Kehillah and Collaboration

by Debbie Nahshon

It seems to me that there are an awful lot of Jewish communal projects out there that are eager to get publicity and attention, before they’ve shown a real track record. New organizations that are particularly publicity savvy – or, rather, invest valuable time and resources in publicity before demonstrating substantive project management skills – appear to get the lion’s share of communal attention, even in cases where there’s little substance. And now I am seeing that the flip side can also be true – those organizations that plod along and do their due diligence, namely, take their time to get things right and have real impact, are too often overlooked.

That’s why it should be no surprise to me or my colleagues that the very public discussions about collaboration and community (Bob Goldfarb’s post, 3/19) make no mention of the Kehillah Partnership, a community-wide effort in Northern New Jersey to collaborate on expense reduction and educational programming and outreach. Now entering its fourth pilot year, the Kehillah Partnership has accomplished something truly unique in the American Jewish community: a collaborative partnership of educators, clergy, and community leaders to strengthen education, broaden and deepen Jewish connections, and make Jewish life more affordable.

Ten synagogues – a mix of Conservative and Reform – have come together to create community-wide curriculum and enrich congregational school education while providing professional development for teachers and community cultural arts programs for all of their sixth and seventh graders. Dozens of the community’s Jewish institutions are working together to save money and share resources, in a manner that will bring direct financial benefit to each of the participating organizations. By just purchasing electricity as a group, the community has saved about $500,000, and has now hired a staff person devoted solely to this aspect of the project. Through the introduction of programs like PJ Library, the Kehillah Partnership is working with local funders to create multiple portals of connection for the marginally engaged and the unaffiliated, with significant success thus far. All of this is predicated on a concept of “one fee entry” to Jewish community, which will make Jewish engagement and affiliation significantly less expensive, bring direct financial benefit to Kehillah members and institutions through group purchasing opportunities, and enhance and enrich the community’s Jewish educational offerings to children in congregational schools and local Jewish camps as well as adults in varied age cohorts.

There is no question that the financial incentives embedded in this holistic, visionary program are one key to its success. But, having closely observed the collaborative process among the local community of educators, I would say that there is definitely more to this. They have been moved, inspired, and given an opportunity to innovate – and they have definitely risen to the occasion. This is not just about money. It is very much about building trust, inspiring people to change, and running a tight ship with professional, dedicated management that seeks accountability and is eager to learn from its mistakes. The Kehillah Partnership has a lot to teach the American Jewish community – not just about collaborative models and innovative ideas, but also about how to run a project and make it work.

Debbie Nahshon is the Director of National Project Development for the Kehillah Partnership.