Category: Spiritual Growth


“Innovation”: What to make of a word that just won’t go away

In the nearly 10 years since bestselling author and popular speaker Scott Berkun famously implored the world to “stop saying innovation,” we in the Jewish philanthropic and nonprofit world show no sign of heeding his sage advice.

Scott, whose credits include the bestseller The Myths of Innovation, makes a nearly irrefutable case that the word innovation has lost meaning and become noise pollution. Instead, he encourages focusing on developing ideas for solving significant problems rather than finding exciting adjectives to describe those ideas.

So why is it that some of the most passionate, sincere and talented people I know in Jewish nonprofits keep returning to the innovation trope? Are we a bunch of gushy romantics, repeatedly working ourselves into a frenzied lather of naïveté at each “next big idea” that comes our way? Or have we become allergic to hard work, victims of our parents and grandparents successes and good fortunes, in search of one shiny new quick-fix after another? Or could there be something deeper and more substantive at play that causes us to hang on so stubbornly to “innovation” as an ideal.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am far from immune to the Jewish innovation addiction. I was an active participant in the birth of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC), along with Mrs. Manette Mayberg, trustee of the Mayberg Foundation and our cherished colleague and friend Rabbi Shmuel Feld. I was in the middle of plowing my way through a daunting pile of books on social entrepreneurship at the time* and I stridently insisted that the word innovation MUST be in the name of the organization we were creating. I was an architect of JEIC’s subsequent partnership with Joshua Venture Group, which later merged with UpStart, whose mission is “inspire and advance innovative ideas that contribute to the continued growth and vitality of Jewish life.” If the Jewish world’s addiction to the word innovation is a pathology, I am surely among the diseased.

But is there a healthy way to be obsessed with innovation? Could it be, in fact, that innovation lies at the very core of what it means to be a Jew, a uniquely Jewish way of relating to the world, to each other, to ourselves and to the Divine?

In Judaism’s morning prayers, we praise G_d “who forms light and creates darkness.” This is stated in the present tense, explains Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, because G_d is perpetually creating the world. Judaism, in other words, sees G_d not as a being who created the world many years ago, but as the active, engaged Spirit who continually creates and renews everything in this world at all times. If we hope to align with this Spirit that guides the world and fulfill our highest potentials as humans and Jews, we too need to constantly refresh our relationship with this ever renewing G_d.

Jewish teachings repeatedly encourage us to “sing a new song” to G_d**. This suggests that while great value is placed on ritual in Judaism, there is also great value placed on bringing a renewed, sincere desire to connect afresh with G_d each time we engage in ritual.

Innovation as a state of heart and mind
I had the pleasure this week of sitting in a noisy Starbucks in New York City for nearly two hours with Stefanie Rhodes, executive director of Slingshot. Listening to Stefanie’s ideas about next generation philanthropy’s potential for the Jewish future, one gets the impression that Slingshot, known to date primarily for its annual Resource Guide to Jewish Innovation, just may have its brightest days ahead.

As Stefanie and I were talking, it occurred to me that innovation in the Jewish corner of the philanthropic and nonprofit sector may be a sign that the Jewish ideal of renewal and rejuvenation is yet alive. Perhaps innovation in the Jewish nonprofit world is more than a utilitarian response to declining communal organizations that seem out of step with contemporary Jews. Could it be that creation of new avenues for Jewish engagement is an imperative for every generation, part of renewing our relationship to ourselves and each other as Jews, and ultimately to the Divine?

To be clear, I’m not excusing continued over-use of an annoyingly hackneyed word, nor am I advocating change for its own sake. The philanthropic and nonprofit sector has seen billions wasted that way, by decades of initiatives that lack well defined aims and strategies. But when the newness is intentionally directed to create “significant positive change,” as Scott Berkun would have us say, innovation – the concept if not the word — can become a powerful, positive engine, both for responding to contemporary problems and to renewing our very souls.



*Among them Bishop & Green’s Philanthrocapitalism, Bornstein’s profiles of early Ashoka fellows, Christensen’s testament to the power of disruptive technological innovation for reforming education, and Paul Light’s “Driving Social Change: How to Solve the World’s Toughest Social Problems.

**No less than five times in the book of Tehillim, Psalms, alone.

Big-P Pluralism

I often get asked where I stand on Jewish pluralism. In both my work and personal life, people sometimes perceive what they believe to be a disconnect between my deep commitment to Jewish tradition and my equally rigorous commitment to inclusivity and diversity of practice and belief.

I’d like to see if I can set the record straight.

I’ve seen the words “pluralism” and “pluralistic” used to describe at least three very different approaches to Judaism and Jewish practice. One of those works beautifully for me. The other two do not.

The first pluralism posits that diversity in Judaism is one of our greatest strengths. Minority opinions on legal matters, for example, are documented throughout the ancient discussions of the Talmud. In fact, they are given a place of honor even when rejected. The sharp eyed student of the Rishonim (medieval scholars and philosophers through whom ancient Judaism passed on its way to contemporary hearts and minds) can discern radically divergent theologies in their writings. Even the Shemonah Esrei (or Amidah), the central prayer of Jewish liturgy for 2,000 years, hints in its opening section that communal belief in one G-d coexists with individuals relating to G-d in radically different ways.

I like to call this notion “Big-P Pluralism,” the idea that Judaism is and always was system of diverse ideas, beliefs and practices that interact with each other within a communal, living framework. It gives us a way to engage with authentic Jewish ideas in ways that work for us as individuals, while simultaneously supporting each other and learning from each other’s vastly diverse, and equally rich, personal journeys. It is also, I think, consistent with the value of “inclusivity” that I have come to embrace in my work at the Mayberg Foundation. As an excerpt from the Foundation’s statement of core values affirms, “We believe in building a vibrant and meaningful Judaism for all Jews—regardless of how one identifies or practices—that provides both inspiration and wisdom.” This is a Pluralism I can embrace. At its base is tolerance and coexistence. When nurtured, it can grow into something much more profound: loving, supportive, value-based community. I am, in that sense, an unabashed “Big-P Pluralist.”

Unfortunately, a second pluralism is much more common than the first. This “little-p pluralism” is rooted in convenience and presumed efficacy rather than principle. Out of step with contemporary Jews, many Jewish organizations “slap a J” in front of a myriad of programs in efforts to “Judaify” activities they think will bring people through their doors. This effort to “give the people what they want” in a Jewish context is not necessarily a bad thing, but it smacks of desperation and lack of substance. By all means, let’s do fun and trendy things. But let’s simultaneously find ways to expose people to the vast reservoir of Jewish wisdom and give them tools to extract relevant and useful elements for meaningful contemporary life. Too many organizations look to kitsch in order to combat declining membership and financial viability. Substance would serve them better.

Finally, a third pluralism has emerged, one that I call “Alt-P Pluralism.” All too often “pluralistic” has become a code word for “anti-orthodox.” I have seen Jews denigrate fellow Jews for traditional beliefs and practices they don’t share. “Freedom of religion for all but the Orthodox Jew,” as I heard one person put it. I once watched in disbelief as a member of my own family was accused of being aggressive, simply for quietly living according to her own principles. I have personally been taunted at Jewish events for the food I choose to eat and not eat. When liberalism morphs into an orthodoxy all its own, I call that fundamentalism, not progressivism. Alt-P Pluralism promotes prejudice and division not unity and diversity.

Big-P Pluralism, on the other hand, gives each of us room to engage with Judaism on our own terms while drawing strength from — and giving strength to — our collective Jewish wisdom and community. For my part, I have wrestled for decades to integrate rigorous principles, discipline and religious structure, on the one hand, with openness, spontaneity and sheer joy, on the other. To be sure, I have seen the strictures of religion crowd out substance at times. And I have also seen remarkable talent and powerful spiritual urges squandered because they lacked a structure through which they could be expressed and actualized. I believe I am a better person for having engaged in that journey of balancing and synergizing these apparent polar opposites. That has been my personal journey so far, and people with radically different views from my own have played a major role along the way.

We all have the right, and maybe even the responsibility to pursue our own individual journeys. Big-P Pluralism gives us a way to embark on those journeys for ourselves, but not by ourselves.

The Ends Are the Means: Goalsetting & The Good Life

Goals are exactly the opposite of what you think they are.

I have recently been teaching an emerging staff member a system of principle centered goal setting that I began developing in 2009 — originally for my own use — in consultation with a behavioral and organizational expert then serving as my professional coach.

Borrowing heavily from the second habit of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and incorporating elements from several other philosophies, my system has served me incredibly well, giving me renewed energy, freedom, accomplishment and fulfillment while invigorating my most important relationships. When I was running Do More Mission I helped numerous coaching clients adapt the system to their own styles and priorities. Nearly everyone who applied it found it similarly game changing.

The power of this approach is that it creates direct links between tiny, granular actions and profound, big-picture visions for “the good life.” Through a sequence of five successive stages, precise to-do lists emerge from the individual’s most preciously held values. As simple as it is challenging, the system can be learned and deployed by anyone with the self-honesty, open-mindedness and courage to give it a sincere try.

We’ll save teaching my system for another time. Today I want to share something paradoxical that I’ve learned about goals and goal setting while experimenting with this powerful system. I hope this observation will motivate you to devote more attention to goal setting in your own life, whatever approach you use.

Most of us believe goals are ends toward which we strive. In fact, the reverse is true. “The good life” is Now. It emerges in the details of how we live our lives in each moment. Goal setting is one way of directing those actions, right now, toward what matters most to us. Goals are a hedge, if you will, against our distractible and impulsive nature. Creating well-formed goals and action plans carefully linked back to personal values and beliefs is a difficult and sometimes tedious process. The payoff of the hard work is that goals give us guideposts that tell us whether any given action moves us toward or away from our best selves. Goal setting reveals governing values to protect us from the vicissitudes of mood, impulse, emotion and circumstance. Though none of us will consistently make right choices, goals give us a fighting chance. This has never been more important than in our contemporary, always-on world with its infinite inputs grabbing mercilessly for our scattered attention.

When looked at this way, goals paradoxically become “means,” and good choices in each moment become “ends”. The ultimate righteous purpose of making value centered choices as often as possible is served well by the means — the strategy — of thoughtful and detailed goal setting and planning.

“Integrity in the moment of choice,” as my wise coach often reminded me, is the name of the game. It is, after all, the only thing we have control over.

Confronting Organizational Entropy

Today I had the pleasure of attending a luncheon in honor of Joshua Venture Group‘s most recent cohort of talented social entrepreneurs setting out to the change the world through Jewish values and teachings. What an impressive group! What stood out most to me was the way that the two year experience they had with Joshua Venture Group has given them the support — and the tools — to turn their respective bold visions into clear, impactful actions. The degreee to which this group had learned to care for and bring out the best in each other was palpable. As I sat among these inspiring young visionaries, my thoughts turned to my more established colleagues in blue chip Jewish organizations we all know and sometimes love.

upstart bikkurim joshua venture group presentenselish. There is a risk in being too hard on the old guard, of course. It is no easy task to remain sustainable and relevant in the face of financial pressures, changing circumstances, a tough labor market and immutable forces of diminishing returns. Twenty years ago I was outraged at what I have come to call “organizational entropy,” the tendency of established nonprofit organizations to slide into an impotent state of self preservation as primary mission, with lofty visions deployed only as fundraising rhetoric and anti-accountability tactics. Today I am no less saddened by the tendency, but I no longer blame individuals. No one goes into this line of work because they yearn for mediocrity.  Rather, organizational entropy is a natural condition that necessarily accompanies nonprofit efforts just as greed accompanies commercial enterprise and corruption accompanies government. The trick is not to get angry about the tendency or blame individual actors, but rather to productively seek ways to mitigate the negative forces in order to keep positive efforts on track. I think many nonprofits — large and small — recognize this trend. Some are trying hard to confront it. A few are succeeding. 

What lessons could this newly minted group of Jewish social entrepreneurs teach old time professionals at established Jewish communal organizations that play such important roles in the fabric of American Jewish life? How could the support JVG taught them to give each other be applied to BigOrga? Are there ways we can take care of each others’ neshamas (souls) to keep individuals and organizations vibrant and impactful, even in the face of organizational entropy? Success happens when inspiration coexists with environments of structure, support and accountability. This is what Lisa Lepson and her Joshua Venture Group colleagues have taught today’s young leaders to strive toward. It is time we stop looking at these innovative young leaders with kind eyes that say “awww, isn’t that nice,” and start opening our eyes widely to their wisdom, learning from them as we mentor them — allowing them to show us how to repair what is broken, how to take care of our most precious commodity, each other.