Learning Opportunity: Collaboration Won’t Kill Us, but Failing to Collaborate Might

December 11, 2015Rabbi Jay Henry Moses

The URJ’s Leadership Institute is offering a series of three sessions about key concepts that we hope will inspire sacred action within congregations. The series began with Allison Fine’s session about “matterness” and values alignment and continued with Marty Linsky’s session about leading in challenging times. The final session will be hosted by Rabbi Jay Moses, who will discuss the importance of collaboration. Read this sneak peek into his session and register now for the webinar.

“The Talmud says…”

Rabbis, teachers, and scholars alike often utter this misnomer. The next time your rabbi utters these words, please resist the temptation to interrupt her (although a silent smirk may do the trick).

You see, we are the heirs to not one but two Talmuds—the Bavli and the Yerushalmi, symbols of the vibrant communities in Palestine and in Babylonia in Talmudic times. It is clear that these two communities lived in some tension with one another, at times disagreeing on matters of law, culture, and practice. But they also shared wisdom, teachings, and rulings with each other.

The key to the exchange was the Nechutei, travelers who would go back and forth between Bavel and Eretz Yisrael bringing queries on behalf of their own community’s scholars and leaders for their foreign counterparts to answer; they also gathered the wisdom of the other community’s sages to bring home for the enrichment of their teachers and colleagues.

The result? While we still have two Talmuds, they – and the communities that produced them – were both richer for having collaborated on the intellectual and spiritual project of refining Jewish law and lore.

Collaboration is a current buzzword in Jewish life, and while its connotations are largely positive, it is seldom practiced effectively.

Why don’t congregations usually collaborate? Why should they? And how can leaders of congregations learn to collaborate well?

Congregations don’t typically collaborate because our institutions are not built to collaborate. The structure and the culture of synagogues promote competition: Potential members go “synagogue shopping” and ultimately pay dues and contribute to the viability of one synagogue over all the others. Given that reality, rabbis and synagogue leaders understandably have their identities and egos (to say nothing of their budgets and salaries) tied up in the notion of being “better” and more attractive than other synagogues.

These dynamics are only deepened by the changing demographics of our community. The resources – members, revenue, energy, and prestige – are getting scarcer. Increasingly, the pressure to stand out from other congregations looks less like a healthy market indicator and more like an existential threat.

The natural response to that pressure is to hoard resources and redouble efforts to circle the wagons and preserve what you have.

So we have a double challenge – and a high bar to get over if collaboration is to win the day.

In response to the cultural and structural barriers we’ve inherited, I’d suggest that collaboration is an inherent good. As the Nechutei helped make both Talmuds richer texts (and both Jerusalem and Babylon stronger communities), so too can collaboration strengthen all congregations and communities. The diversity of ideas and perspectives it offers, as well as the scale that is possible with multiple stakeholders, are ingredients for a richer Jewish stew.

If collaboration is not self-evident as a greater good – or if that idea is accepted in principle but obscured in practice – the demographic reality now makes it a necessary tool for creative survival. Remaining siloed and in competition will hurt almost every congregation and our broader community. Some will simply not survive.

That’s the why. But even if we accept that we should collaborate, the question of how to do it effectively is crucial – and not simple. A few principles can guide us:

  • Check personal and institutional egos at the door.
  • Stick with it! Real collaboration takes time.
  • Take risks. Playing it safe usually leads nowhere.
  • Recognize that collaboration involves loss. Be prepared to incur losses of autonomy, familiarity, and more – and help others deal with their losses, too.

The sages of ancient Jerusalem and Babylonia could not have foreseen that they were creating a culture that would guide our people through the next two millennia. They were just seeking truth and trying to lead their people through the next day, the next Shabbat, the next year. But they couldn’t do it alone; they needed the Nechutei to broaden their thinking and connect them to larger possibilities.

The 21st century North American Jewish community needs Nechutei, too – bridge-builders who see the value of collaboration and help make it possible. Dare to be a Nechutei for your community – and maybe the Jews of the year 4015/7776 will be studying about you!

To learn more about collaboration in the Jewish community, register now for Rabbi Jay Moses’ webinar, taking place on January 13th, 2016, at 8pm ET.

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