Focusing attention on collaboration efforts


When asked about the difficulties of cross-organizational collaborative efforts in the Jewish community, there’s an old joke Gerry Greiman likes to tell. A Jew is stranded on a desert island but when rescuers arrive they find he has built not one but two synagogues – the one he attends and the one he doesn’t.

“I don’t know that the Jewish community has ever held the view that there should only be one organization for each function or activity. At the same time duplication can be financially inefficient,” said Greiman, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “There are no easy answers.”

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That Greiman is hardly alone in his assessment — or his search for answers — is borne out by the dozens of area Jewish leaders, agency personnel and board members whose company he will share early next month in a discussion with visiting Rabbi Hayim Herring, sponsored by the Jewish Federation (see story on page 9). The presence of Herring, who has written and talked extensively around the country on collaborative issues, shows that St. Louis is only one of many cities facing the growing problem illustrated by Greiman’s stranded Jew.

The debate over whether Judaic institutions are creating their own “desert islands” within communities nationwide is indicative of concerns that are increasingly coming to the fore as Jewish groups explore the promise and peril of joint partnerships, shared programming and merged institutions in a dilemma that often pits financial constraints and communal values against tradition, identity and deep historical roots in an elusive quest for Judaic harmony.

Mergers and consolidation

“As I travel around the country and listen, whether it’s educators or congregations, they are facing the same problem that we are in St. Louis,” said Jack Deutsch, a co-founder of Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy. “Institutions are suffering yet in many instances, the institutions and lay leadership haven’t been willing to give on what they think are the non-negotiable issues.”

Like Greiman, Deutsch, who has served in various positions in organizations from the Jewish Federation to Temple Israel, will be among the attendees at the Herring forum March 4. In fact, he’s a financial backer of the event.

“I think it’s an enormous challenge to have our institutions recognize that there is that need to work together, collaborate and consolidate,” said the 71-year-old Creve Coeur resident. “Certainly, I try to stay away from using the word merger, because it sends up a red flag.”

Deutsch’s experience isn’t an uncommon one and that very red flag can create deep frustration among advocates of greater centralization of community institutions.

“The opportunities are unlimited,” said Gary Kodner, president of Shaare Zedek Synagogue and a Vice President of the Jewish Light board. “The challenges are also unlimited. I think when you talk collaborative efforts, particularly in St. Louis, it’s a minefield because many people are stuck on their own turf or their own agendas. Sometimes they may find it hard to look beyond the horizon. They don’t see that another generation of people may not be able to sustain what we’ve created and what we’re doing today.”

When it comes to consolidation issues, Kodner is no passive spectator. Since June he has been among those working with leaders at Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel to discuss a potential merger of that synagogue with his own. The two congregations already share a religious school, Shaare Shalom, which was formed several years ago when the two Conservative shuls combined their educational programs.

Kodner said that while negotiations between the two synagogues have thus far gone well, he often feels frustrated by a general lack of desire for collaborative efforts in the Jewish community at large, particularly in the area of education. With synagogues across the area maintaining separate learning programs, Kodner worries that Jewish education is being hampered by a crippling decentralization that leaves area educational enterprises struggling financially while suffering from shrinking student bodies and dwindling resources as they dip into the same talent pool for staff. It’s a pattern he thinks is a recipe for failure.

“We continue to have too much infrastructure and too many institutions to support,” he said. “Think about the economics of that. Anytime you take something and splinter it out and have a lot of people trying to all hire teachers, all hire directors, all hire administrators it’s not a very efficient way of doing business.”

Is process the answer?

One edge the BSKI/Shaare Zedek conversation has is a connection that goes beyond financial needs or even a desire for communal unity. The president of BSKI is Rick Kodner, Gary’s brother. Like Gary, Rick feels that efforts at consolidation can easily run awry due to conflicts over smaller issues and emotional attachments.

“People tend to get territorial. They think with their hearts and not their brains,” he said. “In the true spirit of collaboration, everybody has to give and everybody has to take – and there’s going to be a whole lot more giving than taking.”

Also like his sibling however, Rick said that the negotiations between the shuls have broken that territorial pattern and gone “incredibly well.” Part of that he credits to the brothers’ good relationship, which allows them to talk frankly, even argue, without collapsing the overall initiative. Unfortunately, that’s an advantage other organizations don’t have.

“If two people are not that close or that in tune with each other a simple fight over something minor can end up having a major consequence in the whole process,” he said. “The fact that we can collaborate on it has allowed the process to move to where it is right now.”

Unfortunately, fraternal connections aren’t a replicable element for other organizations to emulate. But the real ingredient for success, say the Kodner brothers, is the process, something they feel has built trust among participants by making a concerted effort to remain as open, public and transparent as possible.

“When we started out we didn’t say ‘Hey, we’re going to merge two synagogues and work at it from two angles,'” Rick said. “We deliberately put together five phases and each one is designed to include more and more people getting more input than the one before it. By doing so people can track where we’re going. At any point down that path, it can be rejected by either side.”

Both Kodners felt the process between the two congregations could serve as a model for future cooperative efforts or consolidation talks in other parts of the community. Gary calls it “the way it should work.” His brother is equally upbeat.

“I think that we will have put forth a blueprint for anybody else to follow in the future to set up their system,” Rick said. “Even if we don’t merge, I think the process was the right process to go through.”

An issue of cash and quality

Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion takes a philosophical view of the collaboration dilemma. He calls the cup “both half full and half empty.”

“It’s an age old challenge,” he said. “Do we look for the common denominators among us that can bring us together or do we look at the things that differ among us and drive us apart?”

If organizations are struggling to make ends meet, Smason believes the hardship may be a blessing in disguise.

“Economics is the great uniter sometimes. Groups and individuals who otherwise might not be happy bedfellows are forced to conserve resources,” he said. “God has a sense of humor and he brings us together in ways that we might not otherwise come together and we find out in the end that it’s really not so bad.”

For Allen Selis, head of Solomon Schechter Day School, the mantra is “fewer, bigger, better.”

“I believe in pluralism. I believe that the world our students are going to live in is made up of many different beliefs, backgrounds and religious ideologies,” he said. “I personally think it is much better for them to be educated in a setting where from the outset we have a multiplicity of communities represented.”

Unlike others however, Selis stresses that for him, this isn’t about shrinking resources that force cutbacks. He believes bigger means higher quality. Expanded access to funding and resources is only a part of the deal, though an important one. That, he says, will draw in more students.

“I don’t believe it’s about economic necessity and you better quote me on that,” he said. “Money is not a good enough reason to have this conversation. If you pool the resources together, you can do better. It’s not about cheaper, it’s about better.”

SSDS is presently engaged in its own cross-denominational partnership with Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy. Funded by a grant from the AVI CHAI Foundation, the schools are planning to combine certain administrative operations to reduce costs. Cheryl Maayan, head of school at SMDS-RJA, said that it’s one of many partnerships her school has formed including programs with Nishmah and Jewish Family and Children’s Service. Generally, she said she’s found a positive attitude towards collaboration in the community.

“I think if it makes sense then it’s easy,” she said, citing her school’s book loan partnership with the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library. “Anything that helps us achieve our mission and stay true to who we are as a day school, to the constituents that we serve is something that we are open to.”

Bob Gummers might agree. The executive director of United Hebrew Congregation is proud of his temple’s participation in a joint cemetery association that oversees UH’s cemetery as well as B’nai Amoona’s and the Chevra Kadisha Cemetery.

“Obviously, it’s working well because we’re in our 11th year,” he said. “I think there’s basically a positive approach, in terms of creating economies of scale, sharing resources and accomplishing things together that otherwise couldn’t be done properly.”

“I think that the talk over collaboration is really part of a broader discussion about return on investment on philanthropic dollars that we are entrusted with,” said Rabbi Hershey Novack of Chabad on Campus at Washington University.

Novack cited his organization’s participation with the Federation’s Cardozo Society in a Shabbat dinner to introduce area lawyers to the campus community as evidence that collaborative efforts can meet with success. However he also said it shows the importance of both groups bringing something to the table that can create an event neither could produce alone.

“Collaboration is very important, especially when the sum of the two organizations is greater than the individual parts,” he said. “I’m not convinced that superficial collaboration where organizations pile on logos at the bottom of fliers without a substanitive relationship is particularly helpful.”

Ensuring the future, protecting the past

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose of Congregation B’nai Amoona proves that JCRC’s Greiman isn’t the only one with a talent for illustrating points with humorous asides.

“You know the old joke about synagogues and change,” he said. “How dare you change that? My grandfather donated that light bulb.”

Rose said that synagogues are conservative by their nature and often resist mergers or other alterations. From the 1950s-70s, he feels St. Louis congregations complicated this impulse further with an “edifice complex,” erecting impressive architectural structures that have now become a challenge to maintain in a nasty economic climate. Mergers are one answer. Synagogues retaining an individual identity while combining locations might be another.

“That’s part of the ethos of the particular era in which we find ourselves,” he said. “The question is do we need the kinds of labels that we’ve had in the past or could one institution be creative enough to host both traditional and innovative options.”

Still, he said too much consolidation holds its own dangers. Like an educator teaching to the mean of the class, excessive homogenization risks breeding disinterest among those on either side of the middle. That’s not an option in an already small Jewish community that can’t afford to lose active members at the margins.

“This isn’t a business and it isn’t a science,” he said. “It’s a spiritual inspiration, a complex, nuanced art form.”

Barry Rosenberg, president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, said that the question certainly isn’t a simple one. There can be good reasons that organizations maintain separate programming or structure.

“I would say that consolidation efforts and big changes in business practices or operational models are very hard to achieve and are not as easy as it sometimes seems from the outside,” he said. “Often the differences or the multiplicity of organizational efforts in a particular area reflect real ideological differences in aim or philosophy about how you achieve outcomes.”

There’s also a psychological toll – especially with mergers that can radically alter or altogether eliminate an institution’s identity.

“The other part of it is that when two organizations consolidate there may be a real loss of history, all the emotion, all the hard work that went into creating those organizations so there is a real sense of loss from an emotional perspective,” he said. “That said I think the Federation believes that we need to overcome those issues and see where collaboration or consolidation can enhance our impact and reduce our costs.”

Lynn Wittels, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center said that when companies combine in the corporate world employees often experience whiplash from the change in culture. She said that an incremental approach might be the answer.

“Honestly, I think the trick for a successful move to greater collaboration is to start on easier things and create good working relationships where it becomes much easier for all organizations involved to see how it can benefit the community,” she said. “If we can make some good progress I think that more collaboration will be easier for the community to absorb.”