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Guest Blogger: People are More Important than Ideas

In 2013, I was selected to join the second cohort of American Jewish World Service’s (AJWS) Global Justice Fellowship. We visited Northern Thailand, where we were instructed to listen and learn about the issues faced by Burmese refugees living in camps and cities throughout Thailand. The goal of the fellowship was to understand the challenges  they were facing,  build relationships and empathy, and return home and lobby in D.C. in support of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA.) This instruction came from the communities that AJWS serves, based on what the people they fund say they need.

Prior to this fellowship, AJWS sent groups to countries to do direct service. (Many thought of the organization as the “Jewish Peace Corps.” They would send rabbis to dig ditches or build school houses in El Salvador or in Uganda. The organization changed course after listening to the communities that they were trying to help who told them that they were not making the best use of their resources: spending thousands of dollars to send privileged Jews to do work that people within the communities could have been paid to do and would have done it better. The model wasn’t creating the kind of impact they wanted. AJWS listened.

AJWS’s programmatic shift illustrates one of the key principles of design thinking, a concept we learned in our Entrepreneurship class at RRC. Design thinking is a methodology used by people to solve problems and find desirable solutions. It draws upon logic, imagination, intuition, empathy, and systemic reasoning to explore possibilities of what could be and to create desired outcomes that benefit the end user. It encourages shifting gears when the model isn’t working.

The steps are: empathize, define, conceive, prototype and test.

Empathy is a key skill not just for rabbis but for entrepreneurs, too. Before creating a new program, a rabbi must be sure to talk with congregants and staff to make sure that a change is welcome and needed and that its implementation won’t have negative effects on staff. This is done through empathetic listening. Try to learn about interfaith families and the challenges they are facing. Listen to your staff when they tell you that a new program may create new work challenges for them. Sometimes true leadership means giving up on an idea we may like because we learn through empathetic listening that our idea is off target or needs adjustment.

An example of how empathy can make us more effective in the service of others is embodied in one of my favorite texts from the Talmud, Tractate Brachot 5b, and it goes as follows:

Rabbi Johanan saw that Rabbi Eleazar was weeping and he said to him, “Do you weep because you don’t study enough Torah? Surely we studied enough Torah?! Is it your lack of sustenance? Surely you have enough. Is it your lack of children? Here is the bone of my tenth son!” 

Rabbi Eleazar replied, “I weep on account of all this beauty which is going to rot in the earth,” and Rabbi Johanan said, “That is a reason to weep.” Johanan asked, “Are your sufferings welcome by you?” Eleazar replied, “Neither they nor their reward,” and with that Johanan gave Eleazar his hand and raised him.

Rabbi Johanan tells Rabbi Eleazar what he thinks is wrong and tries to problem-solve without engaging in the crucial first step of listening and having empathy for the person he is trying to serve. Once he actually listens and empathizes, he asks further questions to define the problem. He then knows what Rabbi Eleazar wants and needs, which is comfort and listening, not solutions and justifications. AJWS engaged in a similar process when its staff members listened to people in Burma and adjusted their program to better serve their target population, as well as to achieve their own organizational goals.

Design thinking may be a new tool, but the idea that empathy makes us better leaders and innovators is ancient knowledge. Rabbis can lead the way in the Jewish community and in organizations, using the empathetic skills of pastoral counseling and applying that same skill set to  organizational leadership. By utilizing design thinking, religious leaders can create new programs and initiatives in their own congregations.

There is a line in the poem Lecha Dodi which is sung by many Jews around the world on Friday nights that goes, “Sof Ma’aseh, B’mach’shava T’hila,” or: finish in action, begin in contemplation. Like God in this poem, we too must begin with an idea. Then we can investigate whether our idea is what is needed. Through contemplation and exploration with those involved, we can define and test our initial ideas before acting on them. Process is what matters most, even more than the idea.