Guided by Empathy: Rabbi Ron Stern and Stephen Wise Temple

“The question isn’t – ‘how can we get people to come?’ It’s ‘what do we need to offer so that people actually want to come?’”
Rabbi Ron Stern first started playing with design thinking at an UpStart workshop presented at a URJ Conference.  Today, he’s using UpStart entrepreneurial tools and mindsets, guided by Jewish wisdom, to drive change in his congregation. Here’s a snapshot of the work he’s doing in – and outside of – the UpStart-powered Los Angeles Federation Jewish Teen Accelerator.

AirplaneFINAL_blue - no wordsEntrepreneurial Tool: Using a human-centered design process to guide temple planning meetings.

Rabbi Stern’s temple planning meetings get to the point with questions laser-focused on human needs:

  • How might we learn more about  people’s end-of-the-week life experiences so that we can design a shabbat that reflects the things they love most?
  • What do our constituents want out of our big mitzvah day?  Even more basic:  What do people care deeply about?  What service projects would engage them most meaningfully? How can we structure the day so that it fits into their lives?
  • How can we better understand what  20- and 30-year olds are wrestling with —  and how can we help them meet those needs in new ways?

Rabbi Stern: “Too often, planning meetings start off with idea generation. I’m trying to encourage people to learn first – to operate from a place of empathy – so that we generate ideas that actually gain traction.”

YadFINAL_blue - no wordsGuided by Jewish Wisdom: Examining Nechemiah’s use of empathy to design a functioning civil society.

How would you design a civil society? Authorities like Nechemiah were left to grapple with that question after the destruction of the Second Temple, when the Israelites were challenged to rebuild Jerusalem and an accompanying civic infrastructure. In this vacuum of centralized rule, a few families became rich — while forcing the general populace into generations of debt.  Nechemiah goes among the people, and listens to the people’s woes:
(Nechemiah 5:5) “Now we are as good as our brothers, and our children as good as theirs; yet here we are subjecting our sons and daughters to slavery—some of our daughters are already subjected—and we are powerless, while our fields and vineyards belong to others.” See full text here.
Nechemiah hears them, and works to design a society that meets their needs. He leads them to share their concerns with the rich, securing their promise to never enslave their fellow Israelites again.
Rabbi Stern: “The Nechemiah story teaches us the power of empathy. What would civil society have looked like if he never went out to hear the cries of the people? At best, it would have been out of touch. At worst, cruel.”

GraphFINAL_blue - no wordsDriving Organizational Design: Growing the impact of the Freedom School teen volunteer program.

The Stephen Wise staff are now using the same entrepreneurial tools – guided by lessons from the Nechemiah story – to increase engagement in their Freedom School High School volunteer program. The Freedom School program provides a six-week summer literacy and leadership program that serves over 225 students (scholars) from low-income, at-risk communities, free of charge. Teens volunteer for up to six weeks in the classrooms.  
As participants in the UpStart-powered Los Angeles Teen Accelerator, they’re asking similar questions about the needs of their volunteers and scholars:

  • What do parents need to support their teen’s participation?
  • How do we design the program to overcome barriers like traffic or the digital divide?
  • How can we extend the mentoring relationships beyond the summer?

As a result of asking these human-centered questions, the program is  piloting “remote reading,” giving a sets of books to both the volunteers and the scholars so they can read together over the phone.
Rabbi Stern: “Like any entrepreneur, we took a big risk in building the Stephen Wise Freedom School. Now we’re teaching high school students to not only be good volunteers, but to use some of these same tools, too. We want empathy to be their guide.”
Learn more about working with UpStart to drive change at your organization.
Learn more about Stephen Wise’s Freedom School.


Stephen Wise Freedom School teens volunteer with local “scholars” to support their learning.


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