, “Bringing Jewish Values to Life”, was distilled as the essence of JCC Chicago’s purpose that we had we were more than the sum of today’s parts. In fact, each activity we might choose to place into the market needed to stand the test and challenge of accomplishing our core and unchanging purpose.

When will the establishment that many of us represent be ready to accept that the old rules are broken and new ones are necessary? Before we look outside I am convinced we need to be very clear about who we are and what is important to us. When all is said and done, it is what we think that really matters about our organization. What core items must never change and what are the strategies and tactics to get us to where we really must go?

Only when we are clear can we look at our world with the right questions in mind. Only then can we ask the right questions.

For example, the world of JCC’s has decades of debate about whether we should be open or closed on Shabbat and the Hagim. But that debate has been fueled by asking the wrong question of ourselves. Open or closed for what purpose would be the better question to consider. How does being open or closed fulfill our ultimate purpose? If Bringing Jewish Values to Life is why we are in existence than we have one kind of discussion about what that means today; if being a place that Jews can recreate and socialize with other Jews is our purpose than the discussion would be different. Purpose matters.

The process of getting to the core of who we are as professionals, volunteers and organizations can be searing. It can threaten our very stature; it can make what we are doing seem inconsequential; it can scare us about our own survival. But without looking starkly at ourselves, we cannot really understand our world or see the threats and opportunities of the present and the future.

That is the lesson we can learn from the world of business by looking at examples of companies that have been able to leap forward. Consider firms selling books. as a newcomer to the business, reads the changing winds that technology has brought before us and creates a radically new way of getting books to readers. Amazon then makes a second leap forward to incorporate eBooks into the mix. Borders misses seeing the challenge to big box book stores that was leaped over by Amazon and is now just a memory and a number of dark, empty buildings. And Barnes & Noble sits as an example of leaping late, and scrambling to avoid ultimate failure.

Clarity informs what each of us is prepared to do individually; it allows us to have a singular path that we are committed to. It is a critical starting point.

But community is not solely the work of one perspective. Community requires us to find the places where we agree and where we can choose to travel together with others. Too much of the Jewish Communal enterprise is focused on where we disagree. We argue we get angry; we try to convince each other to change our minds. At times of disruption, when all are faced with the challenge of adapting to a new condition, this becomes a self limiting and self defeating context. We too easily draw a small circle around us and look at the Jewish future as if it were a zero sum game. None of us, JCCs, Synagogues, Schools, etc. are now touching the majority of the community; not individually, not even collectively. And within that framework we are fighting over the very same households. Will they be my members or yours? Will they be your donors or mine? In this context we are all going to sink together.

If we are to not lose the value of what we have accomplished, we need to see the potential of our future in a much larger context. If we believe that Judaism has real meaning in the 21st Century, that it provides ways that can enrich our lives, as individuals, families and communities, then we have to look out from the tent and not just inwardly. We need to be like Abraham sitting with our tent flaps open looking at the horizon.

And we need to be willing to encourage wide ranging and honest conversations. Conversations that recognize that we are challenged, perhaps even threatened, by the 21st century. We need to recognize that emerging trends shake many of our core strategies. Membership in American social organizations of all kinds has been shrinking for decades. It is no surprise that this is so for synagogues and JCCs and Federations. Yet it is so hard to face in an open discussion.

It is in bringing our real understanding of purpose to the forefront and being willing to look, together, at the world around us that real hope lies. Where do we agree, rather than where can we fight? What do we want to accomplish together, rather than where do we want to fight and criticize? How do we help each other work through the pain of giving up the old and mourn what can no longer keep going? These are framing question which we need to be brave enough to ask each other.

And there is one last question each of us needs to look in the mirror and face. Are we ready to accept that we may not have the right answer for tomorrow’s challenges? That our very nature as organizations may be so wrong that without radical change we cannot remain viable, and should not remain viable?

Without being willing to ask that question and answer it honestly, the future will not be ours.

Martin Levine is General Director, JCC Chicago.

Also see Martin’s previous essay, The Time for Radical Change is Now: Will We Help Bring it On?