Before my father died, he gave me his grandfather’s gold pocket watch. On the watch is a Star of David charm. It is a beautiful piece of well-built machinery. I imagine my great grandfather seeing the small Jewish star connected to the end of its chain and reminding himself of his own link in the chain of Jewish history. At some point, it became clear that a future in Russia was no longer possible, so like Jews throughout history, the family moved.

I appreciated the watch when I got it, but I never wore it. It was only last year at one of my daughters’ weddings that, on a whim, I tried to see if it would fit over my head. It turns out I could, and I wore it as a necklace that day.

The pocket watch at the wedding. 

The pocket watch reminds me of my ancestors in the chain of history and how they faced their own challenges in building a life in America. I compare their challenges with ones I have faced in the modern day. In the last few years, we have welcomed a son-in-law who chose to convert and another daughter who has pushed on my feelings about Israel to provoke anguish and discomfort. This integration has brought home lessons I have learned about collaboration and made them deeply personal. It has shed new light for me, in a visceral way, on the difficulties of collaboration. It has also reminded me of a collaborative Jewish tool that I had used many times in my life but limited to text study: hevruta.

Collaboration happens for survival and shared benefit. We turn to it often when our future is uncertain, or when resources are scarce. In Judaism, we have developed hevruta as a collaborative tool that has been wildly successful for the survival of our traditions and our knowledge. This system of partner-based study emphasizes respect, authenticity, and deep listening, and the outcome is deeper understanding through shared experience of differing ideas.

What if we applied the philosophy of hevruta study outside of text study? Hevrutas as a system naturally bring us to new places in ways that mere cooperation cannot. Cooperation implies tolerance – a bearing of suffered differences to achieve a common end goal. The hevruta goes beyond tolerance. It asks its practitioners to meld their differences together and incorporate them to generate a new third perspective.

The hevruta model evolved out of the Jewish belief that learning is easier and more effective when you partner with somebody else to do it. The model encourages people studying together to distinguish between their opinion and their perspective. By comparing two perspectives about a third-party subject – usually the text being studied – the group would be able to come to a consensus about the truth. It allowed for interesting and lasting interpretations of our texts, as well as their continued transmission through the generations.

This model of separating a perspective from a belief or an opinion could theoretically be applied on a larger scale. To be successful, the model must extend beyond mere acknowledgement of the needs of others. In a hevruta, partners engage in deep, active listening, and frequently establish a middle ground of mutual understanding and interest. Ultimately, on a larger scale, the hevruta model asks us to acknowledge each party both as an individual and a part of a more complex whole.

This, then, is the essence of the model:

  1. Multiple parties meet and share their perspectives on a mutual project.
  2. All involved parties share how they came to those ideas.
  3. The parties then consider what they have learned and may refine their own perspectives.

Easier said than done.

Say a community needed to pool their resources to survive a changing economic crisis. The hevruta model would ask these community members to see themselves not as individuals with separate interests – different temples, different restaurants, different schools. It would ask them instead to consider the greater good for the community, of which they are a part and which they serve. With that in mind, they can take their perspectives on the issue to each other and talk out a plausible solution.

The obvious obstacles are human emotion and mutually incompatible needs. Taking one’s ego out of the equation takes time, and sometimes the parties’ goals oppose each other. This depersonalization and measured approach to problem solving for mutual gain is a goal to strive for, not a standard. Hevrutas are made better as people strive for the ideal.

I am extremely familiar with how personal the obstacles to collaboration are. When confronted with new ideas in one’s own family, the lofty ideals of the hevruta model may be far out of reach at first. I know I faced my own challenges. On the one hand, I understood the complexities of my background, the mix of personalities my family has become through the generations, and the unknown they faced that led to me and my cultural makeup today. I could intellectually understand that others had been where I was before. On the other hand, I had a fear of losing something to an unknown future in the here and now.

Rather than isolate myself and dig into fear of the other, I cultivated an attitude of abundance. I felt I had a wealth of love to give and understanding to show. It was a growing experience.

What guided me through was the deep love I felt for the people becoming part of the future of our lives. My daughter and her husband were making a commitment. They showed me that the only way to escape our siloes and collaborate in earnest is to seek out long-term challenging personal mergers, with the mutual respect and deep listening of a good hevruta.

Someday, I will hand over my great grandfather’s pocket watch to my children. I imagine them looking out at the modern world, pulling out that watch, seeing that small Jewish star on the end of its chain, and reminding themselves of their chain of Jewish ancestry. Whatever challenges they may face, I hope I will have instilled in them the intergenerational resilience, adaptability, and collaborative skills needed to grow. Perhaps that way, my great grandchildren will still have their hevrutas, where they will share our merging stories in triumph.

Get to know the author

Deborah Kattler Kupetz is a serial entrepreneur, innovator, and OG of disruptive thinking. She is a Category Designer working with start-ups, incubators, and accelerators to help them define strategic business advantage. This dream work is a synthesis of her range of diverse experiences, and love of the new, and she is delighted to have the opportunity to help streamline the path to success for those looking to start new things. She has three adult daughters (Rachel, Ariella, & Noa) and two son-in-laws. She is passionate about Judaism- the depth, complexity and profundity and all the ways it can be shared for continued inspiration.