What the Jewish Organizational World Can Learn from the Sharing Economy
By Ari Segal
In case you haven’t noticed, the Age of the Sharing Economy is upon us. One industry after another has been unceremoniously upended by hungry startups using innovative solutions to challenge the status quo and swallow up market share in the process. The taxi industry was brought to its heels by Uber and Lyft; the hospitality industry is contending with AirBnB. And hundreds, even thousands, of other companies are designing apps and interfaces that cut out the middlemen and offer value direct-to-consumer. My personal favorite: those Bird scooters!
There is a principle that serves as a common denominator to all of these sharing economy startups: How can we get the most value out of the resources we have at our disposal? For example, when you own a car, even if you drive a lot, that car will sit idle most of the time. Uber allows car owners to squeeze more value out of that asset (the car) when they aren’t using it. AirBnB allows for an apartment that would otherwise be collecting dust to generate revenue for its owner.
In the course of my own career, my calling card has been to stand at the nexus of business and education. As often as possible, I ask the question: How can we approach the problems of education with the tenacity and innovation of the Fortune 500 behemoths? Why does what we do deserve any less than that? That’s why I got an MBA; it’s why I obsessively devour Harvard Business Review articles and The New York Times business bestsellers. I’m always looking for an approach from the corporate world that can add real value in my own field.
Such an opportunity nearly fell into my lap three years ago. Shalhevet High School, the Orthodox Jewish high school in Los Angeles where I currently serve as head of school, was temporarily relocated to the nearby Westside JCC as our new campus was under construction. The JCC had another tenant at the time: Ikar, a post-denominational Jewish congregation and community in Los Angeles, founded and led by Rabbi Sharon Brous. Not exactly a perfect shidduch.
From a practical standpoint, this was a perfect arrangement for the JCC. Shalhevet classes are in session from Monday through Friday. Ikar hosts its services on the Sabbath and the holidays. With both of us as tenants, the Westside JCC space that we shared would be occupied and utilized nearly 100% of the time. Over the course of the year of co-tenancy, Shalhevet and Ikar did not have much to do with each other, but eventually conversations began. Rabbi Sharon Brous,the dynamic spiritual leader of Ikar, and I began meeting for coffee, hearing a bit more about each other’s organization. As the sharing arrangement seemed to work well, perhaps we might be able to continue our association even after we left the Westside JCC.
As the finishing touches were being put on our new building, Rabbi Brous and I broached the idea – first between us, and then to our respective boards – of bringing on Ikar as a tenant on our new campus. The benefit of this arrangement was fairly obvious and drew upon the principles of the sharing economy discussed above. Shalhevet High School’s magnificent building was only going to be occupied five days of the week, and not on various holidays or breaks. Ikar would use the building on Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. The increased tenancy would lead to other auxiliary benefits. For instance, we could now offer our custodians and security guards gigs on the weekends. While there were technical challenges, such as more wear and tear on the building, a cost-benefit analysis clearly pointed to this being an ideal arrangement.
Ideologically, however, the arrangement presented more serious challenges, enough for both me and my board to take pause and consider whether to proceed. Shalhevet is a traditional, modern Orthodox Jewish day school. Ikar is a non-denominational spiritual congregation. Generally speaking, our goals are one and the same: educating and inspiring Jews towards spiritual connection and communal belonging. But when descending to the particulars of various issues, there are many ways in which our approaches diverge considerably. Examplee: the State of Israel. Both organizations are proudly Zionist and supporters of the State of Israel. But we go about that support in quite different ways. Shalhevet leans more towards the center-right of the political spectrum; Ikar leans more progressive.
While I cannot speak to Rabbi Brous’s process for evaluating the challenges posed by this arrangement, as an Orthodox day school, our first move was to consult with a halachic authority. After numerous discussions with roshei yeshiva at Yeshiva University, they were excited at the idea of using the space together but with several preconditions that they described as non-negotiable in order to maintain a dividing line between the organizations. For instance, Ikar could not advertise its name on the outside of our building. Another example: Ikar could host a minyan in our auditorium, but not in our beit knesset.
Above and beyond the fairly black-and-white parameters established by our poskim (halachic authorities), there were issues that arose within a gray area that required our cooperation, conversation and creativity. Example: Ikar is committed to having gender-neutral bathrooms available for its community members and guests. While we at Shalhevet pride ourselves on our sensitivity to sexual orientation and gender, we choose to create policy that is more subtle and nuanced given the broad cross-section of families at the school. We would not, for example, put up public signage indicating non-gendered bathrooms. But for Ikar, it was important to make the space consistent with their own values and in a public manner. What to do? The solution: On Shabbatot, we allowed Ikar to place signs indicating a private, single-stall, all-gender bathroom, provided they remove them before Monday when school starts.
It should be noted that certain issues that we simply assumed would be issues turned out not to be issues at all. This was a valuable (and humbling) learning experience for me personally. For instance, we assumed that kashrut would present a challenge, that they adhered to different or more lenient standards than our own. As it turns out, Ikar keeps full kosher to the same standard as our own school. (The fact that they serve only vegetarian food made the process even easier.)
So, in the final analysis, Shalhevet and Ikar found ways to work through challenges and engage in a productive and mutually beneficial co-tenancy relationship that provided an innovative, cost-effective solution. But if the only reasons for proceeding with this partnership were economic, I’m not sure that the effort would have been worth it. There was something more important at stake.
Unfortunately, we don’t just live in the Age of the Sharing Economy. We also live in an age of discord and division. We live in a fractured world in general, and a fractured Jewish world in particular. On an individual, organizational, communal and denominational level, we are often at each other’s throats. Even when we are ostensibly getting along, we often talk about cooperation and achdut (unity), but rarely do we find opportunities to put that togetherness into action in a substantive way.
But that’s what we were able to do here. Was it great that we could squeeze more value out of our building? For sure. Was it important to demonstrate the sort of innovative and economical solution that could alleviate some of the challenges presented by the “tuition crisis”? Definitely. But I think what was even more important was modeling for our students what cooperation means – that you don’t need to see eye to eye on every issue in order to work together and to share a sacred space with one another.
Ikar’s tenancy at Shalhevet has an expiration date. They have just launched a capital campaign to raise money for a new building of their own. They are a wonderful, dynamic and fast-growing community, and even though we at Shalhevet will miss having them as co-tenants, we are also happy for them as they take this next step. The connection that we forged together, however, is one that will last a long time, long after they’ve left the premises. And if there’s one way I know that for sure, it’s this: Rabbi Brous has enrolled her daughter as an incoming freshman at Shalhevet High School.
Rabbi Ari Segal is Head of School at Shalhevet High School.