Studying Jewish Silicon Valley: Marathons, Mountains, and a Series of Expanding Circles

By Hugh Seid-Valencia and Lael Gray

Rabbi Hugh Seid Valencia is Director of Collaborative Leadership and Jewish Engagement, and Lael Gray is Chief Executive Officer, of Jewish Silicon Valley.

On November 18-19 of 2020, we engaged with the fellows and faculty of the second cohort of the Executive Leadership Program. We met as part of the fellows’ study of the launch of our new organization, Jewish Silicon Valley, which is rising from the merger of the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley. Over two days, fellows explored background materials that framed our case, engaged in conversation with us, interviewed representatives of key stakeholder groups in our community, and digested and presented what they learned from this deep dive.

Preparing for, experiencing and absorbing this flash consultation with a stellar group of rising leaders from across North America in the JCC and Jewish Federation movements helped us to understand lessons of our organizations’ past, frame a series of snapshots in the present moment, and begin to articulate our strategic priorities for the future. Through this study, we came to see that the path we are charting towards transparent, collaborative and mission-centered ways of working is aligned with and instructive for current trends in the field. We presented our case as honestly as possible — with warts and all — and opened ourselves up to critical feedback. We were rewarded with new strategic insights and with heartfelt expressions of support from our peers. As a result of the flash consultation, we are more able to articulate that:

  • Transparency is foundational to building collaborative capacity and a culture of trust. For too long, we helped perpetuate a culture in which all players were encouraged to project an air of optimism and polish as we worked towards the next big thing. We believed that the momentum of our flagship organizations would carry us forward. The global pandemic and the merger process render this mindset no longer tenable. To shift this culture and to build collaborative capacity, we need to err on the side of transparent communication, potentially overcommunicating with organizational partners so that we share and include others in our processes, appreciate vulnerabilities as opportunities for learning and improvement, and engage others in recognizing and solving problems.
  • Relationship building and stakeholder engagement will play a critical role in realizing Jewish Silicon Valley’s collaborative vision. Our name contains an instructive double meaning. For Jewish Silicon Valley to become a distinctive, vital, and thriving organizational entity, we need a distinctive, vital, and thriving Jewish Silicon Valley region. Our success is intimately bound up with that of our stakeholders and we must prioritize developing trusting, productive relationships with our partners.
  • New leadership provides an opening for transformational change — if we can create the structural support that is needed to seize it. Fellows reported that stakeholders are enthusiastic about the changes that our new leadership has already spurred. We must capitalize on this initial enthusiasm and follow through. Fellows also highlighted that to follow through on this promise, we should strengthen internal resources so that our CEO can spend less time guiding the merger and charting the ever-shifting pandemic response and more time in the community sharing our vision and building working relationships. To move in this direction, we are investing in strengthening the collaborative capacity of our senior management team and have created new positions to support our work, including Senior Director of Preschool, Youth & Family Engagement; Senior Director of Fund Development; and Director of Collaborative Leadership and Jewish Engagement.
  • Vision-guided leadership can be a powerful tool in galvanizing a fragmented community. In this moment of remote work, physical distancing, and shrinking revenue streams, it feels natural to hunker down and focus on demonstrating the importance of our own efforts and that of our department or organization. It feels counterintuitive to shift from self-preservation to championing a collective vision. And yet, if any moment calls for us to harness the power of community to improve lives, build bridges of understanding and strengthen the Jewish people, that moment is now. We are convinced that this mission resonates with community members, and we are committed to developing mechanisms to share and continuously evaluate and improve efforts to achieve our vision.

At one point in our conversation with the Mandel fellows, we were asked what our playbook is for charting a course through this merger. We recognize that while there may not be a playbook to follow, we do have a network of interested peer practitioners to act as a sounding board and source of inspiration. It is very good to know that we are not alone as we chart this new course.

We think about this moment — completing the merger process and launching the new Jewish Silicon Valley — as akin to completing a marathon before setting off to climb a mountain. These metaphors of horizontal and vertical journeying feel apt in many ways. Still, our course is also reflected in our new logo: a series of expanding circles. Our experience preparing for, participating in, and digesting this case study experience solidifies our conviction in shaping our new organization’s culture. That culture starts with us, and will be firmly rooted in our new mission of “harnessing the power of community to improve lives, build bridges of understanding, and strengthen the Jewish people locally, in Israel, and around the world.” We will strengthen our networks of collaborative leadership, develop mutually supportive relationships, and communicate with transparency and clarity. This begins with our own leadership, board and staff, and expands in circles that include our partners in the local Jewish communal ecosystem, allies and others who are already engaged in community, those who are not yet engaged, and our soon-to-be allies.

We are heartened by the relationships we’ve built with the Mandel fellows and faculty through this case consultation. In this time of global tsimtum, of contraction, in which the pandemic has forced us to withdraw from our preferred ways of being in community, may we continue to strengthen each other and expand our circles of relationship.