Obstacles and Opportunities for Collaboration within a Jewish Community

Collaboration can be both a necessity and a choice. Understanding the obstacles helps to avoid the wrong choice, entering into unproductive partnerships; understanding the necessity allows us to seek out and capitalize on the opportunities.

As head of school of the only Jewish day school in Birmingham, Alabama, I can’t imagine a day without partnership. Within the Jewish community our day school, Federation, Family Services, and Community Center reside on the same campus and work to create mutual accountability as recipients of Federation dollars. Rabbis from all synagogues come to our school to lead Kabbalat Shabbat, teach special topics, or consult on sensitive religious subjects. It is not uncommon to hear an out-of-town guest state, “I’ve never seen this kind of cooperation before.”

However, this is no story of Shangri-la, with only opportunity and feasting at the community table. All families have their arguments, and all collaborations have their “stress points.” Below are a few examples of opportunities and obstacles based on the school of hard knocks.

Funding Opportunities: Shared physical space and programming adds weight to your efforts and richness to your story when fundraising collaboratively. I recently spoke to a local foundation director (non-Jewish) about a joint fundraising effort our day school and Jewish community center were conducting to renovate an assembly hall/gymnasium. The link with the JCC, and the community events held in this special multi-use facility, created a tremendous sense of value in the project. He was immediately excited. Having several institutions partnering creates a strong sense of purpose and value to potential donors.

Funding Obstacles: Fundraising especially creates immense potential for turf wars. To whom does a donor “belong”? How is the money divided up? Who controls the project? Focus on these “limiting” questions misses the more important questions: What does the donor want? Will this “rising tide” lift every ship? Who is best suited to manage the project? The way to overcome the turf issues is to clarify details about money and management in advance, and work hard to trust the leaders in the partnering organization. The only obstacle I have seen which prevented success of collaboration was a truly unreliable partner—and that is a roadblock which cannot be surmounted. Trust and reliability are critical.

Staffing Opportunities: As a small K-8 school, we have less than 100 students. We do not need a full time guidance counselor, but our re-accreditation process several years ago called for counseling services. This is not an easy “part-time” role to fill. However, by calling the local Jewish Family Services director, we were able to contract to bring in one of their counselors twice a week to work with students and help teachers manage student issues. When seeking Judaic staff, we have also recently reached out to a local synagogue engaged in a staffing search. Through this process we are now “sharing” an experienced Judaics educator. Particularly in a challenging economy, shared staffing may become the “necessary” invention we employ.

Staffing Obstacles: Boundary setting is important when sharing staff—keeping contracts separate can help maintain autonomy for partnering institutions, and creating clarity around work hours helps the staff member. Communication in an ongoing relationship ensures conflicts are avoided in advance. An obstacle that I have seen impede successful shared staffing is creating two almost full-time jobs for one person. Being realistic and flexible—and not greedy—is critical to ensure the staff member succeeds in both institutions.

Program Opportunities: Our community tried something valiant. In order to create a “one-stop financial aid resource for Jewish life,” we began a collaborative project with all synagogues and service organizations—including the day school. Titled Project Abraham, its purpose was to determine financial aid from all agencies through a single mechanism run by the Jewish Family Services. It was valiant, because we set a lofty goal of bringing a bit more dignity and privacy to the financial aid process. Project Abraham “folded,” in part, because of the challenging economy. It did have a positive impact on numerous day school families, who were appreciative of the confidential and centralized aid process. However, there were numerous fairly predictable issues which we did not address early on.

Program Obstacles: First, the cultures of the synagogues and agencies differed widely regarding financial aid—some were highly generous, others highly limited. This created financial disagreement from the beginning. While the verbal buy-in was high from all, there was a natural inclination to place institutional financial needs above the broader purposes of easy access to Jewish communal services. Many of the boundaries were not determined in advance. Interestingly, this points to other general obstacles. Are too many organizations involved (in this instance, three synagogues and three service organizations)? Is the project simply too big or complex to manage given the resources of the community? These are limiting issues which deserve attention.

Intangible Benefits: One clear benefit to all collaborative efforts is a sense of feeling good about relationships. The Federation Director in Birmingham has noted that there is “a positive esprit de corps” among agencies and staff that partner on shared goals. This reflects the Jewish value of community connection. Additionally, avenues of communication are opened and enhanced through collaboration, creating new opportunities that might have otherwise never been noticed.

Intangible Obstacles: As noted earlier, if the culture of an institution has created negative talk around other agencies—the “they” mentality takes over. “They” aren’t like us, “they” can’t be trusted. I have heard this time and again, and it is a mindset that will mire a school in a negative attitude and failure. While it is important to be skeptical, and place the school’s needs first, understand that partnering with others creates opportunity: opportunity for financial benefit, opportunity for spiritual connection (the “Jewish community becomes more connected”), and opportunity for an improved sense of institutional self. Collaboration can be both a necessity and a choice. Understanding the obstacles helps to avoid the wrong choice, entering into unproductive partnerships; understanding the necessity allows us to seek out and capitalize on the opportunities. ♦

Bob Greenberg has been Head of School at N.E. Miles Jewish Day School in Birmingham, Alabama, since 2005, as well as a social studies educator and school administrator for almost 30 years. Bob can be reached at bgreenberg@nemjds.org.

Bob Greenberg
Strengthening Community
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership
Published: Fall 2010