The Danger in Sears Judaism

By Dr Nir Tsuk and Rabbi Yehuda Sarna

The year was 1886. Richard W. Sears decided to establish a company bearing his own name to sell watches by mail order, based in Minnesota. That very same year, rabbis joined together to found the Jewish Theological Seminary Association, establishing the Conservative movement in New York. This week, more than 132 years later, Sears announces that it is closing up shop for reasons that legacy Jewish organizations should take note.

According to Edward Lampert, who will be the company’s last CEO, the company needed “nothing less than a radical transformation of Sears’s culture” in order to survive. “I underestimated how difficult it is to do and how critical are the right people to lead and to get people to buy in,” he said. This reality holds true for many centennial entities, including those that form the backbone of American Jewry: if there’s no innovation, there’s no organization.

In a world of accelerated change, innovation is to an organization like oxygen is to the human body. If oxygen is withheld from any part of the body, that member will deteriorate and endanger the entire body. If organizations believe that innovation can be given its due by relegating it to a minor office or junior employee, they will suffer. Philanthropists who treat innovation as its own funding sector should ask themselves why they are funding organizations which are allergic to innovation. The major studies on “intrapreneurship” – innovating within larger organizations – point to the fact that “innovation must be recognized as a permanent function of a company just like other business functions” such as accounting, operations, sales, and finance.

The first historical statement of this axiom comes not in the Harvard Business Review, (in which the previous quote in fact appears) but in the Talmud. Hagigah 3b reports that the founders of post-Temple Judaism considered their startup, the Beit Midrash (academy), to be synonymous with innovation:

There was an incident involving [two students] who went to greet Rabbi Joshua in Peki’in. Rabbi Joshua said to them: What innovation was taught today in the Beit Midrash (academy)? They said to him: We are your students and we drink from your water, i.e., all of our Torah knowledge comes from you, and therefore how can we tell you something you have not already taught? He said to them: Without innovation, there is no Beit Midrash (academy).

Joshua believed that in a moment of radical change such as his own, the only way for the institution to breathe was with a thoroughly imbued ethic of innovation. True, some of this spirit may have been lost from modern manifestations of the Beit Midrash. But the original founders of the Beit Midrash held a vision not only for academic casuistry but for social innovation. It served as a meeting point for scholars, artisans, and political players. Its debates entailed high stakes because they determined how the real economic, social and spiritual fabric of Jewish society was woven. A creative interpretation or new ruling could reassign wealth, status, or obligation.

How can we transform the current landscape of Jewish community to live up to Joshua’s maxim? Some legacy Jewish organizations bear an all-too-familiar resemblance to Sears, leading many young Jews and philanthropists to believe that the only path forward is to start new organizations which compete for members, resources, and attention. However, recent trends in understanding social change should compel us to re-examine this assumption.

An increasing number of scholars and practitioners worldwide argue that intrapreneurship is often more impactful than entrepreneurship. Intrapreneurship effectively leverages larger existing resources and increases the likelihood of sustainability. Social and business startups that are founded outside of an existing framework should not resist being absorbed by a larger entity as a matter of pride or purpose. Rather, they should see the enormous opportunities for growth and negotiate for the creation of the necessary conditions.

In a world where the only constant is change, institutions that do not adopt a changemaking approach risk becoming irrelevant. The urgent questions are: what are the processes and who are the people that could tip or leverage existing organizations? How can I create a culture of innovation in my own system?

Our work with many organizations and educational institutions has taught us that legacy organizations that do make the shift must succeed on two different levels: the individual and the team.

For individuals, the focus must be on shifting to an Entrepreneurial Mindset. Although there are many differing opinions on which characteristics to include, what is important is that it is not simply a skill set to acquire, but a different way of looking at the world. They believe in a yet-to-be-made future and have a higher tolerance for risk than others. Some people are born with this mindset, but others, we have observed, can learn it.

At the level of teams, the shift comes by implementing a Culture of Innovation. The culture must be pervasive, and often entails atmospheric changes rather than specific innovation of new products, processes or markets. If indeed “culture eats strategy for breakfast” as Peter Drucker had it – and innovation is about calculated risk-taking and fruitful doubt-casting – what is the healthy and productive way for an entity to change itself from within?

This year, we at New York University are launching a certificate in Spiritual Leadership and Social Impact to train Jewish leaders from around the world in the entrepreneurial mindset, harnessing the wisdom of world experts from the academy and industry. Our first cohort will be with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, an innovative in New York City. And this is hopefully just the beginning: this language of systemic social change should be spoken not only by rabbis, but also by CEOs, lay leaders, teachers, social workers, medical personnel, municipal bodies, nonprofits, politicians, academics – in short, by everybody. A culture of innovation and an entrepreneurial mindset are the building blocks of this essential language.

This week, legions of communal professionals and lay leaders will gather in Tel Aviv for the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America. The wisdom of Rabbi Joshua’s maxim – if there is no innovation, there is no organization – is as true today as it was in the first century; Sears is but one example. Rabbi Joshua will not be there in person, but will his voice be heard?

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna is the Executive Director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University and serves on the faculty of the Wagner School for Public Service at NYU.

Dr Nir Tsuk is a Visiting Professor of Entrepreneurship at Osaka University, Japan and the new Head of Impact at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University.