Sep 21, 2009

Hayim Herring in the Jewish Week: "Challenges Of An Open-Source Age"

Hayim Herring in the Jewish Week: "Challenges Of An Open-Source Age"
by Rabbi Hayim Herring
Special To The Jewish Week

About three years ago I received a call from a stranger who had a heartfelt dilemma. He wanted my opinion about whether digital davening with a minyan would fulfill his obligation to say Kaddish for a parent who had just died. He was concerned that saying Kaddish at his synagogue every day was not feasible and wanted to dedicate some days to gather a minyan via the Web. If so, should he ask his synagogue for help to sponsor a digital minyan? I vaguely recall making a comment about the idea being worth exploring and referred him to his congregational rabbi.

So much has changed since that telephone call, and today's open-source environment, where information is increasingly open, available and less controlled, has
led to a big leadership dilemma.

Let's imagine how this digital davening dilemma might play out today. The rabbi who gets the call may be empathetic but may discourage the idea, explaining the high value of being together in a community.

A week later, the ritual director, quite concerned, asks the rabbi if he has heard about "the rogue media minyan." The rabbi is surprised to learn that after the congregant called him, he contacted 50 friends (Facebook, Twitter, texting — pick your social media method), inviting them to be a part of digital davening group, so that he can say kaddish a few days a we
ek. Some of the congregant's friends are members of the same congregation;  others are from across the country. He is quickly able to form a minyan. He and his friends use an electronic platform which enables them to webcast the service so that everyone can see and hear one another.

The rabbi meets with the congregant, perplexed by his behavior. Didn't the congregant believe in the value of community? Now the congregant is confused. He explains that it was precisely the rabbi's comments about community that prompted him to contact some of his father's friends from out of town to participate in a Web-based minyan in his father's memory. He says it was particularly meaningful to him to also have fellow congregants volunteer, especially those who would otherwise never participate in the synagogue's daily minyan. It was this expanded notion of what community meant to the congregant that motivated him to act.

Now let's fast forward to a year later. Within the year, two other members of the bricks-and-mortar congregation, who are also members of the digital davening group, lose a loved one. They don't remember to inform the rabbi because they are already a part of the digital minyan, a satisfying experience for them. In fact, other people from across the country who have no original connection to the group are participating in it because the digital davening story went viral, and digital davening groups sprang up across the country and also spread to other countries.

The synagogue community is divided over their value, but these media minyanim continue to grow.

This illustration is about rabbis and synagogues, but you can imagine how it can be rewritten for any Jewish setting. The issues this scenario suggests are complex. If you're the rabbi in this situation (or executive director or CEO in some other organization), you probably feel loss and displacement. If you're the congregant who wanted to honor a parent and say Kaddish, you're likely to feel good about what has transpired.

But this scenario is not so black and white. The rabbi could be asking, "How can I help to facilitate and empower synagogue groups, so that I have more time for studying, teaching and outreach?" If you're the congregant, you could be asking, "How can I help the 'bytes and click' minyan and the 'bricks and mortar' minyan be mutually enriching?"

As heavy re-thinking is required for these conversations, we need every person who cares about the immediate and long-term Jewish future to ask the question, "What does volunteer and professional leadership look like in an open-source age?

The search for an answer to this question can be like an action research project, with multiple sites for experimentation. For example, we can:

• Partner with leadership institutes and universities to develop programs that certify open source leaders;

• Network with business leaders who work in open source companies to gain real-world insights;
• Apply open source principles on a small pilot basis to Jewish organizations and evaluate how they work;

• Create a Jewish values framework for these principles so that they fit more organically into Jewish settings.

Today, we're fortunate to have many Jewish startups that are energizing the Jewish community. Some mainstream organizations are also serious about remaking themselves for this century. But as all organizations are going to incorporate, at least minimally, some open- source principles and compete with those that are more fully open-source, we must consider how the Jewish community can foster a new kind of leadership.

Open-source leadership is much larger than knowing how to be entrepreneurial. Rather, it involves a radical revision of the rules of leadership, awareness of the centrality of this task and a commitment to invest the resources that it will take to change existing leadership patterns.

Hayim Herring is executive director of STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal) and is writing a book tentatively called, "Tools for Shuls: A Guide to Makeover Your Synagogue" (

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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