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Making Base home: 11 lessons on innovation
In 2014, my three best friends and I co-founded Base – a new type of Jewish community for ourselves and our millennial peers. Despite four very different backgrounds and upbringings, we shared a dream: a way to engage in Jewish community that differed from previous traditional models, to break free from the constraints of divisive denominations, brick-and-mortar institutions and costly membership models in favor of an experiential Judaism that made us feel more alive, more in touch with ourselves and more connected to those around us. This Judaism would bring the old stories off the page and help us grapple with life’s big questions: Why are we here? What is/could be/might be “God”? How are we connected to the Jewish past, and the global Jewish present?
Over coffees and Google docs, we imagined a movement of families from all walks of life building hyper-local, nondenominational Jewish communities based out of our homes. Going back to the basics, we built a model rooted in the rabbinic home – one imbued with radical hospitality, a love of Jewish learning and a commitment to being a good neighbor through acts of service. Today there are Base communities thriving across New York City, Boston, Chicago, Miami, Denver, the Bay Area and soon Los Angeles. Thanks to the generosity and vision of many philanthropists and foundations, federations and our home institution – Moishe House – more are growing every year.
After eight years of building, Base is now firmly rooted and thriving and the day-to-day leadership is ready for a new builder. As I step back, I’d like to share some lessons on the process of “innovation” in the hopes that they might help others.
Lesson No. 1: Find your people, because no one builds alone.
Influencer culture makes young people believe that they must be all things at all times – a brand strategist, a social media expert, a content creator, a financial planner, a business strategist. But no one is an expert in everything and nothing of impact is built in a silo. So find your people: those who share your highest vision; who will work with you at the “pace of trust”; and who will tell you the hard truth in a way that you can receive it without feeling defensive. If possible, find people you can laugh with; you’ll need fun to make the journey sustainable.
Lesson No. 2: Be ready and follow up.
“If you could build one thing for the Jewish world, what would it be?” When someone asked this question, we were ready with our two-page vision document, complete with mission, vision and theory of change. We could have sent over a document and let it wait for feedback or someone else to champion it. Instead, we followed up, repeatedly — through email, phone calls or periodic updates, keeping donors and thought partners updated on our progress. Eventually this created a wide network of people who feel invested in the journey and its outcomes.
Lesson No. 3: Ask the right people for the right help
For some people, asking for help is intuitive and easy, for others it’s riddled with shame and anxiety. But to build something new, you must learn to ask for help, and do so strategically. There are many smart and wealthy people in the world, but not all of them have the capacity (or the will) to help you. Be discerning about what you really need: Information from an expert? Money from an investor? A passionate advocate with great connections? A strategic ally to help you politically navigate systems or channels of change and power? Asking the right people for the right help will help you move more strategically and efficiently. (And if you identify as a woman, seeking women mentors can be a game changer)
Lesson No. 4: Say ‘yes’ until it’s time to say ‘no’
We’ve been trained, especially in the non-profit sector, that we must have all the details correct because we are working with philanthropic dollars. But the obsession with process often kills innovation. But building something new is often iterative: to create something new (i.e. innovative) you’ll probably end up saying yes to bad ideas and failed tests before you arrive at something that works. But eventually, if you figure out what works, you’ll have to learn how to say “no” — to create boundaries, parameters, and KPIs that you won’t deviate from unless you have a strategic reason for doing so. Once you are in a discernment phase and able to say “no,” the tricky part will be staying agile enough to say “yes” when something unexpected does come along. As we learn in Bereshit (Genesis) the whole act of creation is one of separation, boundary setting, form and shape.
A good example of this is our Based-In pilot, a part-time iteration of our core mode developed in response to growing demand from rabbis wanting to inhabit more dynamic, less institutionally based roles. We explored how to create a platform that helps non-pulpit rabbis to do more direct engagement and pastoral work with young adults and young families. During our research phase, we interviewed dozens of rabbis nationwide about their journeys and how they imagine actualizing their pastoral or educational expertise. We spoke to many other colleagues and practitioners working towards similar goals. When we had enough data to articulate the questions and test parameters in a pilot, we green-lit it. Now that we understand how it fits into our mission, we were excited to say “yes” to four passionate rabbinic leaders and to devote valuable staff time to seeing it through.
Lesson No. 5 Walk humbly and meet everyone as a potential teacher.
One of my early mentors taught me about “FUD” which stands for fear, uncertainty and doubt — an important concept when you are trying to build something new, whether as an entrepreneur or intrapreneur. Colleagues may understandably feel defensive (“Are you saying my work isn’t innovative?”), annoyed (“What do you really know?”) and frustrated (“All these resources going to an experiment?”) Walk humbly as you create something “new” because most likely, somebody, somewhere, has also asked, “What if….?” Recognizing that others have grappled with what you are trying to solve for is critical. It’s important to forge relationships and earn allies, and learning from the achievements and failures of others is invaluable. As the Talmud teaches us, “he who is wise learns from everyone.”
Lesson No. 6: Build a narrative (and keep updating it).
When you are building something new, you will have hundreds of conversations about what you’re doing and have to make a succinct case for why it matters, so your core narrative must be clear to you: What’s your starting point? What were the turning points? Where are you now and where are you going? As another mentor put it, what do you need to get from the third inning to the fifth ? Simultaneously, you’ll need to carve time and space to zoom out and see where your work and efforts intersect with others’ and what societal trends or events strengthen or challenge your value proposition.
When we began Base, our core constituency was young adults who were seeking more meaningful, open and soulful expressions of Jewish life and learning. Having this clear narrative helped bring aboard philanthropists and communal leaders who care deeply about Jewish continuity. As time went on, we realized we had another core constituency: the next generation of religious and spiritual Jewish leaders. While younger rabbis wanted more dynamic ways to express their rabbinate, they were (mostly) unequipped to build the necessary infrastructure and funding mechanisms. With Based-In, clergy could focus on local organizing, hosting and teaching while we built scalable and sustainable funding, hiring and programmatic models to support them. Learning how to incorporate this shift into our highest narrative was a critical turning point that attracted more financial resources and focused our energy and time on clarifying what rabbinic support can and should look like.
Lesson No. 7: Know YOUR Why.
Simon Sinek’s inspirational TED talk on the Golden Circle — centering the question “Why?” — greatly influenced how we conceptualized and wrote the original Base mission and vision; our website still reflects this mental map. Knowing why your work matters, and not just what the work entails, is a foundational step to creating work that matters and meets real human needs. So explore your own personal why: what specific life experiences fuel your desire to put in the hours required to bring this project to life? I only fully understood my own why(s) for building Base until a few years in, when I realized that building Base wasn’t just a career opportunity, it was also a healing opportunity. I came from a broken home, filled with plenty of joy, but also plenty of emotional trauma. Base was the manifestation of the metaphorical “home” that I always sought as a young adult; a place to be seen, heard and celebrated, a place to explore, question and dream. Understanding my deeply personal connection to the work gave me the authenticity which is essential to being a strong leader, and allowed me to move beyond my own personal story. Acknowledging our personal histories and motivations can sometimes allow us to broaden our perspective and focus our work without ourselves at the center.
Lesson No. 8: Learn to trust your intuition, faster.
According to the American Psychological Association, “impostor phenomenon” occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually un-mask them as a fraud. I used to defer to more senior colleagues or partners, even when I knew instinctively the right direction to go, until I realized that, as a founder, I would always know more about my work than anyone else. Others could provide wisdom and perspective, but I had to claim my right to lead my ideas to actualization, to decide the processes and approaches that felt most comfortable to me. Trusting my own intuition both allowed me to make more decisive decisions, and more decisive repairs.
Lesson No. 9: Treat your funders as real partners.
Philanthropists give for many different reasons and via varied strategies. Understanding these differences is essential for creating a relationship of shared purpose and partnership and not just financial transaction. Get comfortable asking people directly: why they give, how they give and what a positive funding relationship looks like to them. Real partners are there to celebrate your wins and help you navigate challenges. Don’t just share what’s working; articulate what you are grappling with and bring your funders in as thought partners early on. During the pandemic, funders played a critical role in quickly deciding to extend grant horizons and shift priorities. But most challenges aren’t as disruptive as a global pandemic. They usually start small and grow. Bring your funders in early and you may just avoid a lot of headaches and the break-down of trust down the road.
Lesson No. 10: Know when it’s time to step away.
A few years ago, I started feeling exhausted by all the infrastructure demands of building and scaling something nationally. I realized that I personally thrive in the start-up phase – the visioning, dreaming, research and experimentation, and bringing others together to find their place in a shared dream. The best way I could support Base was to embed it into a mission-aligned and well-resourced home that would invest in its next chapter and contribute a fresh perspective and strategic ecosystem. Choosing to be acquired by Moishe House was a critical step towards stabilizing Base and allowing me the space to imagine what else I might build. But it also required a tremendous amount of tzimtzum, a kabbalistic idea that speaks to the creative power of self-constriction. In bringing Base into Moishe House, it may change from its original purpose and I had to accept that reality. Learning to center the work to which I devoted the last eight years, and not my own ego, was one of the career decisions I am most proud of today.
Lesson No. 11: In the debate of breadth vs. depth, Judaism clearly points to depth.
With limited resources, how should we focus our time and attention to have the most impact and social change? Judaism has a clear stance: every life is a complete universe unto itself. So many Bible stories are of individuals and families whose choices have lasting impact on the future of the Jewish people. The Hasidic master, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, offers us a profound framework for appreciating our greatness and our smallness. He taught that in one pocket we should hold a piece of paper with the line, “The whole world was created for me” and in the other pocket, a piece of paper with the words, “I come from dust and I will return to dust.” We must both recognize how small we are – how many factors are beyond on our control – and how much potential each individual person has.
Judaism, like any spiritual, religious, or cultural outlet is ultimately an opportunity for growth, personal transformation, joy and belonging. If we’re only focusing on reaching as many people as possible, we’re inevitably offering them less and less, which in turn means a smaller possibility for significant impact.
In our world of endless possibilities and a myriad of increasing challenges, how likely is it that someone will feel committed to something that isn’t making them feel more alive, more connected, more rooted in the world? It’s time we strategically and proudly invest more in those individuals who show up and express interest and stop fixating on the abstract concept of those on the “outside.”
Building Base, I saw that when we focus on creating something meaningful, depth-filled and truly transformative, people are naturally curious and attracted to it. It’s not about rebranding Judaism, it’s about reimagining how Judaism can feel in our daily lives. If we’re offering that to folks, my hunch is a lot of people are going to want in. Instead of thinking about this change on a one-to-three-year year grant cycle, let’s think about this on a 20-year horizon. If we make American Judaism so alive and compelling for the next 20 years, perhaps opting out won’t look nearly as attractive as opting in.
Faith Brigham Leener is a founder and the executive director of the Base movement. In March, she will become the inaugural chief innovation officer of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.