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Welcoming the Stranger Professionally to Advance Jewish Education and Engagement

– by Jeff Tiell

July 30th, 2019

At a recent meeting discussing logic models, outcomes, and corresponding indicators I was startled by something I saw out of the corner of my eye.

A colleague was eating his lunch.

Or should I say this colleague had essentially finished his lunch. It was Thai food and there were the dregs of curry still on the plate. This colleague was using his chopsticks to pince these microscopic bits of tofu before then putting the chopsticks to his mouth.

And here I was, sitting there, looking at this astonished.

Astonished because never in one hundred years would I have thought to do this. If that had been my plate, those little bits of tofu would have been compost. And that’s the point. You see, this colleague is a very detailed-oriented thinker. He zooms in. He’s the kind of fellow who could spot a missing letter in a 50-page thesis. I on the other hand, well, I probably wouldn’t spot that letter. It’s just not what I look for. I see broad brushstrokes and eat accordingly. Now that’s not to say that my colleague and I are total opposites in the ways in which we do or are able to do and see things. There is obvious nuance. But the basic point is not lost: people see the world in different ways and bringing people of differing or outsider views together often is a good thing that leads to important opportunities for all individuals involved. It’s a good thing in life in general and it’s also a good thing inherently in the social sector because it enables organizations to do better work.

Why?

Well, for starters because educational programs and programs that provide differing views are significant professional development opportunities for employees. These differences create important opportunities to network and to learn with colleagues, and they broaden our understanding of what it means to be part of a community (professional or other). We are more likely to then bring new ideas and strategies back to the organization in which we work, gained, in part, from a certain outside resource or source that provided information we were unlikely to otherwise have.

And I’m not just talking about diversity of individuals’ lived experiences. I’m talking about diversity of organizational lived experience and diversity of organizational thought. It’s one thing to encourage and support employees to understand and wrestle with voices that may be different than one’s own externally. It’s wholly a different thing to have the organizational strength to incorporate these voices internally.

Recently, I read a book called Range by David Epstein. The book jacket reads as follows,

“What’s the most effective path to success in any domain? It’s not what you think.”

The book then proceeds to describe its thesis that we have been taught to think that there is a single path to excellence, as noted, “Start early, specialize soon, narrow your focus, aim for efficiency.” This is actually not the case. Epstein “shows that in most domains, the way to excel is something altogether different. Sample widely, gain a breadth of experiences, take detours, and experiment relentlessly.” Indeed, Epstein finds that, “in most fields – especially those that are complex and unpredictable – generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel. Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see.” Increasingly, this is what our emerging world is demanding of us – to have the capacity to be generalists.

We in the Jewish communal space need to make more room for those differing views, for those outside voices both external and internal to our organizations, to the stranger who may have a thought that doesn’t conform.

We need to do this, both as individuals and as a field, because doing so makes us stronger and more equipped to deliver on our personal and professional mission and visions. It allows us to analogize from varying disciplines and bring in thinking and solutions to issues that may not be kosher on the face of it, but lead to evolutions or revolutions of thought and practice.

The Jim Joseph Foundation is beginning to think about this work and invests in more R&D efforts than previously. But this goes beyond the direct strategy of any one organization. My encouragement for us in the Jewish communal space: go to conferences that may be of interest to you that don’t seemingly “relate” to your field; bring in folks from other areas and disciplines to engage staff and boards; create professional development opportunities for staff that allow for experimentation and risk taking. My experience at the Rockwood Leadership Institute’s Art of Leadership seminar in February 2018 is just one example of the impact these interventions can have. There, I was able to engage with grantmakers from a wide variety of professional and personal backgrounds in the type of work—asking the big questions about purpose, vision, partnership, and resilience —that matters to us all collectively. This training helped me not only work more proficiently in the Jewish philanthropic work of the Foundation, but also tap into the roots of what motivates and inspires me about this work – all this from a group of 30 some “strangers.”

Welcoming the stranger is a core principle of Judaism. Indeed, the Torah instructs us 36 times to care for the stranger – far more than it commands us to observe the Sabbath or any other law. Giving credence to what this means for ourselves and our organizations will lead to a more engaged, relevant, smarter, and more thoughtful Jewish philanthropic field.