Every institution has its unique set of irrational and difficult constraints, yet some make a leap while others facing the same environmental challenges do not. This is perhaps the single most important point in all of Good to Great. Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice. – Jim Collins, Good to Great
It is hard for me to believe that I am now celebrating my third anniversary as President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. I have had nothing but wonderful opportunities and experiences since moving to this beautiful city and warm Jewish community. During these past three years I have learned a great deal about the history of our Jewish community, met incredible people, and continue to marvel at the breadth of Jewish life.
At the same time, I continue to read about Jewish communal trends and often try to see where our Jewish community falls on that continuum. You have heard me say many times before, what our Jewish community looks like today is what most of Jewish America will look like in the next 15-20 years. This includes: greater diversity, more geographic sprawl, low affiliation rates (meaning people paying dues to Jewish communal institutions), and greater Jewish engagement on people’s own terms. This is a marked difference from the past. We have two choices – continue as we have been doing (with similar or diminishing results) or consciously make significant changes during a time of relative strength.
In the latest issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review, there is an article titled, When Good Is Not Good Enough. It states, “We must move beyond modest goals that provide short-term ideas and relief and focus on bold goals that, while harder to achieve, can provide long-term solutions by tackling the root of our challenges.” Now is the opportunity to reexamine our current Jewish communal system and priorities to find ways to meet YOUR needs, emphasize impactful and create new Jewish experiences, and meet the interests of a 21st century Jewish community. Too often, we collectively act like a small organization looking for quick technical fixes – convinced that our “product and brands” will survive whatever “the market” throws our way. It is hard for me to understand (and as someone who is part of a younger generation that wants change much quicker and faster) how we can afford to avoid thinking about systemic problems while so many want to focus attention solely on technical solutions.
It is time to look beyond short-term achievements that will only yield incremental change. We must hold our community accountable for the harder-to-achieve long-term outcomes that will ultimately address Jewish communal life going forward. We can only do this collectively – by working together in new and different ways. Defining bold goals changes the game. It leads to different decisions that set us on a new trajectory, which ultimately leads to greater impact…faster.
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, recently wrote, “Since the world is changing and Jews are behaving differently than they used to, the major organizations (including the Jewish Federation) that once benefited from an intrinsic loyalty of their membership (and donor) base are going to necessarily have to work differently to maintain that level of support. And, in many cases, their essential organizing principles will simply not be able to continue in the face of the changing nature of Jewish life.”
But change is scary. It is much easier to stay on or tinker with our current path than try something brazenly new and different. Slow and methodical seems to be our typical process. If we move too slowly and ultimately design the ideal process we may discover that the Jewish community we are hoping to create/innovate has changed even more since we began the process. It only makes sense that those organizations that will remain strong are those with the ability/willingness to quickly innovate based on the changing nature of Jewish life and affiliation.
Meeting the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s Jewish community requires a shift from focusing on short-term incremental progress to focusing on long-term transformational change – how we are structured, experiences we offer, usage of data, etc. It may be risky – and by nature I am a risk-taker. The change may be hard to understand – perhaps even difficult to achieve. But it will provide the inspiration that generates motivation, resources, and a new sense of what is possible.
Thomas Edison once quipped, “There ain’t no rules around here. We’re trying to accomplish something.” To create transformational change, individuals and organizations must be willing to act as skeptics, questioning – even disrupting – what they are doing today. Solving major challenges requires leaders to not only join the conversation, but to actually change the conversation. It can no longer be about “my interests” or “my organization” – there must be a broader communal agenda for making Portland’s Jewish community more engaging, inclusive, meaningful and fun.
Tonight we begin the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. We are also at the start of the ten days of reflection, repentance and return between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Return does not mean going back to the same old things. This is not a reboot – it is a time to dream BIG! A return to relevance, substance and our core values. This is about you and your family’s opportunities for greater Jewish communal involvement and engagement. I promise exciting and definitive ideas coming soon. Good is no longer good enough.
From my entire family to yours – Shana tova u’metukah – may you and your family be blessed with a good and sweet New Year.
With nothing but eternal optimism and the desire to push our community forward,
PS – The Jewish High Holidays are here. We are fortunate to have a wide array of synagogues and congregations in our community. Please view a list of High Holiday services – and, if interested in attending, please contact the synagogue directly.