Arts & Culture

Why Can’t Jewish Organizations Collaborate?

Marty Linsky, co-author of Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life, is guest blogging on Jewcy this week with his co-authors Shifra Bronznick and Didi Goldenhar. The guidebook is the result of a partnership between two organizations: … Read More

By / November 10, 2008

Marty Linsky, co-author of Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life, is guest blogging on Jewcy this week with his co-authors Shifra Bronznick and Didi Goldenhar. The guidebook is the result of a partnership between two organizations: Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community and Cambridge Leadership Associates.  Linsky is a faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School and has been a journalist, lawyer, and politician.

Yesterday, Sunday, I was in Toronto working with a group of people, each of whom has just become or is about to become chair of the board of a Jewish communal agency.They were brought together for a year-long experience under the auspices of The Joshua Institue for Jewish Communal Leadership, a newly-created arm of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. 

The presenting purpose was leadership development for those new board chairs; but the not so hidden agenda was to break down the walls that keep those organizations and the dozens of others that make up Toronto’s undeniably vibrant Jewish community from working together and instead often pits them against one another for attention, money, volunteers, professionals, and even clients and service recipients. 

The situation in Toronto is not much different from what I have seen in other Jewish communities in North America and, to be fair, in many non-Jewish not-for-profit worlds as well. But the commitment to autonomy  seems particuarly pronouced among Jewish organizations, right along there with the lip service paid to collaboration. The gap between the espounsed values and the current reality is not uncommon in Jewish life. When Shifra Bronznick, Didi Goldenhar and I were talking to people and doing research for Leveling the Playing Field, our new book on gender inequality in Jewish communal life, we found a similar pattern. Everyone is for it, but nothing much happens. 

In Toronto yesterday, the CEO of the Federation told a wonderful story of a meeting of the most senior lay and professionals in the Jewish community to discuss the plans for a newly-acquired parcel of 60 acres of land. Those sitting around the table thought they were there to negotiate about how to carve it up, so that each agency would get its appropriate share. But it turns out that the plan was to share the land in common, a whole new way of doing business for those folks whose identities were wrapped up in their individual agencies. It was a long sturggle to make that happen, and it is not over yet as denominational and other differences are making truly shared resources difficult to achieve.

Why is this so difficult? Think of the analogy to a vegetable stew. To make stew, you have to cook the vegetables, the potatoes and lentils and onions, enough so that each takes on a little of the coloration and smell of the others. If you don’t do that, you might as well cook the vegetables in separate pots. But if you cook them too much, you get mush instead of a stew. The problem comes when the lentils have to go back to lentil-land. The first thing that will happen to them is that the other lentils will start sniffing around. "Yuck," they will say. "We sent you there to spread some lentil juice over those potatoes and carrots and onions, not to get any onion or potato juice on you! You’re not one of us any more."

Real collaboration is about loss, about giving up something important in the service of the whole. The work of collaboration is difficult because is not only requires the distribution of losses, but also collaboration among the collaborators in helping each other deliver their losses to their own people. Collaboration is particularly challenging in Jewish communal life because well-intentioned people with a history of suffering and loss go into that line of work on either a professional or a volunteer basis to save lives and provide benefits, not to deliver losses and take away what people value. But without the courage and skill to do just that, no real change can occur and the silos’ boundaries will continue to be relatively impermeable at the expense of the longer run interests of the community as a whole. 

Marty Linsky, co-author of Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life, is guest blogging on Jewcy this week with his co-authors Shifra Bronznick and Didi Goldenhar.  Stay tuned.

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