Enduring Dilemma

Seven strategies for meeting the challenges of reopening

In Short

Seeking balance is a compromise, and by definition a compromise is a lose-lose outcome

The relief of finally being able to reopen after more than a year of pandemic shutdowns and the resulting uncertainty and caution constitute what we call an Enduring Dilemma. Enduring Dilemmas are managed; unlike problems, they cannot be solved. This means that when an issue arises again, it does not happen because you have not adequately addressed it the first time or because the leader has failed in any way. Rather, it is baked into the nature of the issue because it is an Enduring Dilemma. Adopting this way of perceiving issues as we move to reopen reveals seven leadership strategies. 

This thinking is deeply congruent with Jewish thought and action both ancient and contemporary. The rabbis nearly two millennia ago expressed this as “elu ve’elu divrei Elohim chayim” – “Both this and that are words of the living God.” In more recent times, this idea is captured in a Hasidic maxim: We all should have two notes, one in each pocket: 

In one pocket: “The whole world was created for me.” In the other pocket: “I am nothing but the dust of the earth.” Both texts underscore the importance of being able to hold two sometimes conflicting perspectives and values in tension.

For more than a decade we have been teaching and studying this phenomenon of Enduring Dilemmas, what some including our teacher Professor Debby Kerdeman, call, “values tensions,” as part of the practice of Jewish educational leadership. In January, 2021, we followed up on research we did several years ago to ascertain how using the lens of Enduring Dilemmas helped during the crises engendered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on both pieces of research, we have been able to identify seven lessons to keep in mind as you  reopen your Jewish communal space, whether it be a school, congregation, camp or other type of organization.  

Seven strategies to guide you through re-opening

  1. Accept that any response is only for now. In managing Enduring Dilemmas, leaders realize that they are coming up with a response that will work for the short term but will need to be revisited as the situation shifts.  In Think Again, Adam Grant of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania calls this stance “thinking like a scientist.” A leader hypothesizes what might be an effective strategy for now, tries it out, collects data, and modifies the strategy in an ever-repeating loop.
  1. Practice both/and thinking instead of falling into the trap of either/or, polarizing thinking. Enduring Dilemmas are situations in which a leader and a community prize two values both of which cannot be enacted at the same time. In such situations, choosing one value or the other is rarely effective. Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, points to individual needs and the value of community as being at the core of the re-opening Enduring Dilemma. Choosing individual needs would keep people apart in order to guard the health of the most vulnerable populations, and choosing gathering as a community as in pre-pandemic times would ignore the needs of those who are vulnerable as communities begin to gather in sanctuaries, auditoriums, classrooms and board rooms. 
  1. Don’t look for balance between the two values in tension; seek a third alternative. The challenge facing leaders and communities is to replace either/or thinking with both/and thinking, and not seek balance between prized values. As Stephen Covey points out in The 3rd Alternative, seeking balance is a compromise, and by definition a compromise is a lose-lose outcome. The leader would sacrifice part of both values in order to achieve balance. Rather, bring two or more ideas together to create a new, synthesized way to address the issue. Searching for a “third way” of approaching the values tension, a creative alternative that does not balance the values but expresses them in novel ways, yields more effective strategies. To arrive at a “third way,” leaders may, in certain situations, need to emphasize one value over the other.
  1. Don’t go it alone, share what you are seeing and how you are understanding what you are seeing. The key to managing Enduring Dilemmas is broad involvement of stakeholders who see the dilemmas from different vantage points. This involvement is most likely to lead to the synthesizing of creative third-way thinking. Most importantly, helping community members see that situations in which a clear-cut  response is not evident often represent value tensions that require deeper consideration. This is an invitation for community members to pause and consider the deeper implications of the strategy they are considering as well as to recognize the Jewish values that animate the institution.  
  1. Notice your feelings of tension. How do leaders know they are confronting Enduring Dilemmas and not simply facing problems with direct solutions? They pay attention to their own emotions and notice their own feelings of tension and discomfort. Those feelings are often the clue that what is at stake are values in tension with one another. Having noticed their emotional response, leaders then use their intellectual and interpersonal skills to develop strategies for managing the Enduring Dilemma.
  1. Pay attention to what you value. As leaders shift from the emotional to the intellectual and interpersonal, they ask themselves and their community, “What values are at stake here?” Naming and defining the two values sharpens everyone’s thinking and sets the groundwork for seeking third way alternative courses of action.  As Priya Parker explains, going below the surface to identify the deeper issues and values gives the leader and the community the courage to take bold, often unexpected actions.
  2. Share these lessons with others to create a shared language and lens through which to view the issues that are arising. As Abby Wambach argues in Wolfpack, your task as a leader is not to create followers but to cultivate leaders. When a community is filled with stakeholders who understand the difference between problems to be solved and Enduring Dilemmas to be managed and when many people are asking the question, “What values are at stake here?” a community can come up with powerful and effective strategies that will be effective…even if they are only for now!

We leave you with an Enduring Dilemma that we hope will lift you and give you courage as you guide your institution through reopening. As you face the many challenges ahead, approach them with ko-ach ratzon (a strong will) and anavah (humility).  The will (ko-ach ratzon) to act can propel you to go forward boldly, as a scientist, testing hypotheses; humility (anavah) can bring you comfort when your hypotheses fall short of your aspirations. Your willingness to embrace this way of thinking has the potential to sophisticate your leadership and serve as a testament to your wisdom in uncertain times.

Dr. Lesley Litman is the director of the Executive MA in Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Education.

Dr. Michael Zeldin is professor emeritus of Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.