Using Theory U to Imagine a Jewish Atlanta for the 21st Century

Alice Maggio
Jun 14 · 8 min read

When the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta (JFGA) hired Eric Robbins as CEO in 2016, he was given a mandate to transform the organization and energize the Jewish community. The Federation was cognizant that its time-tested model, which was to provide the Jewish community in Atlanta with a “central address for philanthropy,” was being challenged by powerful new trends that were causing its annual fundraising campaign to shrink. For example, online giving was making it easy to donate directly to specific smaller organizations — an option that many younger members of the Jewish community found compelling.

“My perspective is that the organization was at a crucial point in its relevance and its energy when Eric joined,” says Lisa Galanti, the Chair of Strategic Planning for the Federation’s Board of Trustees. The Board knew that the Federation had important work to do. The question was, what would that work look like?

To help the organization face this big question, Eric Robbins turned to Insyte Partners, a Philadelphia-based consulting firm that uses Theory U as the underlying framework for all of their work which includes strategic planning, innovating products and services, leadership development, culture change and — in this case — Collective Impact. Eric had worked with Liz Alperin Solms and Marie McCormick, the co-founders of Insyte Partners, twice before, and he knew they were the right people for the job. “I knew it couldn’t be a process that was top down, but instead needed to be informed by stakeholders through the community,” says Eric.

Asking the right questions, with the right people

In the Spring of 2016, together with Insyte Partners, JFGA began to lay out an engagement process that would include voices from across the large and diverse Jewish community in greater Atlanta. The goal, Liz Alperin Solms says, was to “get the whole system in the room” to have a series of conversations and explorations to discover “what was wanting to be born for a Jewish Atlanta for the 21st Century.” Once that vision became clear, the next question was “what work would Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta need to undertake to make that future inevitable?”

“We wanted a shared “framework for action” that the whole ecosystem would own,” recalls Liz Alperin Solms. To get there, the nine-month process spearheaded by JFGA and Insyte Partners would engage dozens of Jewish Atlantans in discussion around these questions:

1. We know what the Jewish ecosystem in Atlanta is right now, but what does the Jewish ecosystem want to be?

2. What can we learn about Jewish innovation here and elsewhere? What are the principles that allow for innovation and how can we focus innovative energies?

3. What role should the Federation take in the emerging Jewish ecosystem in Atlanta?

A shared agenda, a framework for action

Numbering over 135,000, the Jewish community across greater Atlanta is very large and diverse, encompassing many different approaches to Judaism, different generations, and different histories. Consequently, a common agenda is not easy to shape.

When considering this challenge at an early meeting of the planning committee, a comment by Lisa Galanti sparked a name for the initiative, “The Front Porch.” Lisa explains that “In the south, the front porch is a place you congregate with people and you discuss thoughts and feelings.”

Liz Alperin Solms elaborates on the concept, explaining that there is a cultural understanding in the South that the front porch is a place where you can “really hash out the issues.” Even if you discover strong disagreements, you can still leave as friends. “It captured what we were trying to do,” says Eric Robbins. “It telegraphed the Federation’s openness to listening to its people,” says Lisa Galanti, “It takes a lot of energy and time, but developing an open ear and an open door policy builds trust.”

In this spirit, a planning team that included representatives from organizations in the ecosystem launched The Front Porch, initiating a season of convening and listening, creating space for difficult conversations, and learning. Over the course of 300 listening forums, 24 learning journeys, and 15 immersive experiences that included over 50 organizations and 175 participants, new ways of thinking began to emerge, eventually coalescing into the following “Five Impact Areas” around which the Jewish community of greater Atlanta could organize:

  • Creating Jewish journeys
  • Making Jewish places
  • Radically welcoming spaces
  • Moving to global Jewish peoplehood
  • Rising up to strengthen our community and ourselves

This framework contained multiple shifts in the way the JFGA saw its own work and in the way the Jewish community understood its own structure. For example, the Federation had traditionally organized itself around making grants to individual organizations. In the new framework, Liz Alperin Solms explains, there is a focus on “making Jewish places,” not just organizations, and the goal is to create resource-rich Jewish places based on where people live and work.

This impulse to break down institutional silos was spurred by generational differences such as the fact that fewer young people are joining synagogues, but also by the intention to encourage collaboration across differences. This same impulse is present in some of the other Impact Areas, especially “Creating Jewish journeys” and “Radically welcoming spaces.”

Similar tensions and redefinitions are present throughout the Impact Areas. Liz explains that one of the most contentious topics within the Jewish community, both in the greater Atlanta area and throughout the United States, is the relationship between American Jews and Israel. To approach this difficult topic head-on, Eric Robbins organized a week-long trip to Israel for 70 lay and professional leaders from the Atlanta ecosystem, including rabbis of all denominations.

Atlantans visit Israel

Citing her own transformative experiences during that week, Liz Alperin Solms explains that this trip created space for conversations that would not otherwise have happened, conversations about observance, gender, politics, and more.

Eric Robbins describes it as “a pinnacle experience.” “We lived out what we were trying to become,” he says. “We were able to be in community in the way we wanted.”

There was also room for being surprised and learning about different ways of looking at the world and thinking about Jewish peoplehood. Lisa Galanti explains that the visit to Israel gave people a common experience to which they could refer once they returned home to Georgia. “The participants have held onto that moment in time. They remember the positivity and possibility.”

Finding the Federation’s role

The process also carved out time and space for the Federation to explore its own role. Stepping into this new framework for action, it was clear that the Foundation was no longer being called simply to channel funds to organizations. Instead, the JFGA began to see itself as a type of “backbone” organization (to borrow from Collective Impact language) that is in the position to connect the many different elements of the Jewish community in the Atlanta area. In this vein, the JFGA has begun to think of itself as a “holder of community intelligence” that amplifies and connects the work that is happening throughout the ecosystem, while also acting as a “philanthropic champion” that raises funds and deploys them according to the community vision that was formulated through The Front Porch.

The finale of the first phase of The Front Porch was a “Prototype Bootcamp” to engage more people in co-creating the future of their Jewish ecosystem. Prototyping is an essential part of the Theory U process. It is where intentions can come to earth and people can begin the iterative process of putting their ideas into practice. At a half day bootcamp, teams of people rolled up their sleeves to build and iterate on seeds of ideas or long-held dreams.

Prototype Bootcamp

This Bootcamp is where the JFGA began to embrace another new role, as “incubator.” This new realm of the JFGA’s work involves helping to cultivate promising prototypes through coaching, micro-grants, and the creation of “accelerator” programs. The Federation also created a new position, the Vice President of Innovation to lead the innovation work. Thanks to this focus on the part of the JFGA, some of the prototypes that emerged at the Bootcamp have by now emerged into exciting innovations.

Lessons learned and looking forward

Looking back on Insyte Partners’ work with Jewish Atlanta, Liz Alperin Solms thinks that one of the breakthroughs that occurred as a result of the Theory U process was Jewish Atlanta’s new understanding of who exactly belonged in the vision that the community was creating together. Liz points out that “72% of non-orthodox Jewish people marry people who are not Jewish.” Some might see this as a threat to Jewish traditions and the Jewish faith, but by including “every Jew and their loved ones” in their new vision statement, Jewish Atlanta has shifted its narrative, from threat to opportunity.

Eric Robbins and Lisa Galanti agree that The Front Porch has had lasting effects. Eric sees the continued impact in a general openness to thinking differently, listening deeply, and working together across differences. Lisa says that the process was a powerful way to build new relationships and trust. Eric notes that the conversation across the diverse community is stronger now, and that when there is tension, the community has cultivated habits of dialogue. “It’s so much healthier,” Lisa agrees.

Having gone through the whole process — for which Lisa and Eric both said they wish they could have been given more time and funding — JFGA now has a bold vision with specific measures upon which to focus energy and resources. The fact that it came from the community at-large means that the JFGA can move forward with a clearer mandate.

This has generated excitement and some big ideas, including a Jewish family camp, an initiative to make Atlanta a more welcoming place for young Jewish people, and — most exciting of all — a plan to transform the Federation’s own Midtown location into a multi-use, intergenerational space that expands on the existing Breman Museum and the Federation’s offices, adding apartments, restaurants, co-working space, event space, and more. This re-imagination will allow a whole garden of social, cultural, religious, and economic interactions to co-exist in a vibrant hub of Jewish life in 21st-century Atlanta — a physical manifestation of the dreams of The Front Porch.

Field of the Future Blog

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Thanks to Rachel Hentsch

Alice Maggio

Written by

Former director of programs at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and E.D. of BerkShares. Currently pursuing MA in Planning & Policy at Tufts Univ.

Field of the Future Blog

We believe it’s possible to create results that serve the wellbeing of all

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