December 9, 2004
Here’s a Great Idea for a Change
Jews know well how to create an idea and implement it. In the world at large, we do it all the time in the arts, business, government or academia.
Yet, inside our community, in those numerous meetings of Jewish organizations, more often than not, rather than creating ideas, we know best how to kill them. We commit these horrendous little suffocations, daily.
We have all been witnesses to this crime. Often, we are also the participants, perpetrators and collaborators. Our institutions are graveyards of good ideas, murdered by activist Jews with good intentions:
An Aspen Institute-style center for Jewish thought about Jewish and worldwide issues -- Snuffed out. An opera depicting a family destroyed by the Holocaust and re-locating each other over the next 20 years, to once again become whole -- left to whither in multiple memos. An international conference of young Jews, performing service projects within their cities, meeting to discuss the nexus of Judaism and volunteerism along with the values of their generation -- ignored.
You'd think we're doing just fine and didn't need to think about powerful, breakthrough ideas. You'd think that the next generation was breaking down the doors of our institutions. You'd think that the news media was making it up when they reported that the best-selling holiday card this year is that one that says, "Merry Chistmakkuh," being sent to the growing number of interfaith families (see page 12).
Ever sit through a committee meeting of a Jewish nonprofit? Some unencumbered, fluid-thinking new member, who doesn't know the history of the group and hasn't yet been neutralized by its bureaucracy, dares to raise an idea.
Most of the room goes blank. There is tension in the air. Finally, someone breaks the atmosphere and says, to everyone's great relief, "Oh, that will never work."
We like our meetings to be boring. If not, they would stop being so. We listen to financial reports, we clap at endless mazel tov announcements, we argue about ridiculous petty issues that have no significance outside of the room and we escape the ennui through scrolling the screens of our cellphones, discreetly punching at our Blackberries or passing written commentary to the person at our side, as if we were still in grade school.
What is it about ideas, that we revere them in the outside realm and fear them in the internal Jewish realm?
Good ideas have a soul. Giving birth to an idea and nurturing its existence is like giving birth to a new life.
The word "idea" and the world "create" are married to one another. They are a merged concept. You cannot create without an idea.
We learn from the second word of the Torah, barah (created) that creation is a holy act. We are to be fruitful and multiply. Does that just apply to the creation of people or to the products of our minds?
Ideas challenge us. In the outside world, we accept the challenge. We relish change. We see our role as that of the idea people and the challenger of the status quo. We know that the world at large is a big enough place, that it can accommodate the challenge of an idea.
Yet, in the organized Jewish world, ideas challenge not only the status quo -- but our egos. In contrast to the world at large, inside the Jewish community we live in a much more provincial way. We feel ownership and a certainty that we know what path the community needs to follow.
An idea, particularly from a neophyte, challenges the positions of ownership we have carefully cultivated for ourselves. We praise the creation of our tight-knit communities.
But the question we must ask ourselves is: Do our embracing, comfortable communities and their positions of leadership foster a stifling and dismissal of ideas? I think it is a discussion we need to begin having.
As a marketer of Jewish life, I have seen some great Jewish ideas come to fruition: Birthright, Jewish day schools, the Zimmer Museum, ReBoot, the Professional Leaders Project, even the State of Israel. We need more. We need them every day.
So how did those great ideas sneak through?
First, I doubt any of those ideas were born out of what is now proliferating in Jewish organizational life, like a growing spider web entangling our minds and strangling our creativity. The culprit is a two-year process called the strategic plan. Organizations think that if they participate in a long, drawn out strategic planning marathon, injecting numerous lay people into the process, they are making change.
Strategic plans are mostly risk-free. You can't make change without taking risk and putting yourself on the line with an idea. Moving things around on the same plate and shifting responsibilities of who makes those same humdrum meals -- the outcome of most strategic plans -- is not the mettle of idea creation.
Strategies come alive only if they lead to an idea. Many organizations come to us with their strategic plans and ask, "How do we market this?"
Strategic plans, the way they are currently done, are mostly unmarketable. Strategies do indeed need to be set. But the emphasis of those plans must be upon the idea creation that should follow the strategies.
Ideas resonate with people. Ideas capture their imaginations, minds and spirit. A good idea will also upset some people. Yet in the end, ideas are what get funded, not strategies.
Good ideas, such as Birthright -- sending tens of thousands of young people to Israel for free trips -- and the Professional Leaders Project -- encouraging the best and the brightest of a new generation to become interested in both professional and lay positions in Jewish life -- happen quickly, pulled off within months, not years with a strategic planning process.
Great ideas have come from recognizing need. They come from risk. They come from a sense of mission.
Meetings in the Jewish world should be vibrant and punctuated with the discussion of ideas. Our meetings should include idea sessions, where well-strategized and breakthrough ideas are brought to the table for intelligent assessment and discussion.
As a community, we must become adept in the discourse of powerful ideas. If we are committed to our mission, than we have to be committed to ideas.
Gary Wexler is the owner of Passion Marketing for Issues and Causes, based in Los Angeles.