Eating with our Intellectual Rivals: Partnership and Tikkun Olam

Mishnah Yevamot 1:4 states, “Even though these prohibit and these permit, these declare ineligible and these declare eligible, Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women of Beit Hillel, nor Beit Hillel from Beit Shammai. So too, in all matters of cleanness and uncleanness which these declared clean and these declared unclean, they did not refrain from relying on one another when preparing food.” (Kehati translation)

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the intense debates between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, these were two schools of Jewish law during the time of the Second Temple. They disagreed greatly on many aspects of Jewish law. Beit Hillel tended to be more lenient on law, whereas Beit Shammai was stricter. Though they knew themselves to be correct, Beit Hillel were very humble, and the Talmud says that Beit Hillel would study Beit Shammai’s rulings, even before their own, as a way to determine that the Beit Hillel rulings were indeed the ones to follow. Today, we only follow a handful of the decrees by Beit Shammai. Even so, according to the mishnah above, the members of the house of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai looked past their halachic differences to intermarry and eat together.

Like Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, organizations that work on similar issues or with the same population frequently have different ideas on how to approach a social problem in the community. In many of our communities, there are typically a few organizations working on the same social problem. In my time in Atlanta, I knew of no less than four organizations working on issues of homelessness. In St. Louis, there were at least five organizations working on issues related to the immigrant and refugee populations, and in Gedera, Israel, there were at least three organizations working on issues pertaining to Ethiopian Israeli youth. These organizations were similar in many ways, including programs run on the same principles, even if they were implemented differently.

At the same time, these organizations do not often work together. Indeed, many refuse to work with their “competitors.” Understandably, many small organizations are typically working hard just to make ends meet. They struggle with funding constraints and recruiting the required number of participants that fall into the specifications of grants. Organizations focusing on the same social problem each have their own strengths and weaknesses. One organization may excel at recruitment for programs but have high turnover rates, whereas another organization may receive large amounts of funding but have trouble reaching clients. Therefore, this ongoing conversation over the idea of partnerships with other organizations that work with the same or similar populations has become a theme throughout the past few years when I have worked for small organizations.

In St. Louis, Next Dor STL is an organization that serves the Jewish young adult population in the city. It is the first stop for many young Jews returning to St. Louis after college or who moved to the city for a job or graduate school. St. Louis also has an active Moishe House and the Young Professional’s Division of the Jewish Federation. Each of the organizations serves a slightly different crowd, and while some people float between the groups, other people would align themselves with one group or another. All the organizations had similar but different guiding principles surrounding engaging the Jewish young adult population. Next Dor STL, for example, had a policy of never hosting anything on Shabbat and making sure that all food served at events was kosher, as well as making a effort to have both religious and social events due to the differing interests of the participants. Moishe House would sometimes have events on Shabbat and the kitchen was not kosher. Next Dor STL and Moishe House hosted similar activities held separately, including Shabbat dinners, movie nights, and social outings. At other times, they worked together on events, including the Passover seder, a volunteer initiative, outings to the baseball game, and joint Shabbat dinners. In this way, the organizations illustrated to the Jewish young adults in St. Louis that there are a number of ways to get involved Jewishly in the city and that the community was working together around young adult engagement despite some different guiding principles.

In the Jewish community, we can no longer ignore the strict division between organizations. Our clients deserve better relationships between the organizations with which they affiliate. Often, people affiliate with more than one organization or feel that one organization serves them best in one regard and not another. Our organizations should not have to fight for participants. It is our responsibility for those of us working on repairing the world, most especially within the Jewish community, to develop strong partnerships with our peer organizations. We need to act not in the best interest of self-preservation, but in the best interests of our clients and the Jewish people as a whole.

Networking and creating partnerships can often strengthen our organizations through knowledge sharing, referrals between the organizations to best serve the clients, and working together to intensify our response to the social issues we see. Here in Israel, I see connections between national and local organizations that work on issues related to the Ethiopian Israelis. At the same time, I know it is difficult work, and it does not always function in the most effective way for all, both clients and organizations. The best effort any of us can make when collaborating with peer organizations is to be steadfast, even when the partnership may be tense or uncertain. In the name of tikkun olam and the spirit of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, partnership between and among organizations will only lead to improving ourselves and, ultimately, our world.

Jessica Baverman, MSW, is a current student at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, an alumna of the Yahel Social Change Program, and a member of the Avodat HaKodesh advisory board.

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