Lessons from the Peloton
Rabbi Jay Henry Moses
“But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone... You shall also seek out from among all the people capable individuals who fear God... Have them bring every major dispute to you but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you.’” [Exodus 18:17-22]
When the world shut down in March of 2020, my twice-weekly pickup basketball game shut down too. Searching for a new form of exercise, and desperate to get out of the house safely for the good of my mental health, I took up cycling. Thousands of miles later, I have learned many lessons, but perhaps the most profound is the lesson of the peloton.
A peloton (a French word meaning “ball” and by extension “group” or “squad” -the source of the English “platoon”) is a cluster of cyclists all riding closely together. When I started cycling seriously, I often did it alone. This was not just about Covid safety; it was good thinking time, and it was also easier than coordinating schedules and routes with other riders.
But over time I also began riding with some pelotons. In addition to the social element, a peloton offers cycling advantages. Riding closely behind another cyclist is called “drafting” - in the wake of the lead rider who absorbs the force of the wind, one can achieve the same speed with less resistance and effort. Well-organized pelotons are constantly shifting the burden of riding in the lead. Stronger riders take more turns out in front; everyone gets a better and more enjoyable workout in the end. Pelotons are pure collaboration in action.
But in other areas of life, collaboration is not so simple. Like Moses, who needs his father-in-law Yitro (of all people) to teach him that going it alone is unsustainable, many Jewish leaders and organizations tend toward the lone wolf model. Even when we overcome that tendency, in the Jewish communal world, collaboration is a more fraught and complicated effort than cycling in a peloton.
Generally, the challenges arise not because we are against collaboration in principle. Nearly everyone agrees that working together with like-minded colleagues and organizations is “good for the Jews.” But when the rubber hits the road, we often find reasons to avoid or resist the work. Why?
One significant reason, as we have learned in the Adaptive Leadership framework taught across Wexner programs, is fear of loss. Collaboration means risking feeling that we are giving up something precious in the DNA of our organization. What are we afraid of losing? Many things, but here’s a sampling:
- Uniqueness. Our greatest strength - our passion for the work - often means we feel that what we offer is sui generis. If we collaborate with others, that uniqueness may be “watered down” or compromised. Whether it is our particular approach to Israeli politics or our cherished Purim Carnival, we imagine that “our people” will be disappointed if our work does not carry our signature flavor and uphold our traditions.
- Independence—we fear that our ability to do things the way we think they should be done will be compromised if we must bend to the sometimes differing will of another organization.
- And, of course, our donors/members. In a time of diminishing attachment to institutions and waning commitment of philanthropy to Jewish organizations, we are understandably fearful that our core supporters will spread their allegiance and financial support thinner, or transfer allegiance altogether.
Given those fears, why should we collaborate anyway? There are myriad reasons. Among them:
- Efficiency. In a time of diminishing communal resources, we can’t afford our current level of duplication of services and programs.
- Leveraging for quality. Skillful collaboration allows for the varying strengths of each entity to be maximized for the good of all and can minimize the impact of gaps or weaknesses in what each has to offer. Not only can we do more, but we can do it better.
- Power in numbers. Don’t underestimate the explicit and implicit value of critical mass. One Hebrew High School drawing from four synagogues yields a feeling of vitality and sustainability that none of them could achieve alone.
- Professional sustainability. Good collaboration nurtures our valuable professionals by lightening their loads and giving them the sustenance of collegial support. This contributes to the sustainability of our workforce resources and minimizes burnout, just like Yitro suggested it would do for Moses.
It’s no coincidence that shortly after Moses’s coaching from Yitro, he is ready for the peak experience of his leadership: receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Only when he has internalized the value of collaboration can he fulfill his role as our leader and prophet.
To reinforce the point: among the very next things that happen - just a few chapters later! - is the great collaborative project of building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle that serves as the community’s gathering and worship space. In Parashat Terumah it is stated explicitly: everyone has a contribution to make, and the sacred space can only be built collaboratively.
I deeply believe that if we choose to confront the risks and embrace the possibilities, we can shape our community to be more like a peloton. In this vision of Jewish life, everyone takes a turn bearing the heaviest load and everyone’s unique contributions are valued. And in the end, the resulting experience propels us all forward.
Get to know the author
Rabbi Jay Moses is the Vice President of The Wexner Foundation.