Partnerships are good; true collaboration is better

Partnerships are good; true collaboration is better

Two years ago I began speaking of the need for communal collaboration.  I laid down this gauntlet for both Rodef Shalom and our neighbors because I believed the challenges our community faced were so significant that no one entity could possibly solve them alone.

Further, I believed — more strongly now than ever — that we and our children and their children will not be well served if we continue to rely upon the modus operandi that have served us so well for so long but have only taken us so far.  

In the last two years, we have accomplished much.  Across Jewish Pittsburgh, congregations and agencies are working together in ways that would have been unthinkable only a short time ago.  This is commendable and ought be encouraged; without consistent pressure, we are wont to slip back into familiar and comfortable patterns — in short, our old ways.  

When I first spoke of the need for our collaborating, it was enough that erstwhile rivals would find a means of working together.  After all, inertia is a powerful force and it was enough that we would make forward progress.  But we are now ready to move beyond being self-satisfied working in tandem.  Indeed, it is time to recognize the difference between partnerships and collaborations.

To partner means to join forces in pursuit of a shared goal.  Coming together in this way may or may not mean working as equals, and may or may not involve welcoming others to share in the work.  But if there is a first among equals, though others are involved, the effort is not a true collaboration.  Inviting neighbors to lend their name to an internally focused program in which they have only limited involvement is good, but it is not collaboration.  And if the effort’s articulated goal is addressing a communal challenge, but advances the agenda of only a limited number of participants, the work may be a partnership, but it is not collaboration.

Finally, if the effort precludes welcoming additional partners — indeed, all who would seek to be part of the work — then, in this case, too, the effort falls short of being true collaboration.  

To collaborate means to “co-labor” as equals, with both/all parties involved putting in a commensurate level of resources and effort to achieve a shared outcome for the greater good.  Further, collaboration is defined by these equal parties joining forces to accomplish something any one of them working solo never could have realized on their own.  And significantly, this joint effort must be in service of addressing a pressing need that is either unique to the invested parties, or, if working at a communal level, must include a means by which an ever wider circle of participants may join in realizing the effort’s goals.  On this level, too, Rodef Shalom proudly engages.

As I look out across our community, I am proud of what I see.  Beyond partnerships (which are good and important), many are the examples of true collaboration (which are even better).  Pittsburgh’s AgeWell is recognized as a national model of three agencies joining as collaborative partners to address issues related to elder care.  The Agency for Jewish Learning’s annual Tikkun Leil Shavuot allows Jews from across the religious spectrum to collaborate in a multidenominational learning environment. Congregations in the South Hills are now collaborating on their confirmation programs.  Temple Sinai and Rodef Shalom collaborate on Selichot and festival services.  And most significantly, Rodef Shalom is working collaboratively with Beth Shalom to create the most dynamic and vital Jewish education program we can together envision.  And we welcome others to join us.

Many other efforts — both partnered and collaborative — have been chronicled in the papers.  The first step in working together is often at the partnership level. One organization invites another (or others) to append their name to a program already envisioned or under way or to address a communal need that is recognized as unmet.  This is appropriate and good and the surest way to build trust and win friends — in the short term.  But, given the challenges we all face going forward, we ought set our sights on moving from our respective silos past limited partnerships on our way to truly collaborative endeavors.  The stakes are too great for us to do otherwise.

(Rabbi Aaron Bisno is the senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation.)