Reflections on the ZSJNM Windmueller Israel Seminar from Current Student, Julia Hubner - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Reflections on the ZSJNM Windmueller Israel Seminar from Current Student, Julia Hubner

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A little story about a time I ate too much in Israel…

By: Julia Hubner, MAJNM/MCM '17

Eighteen of us shuttle off our tour bus and walk up to a modest white stucco home in the small city of Yeruham. We’re 13 students and two educators from *inhales* the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion (yep - it’s a long name) in Los Angeles, along with our tour guide, bus driver, and a Jerusalem JCC staff member.

Greeted by the homeowners, we crowd through the front door. We make our way to the living room, where the couple has squeezed two long tables and covered them with plates and plastic ware. Finding seats, we remove layers of jackets, hats, and scarves under the fiercely blowing heater. As we do, our female host shuffles back and forth from the kitchen, bringing bowl after bowl to the tables. She delivers pickled vegetables, smashed avocado, marinated olives, salads, stuffed meats, stews, and the list goes on.

Our host is part of a group of women called the Culinary Queens of Yeruham, a small enterprise in which women of the town host visitors for meals. Their small idea has blossomed into a business that supplements their husbands’ incomes, brings tourists to a previously unfrequented destination, and creates industry in Yeruham.

Once we have filled ourselves to bursting, our hosts share their stories about making aliyah and being transported to Yeruham, a dusty parcel of land where nothing grew. They explain that the town has had difficulty prospering, and that many residents work in lowincome jobs in local factories. And then they share the founding of their meal hosting business.

How the Culinary Queens have disrupted

Our winter term in Israel focused on innovation in the nonprofit sector, and surely this was a stellar example. Some might even call it disruptive innovation, as the model these women have built goes outside the bounds of standard restaurant industry practice. Joseph Bower and Clayton Christensen introduced the concept of disruptive innovation in a 1995 Harvard Business Review article. The two argued that a small competitor can offer a low cost alternative that can ultimately overtake the big corporate machine. These women were certainly offering a disruptive alternative.

Why is innovating so difficult?

As nonprofit professionals (as in every sector), we’d all like to disrupt an industry with a bold, new idea or inexpensive alternative. The first question we usually ask ourselves is, “How?” How do we determine what is missing in the market? How do we find the solution? How do we even begin to innovate? My experience with the Culinary Queens of Yeruham helped me answer some of these “How?” questions.

Maybe it’s not as difficult as we think...

So often, the concept of innovation seems overwhelming. I have a tendency to think of innovation as some vast idea that unlocks the secret solution to a huge challenge facing the world - some magic solution I just haven’t thought of yet. Innovation seems daunting - it’s a lifelong enterprise and many people fail.

But the women of Yeruham showed me the importance of thinking micro, instead of macro. By considering a local issue in our community or organization, we can gain some purchase and lift the formidable “weight of the world.” Also, we can narrow our focus on what we know best. The Culinary Queens didn’t try to solve the problem of wealth distribution in Israel, they focused on their own town, their own families. While these budding pioneers concentrated on narrower problems, their solutions caused ripples that grew Yeruham’s infrastructure and created more opportunities.

If we focus our ambitions to the world directly around us, we can start to see the issues that need actionable solutions. And the women of Yeruham reminded me that those solutions can come from within our community as well. So often we look outside for help (if only we had more money, more volunteers, better marketing materials, larger staff) and don’t consider the resources we already have at our fingertips. When the women of Yeruham decided they wanted to subsidize their family income, they considered their own skills and offerings and came up with a plan. Their resource? These women are great cooks with superb hospitality.

While developing new projects at work, I’ve often butted up against the great wall of “no.” “No, we can’t redesign the website, we don’t have the money.” “No, we can’t add a program, we don’t have the space.” In the nonprofit world and beyond, we often fail to take the time to consider options or weigh our resources. Before assuming that an innovation just can’t be done, we have to give ourselves a moment and deliver a resolute “yes” for a moment. We must go to a creative space where anything is possible, and then determine how our resources might help get us there. If we take that opportunity to just consider options, it’s amazing what could become possible.

Now, how about some tips for innovating in your own community?

Steps to Innovate

  1. Study the community you know best: The best ideas come when you know a place/people/program inside and out. Don’t be afraid to think small!
  2. Locate a problem: It’s hard to see when we’ve been so entrenched in looking at things one way. If you can’t see a problem on your own, get some perspective by speaking with others. Try one-on-one coffee dates with lay people. Plan an informal focus group. Chat with other members of the staff. Talk to people in the community! Everyone has a unique perspective and may see something you don’t.
  3. Use what you have: Harness your resources to find new solutions. Think inside the box - sometimes rearranging the pieces you have into a new order will allow you to see the situation from a new perspective. Take stock of your resources: Do your volunteers have skills? Are there participants with jobs that can be utilized? Maybe a staff member has a secret power? Any resource can and should be utilized.
  4. It’s OK to fail: You probably will, a few times (everyone does)! If a solution doesn’t work, try something else. There’s always another option out there. Mitigate any losses and start moving the pieces around again.

The Culinary Queens of Yeruham ended the evening with sweet tea with peanuts - which can be found along with other recipes and stories in a cookbook the women published. As I got a second glass, I realized our host isn’t a genius innovator - she is a woman who loves to cook and invite guests to her home. But she and the other Queens of Yeruham earned their genius when they saw their hospitality as resource. We must all realize the vast resources available in our own lives and put them to good use in innovations in our own Jewish communities and beyond. With determination (and water), we can make the desert bloom, just like the Culinary Queens of Yeruham.

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