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Living Jewish Learning

Hevrutahpreneurship: Partnering for Learning and Leading

Jeff and AdinaSolopreneurship, the practice of single-handedly starting and leading an organization, is a celebrated American entrepreneurial approach. Americans tout the notion that with hard work and hustle, any individual can tackle any challenge.

Jeff Kasowitz and Adina Allen, co-founders of The Jewish Studio Project, embrace a countercultural approach. They are successfully leading a startup guided by the Jewish principle of hevrutah, Aramaic for friendship or companionship. Traditionally, rather than tackle complicated Jewish texts alone, yeshiva students studied them in small groups, or hevrutah. In contrast to flying solo, Jeff and Adina have partnered for learning and leading as friends, companions and spouses. I call their approach hevrutahpreneurship.

Equipped with complementary skills, Jeff and Adina have engaged hundreds of Jews across North America in explorations of Jewish text, the arts, and personal inquiry. Their project invites meaningful engagement by enabling learners of all ages to explore Jewish text through painting, drawing, music, movement and creative writing.

“We respect each other’s talents,” says Adina, an ordained rabbi who now acts as the creative director. Jeff, with two master’s degrees, including an MBA, is the executive director. Jeff, a prolific musician, says to be more effective, they’ve intentionally differentiated their roles.

As hevrutahpreneurs, they also practice thoughtful coordination. “We always check back with one another,” says Adina. “Jeff may be writing the grant, but we invite each other’s thoughts.” As the Talmud explains, “two scholars sharpen one another (BT Ta’anit 7a).” Jeff and Adina challenge one another to make the work better.

Adina and Jeff spent years developing their partnership skills. While Adina was in rabbinical school, the couple turned the barn in their backyard into a co-creative space where they hosted salons, movies, concerts and plays. “Over several years,” says Jeff, “it became a home where our community came to express themselves.” In Jeff’s nonprofit job, he learned the skill of “Imagineering, the strategic skills to create the future.” Adina notes that even though The Jewish Studio Project only incorporated this past year, they’ve been building their shared dream for years.

Despite a growing national reputation as the place to turn for text-rich creative engagement, Adina and Jeff admit riding the emotional rollercoaster of a startup. “One day, people say this is amazing. On other days, they don’t know what we are talking about,” says Jeff. “Be prepared to be disappointed,” Adina quickly adds, “when one of us is devastated, the other lifts us up.”

Adina’s comment refers to the Book of Ecclesiastes, the original Hevrutahpreneurship Guide, which instructs: “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his haver, friend or companion, but woe to him that is alone when he falls” (Ecclesiastes, 4: 9-10). Lifted by one another, they avoid common symptoms exhibited by solopreneurs: isolation and burnout.

“Some people say it would drive them crazy to work with their spouse,” says Adina. “We have our moments. We don’t always agree. But we always get to a good place.”

To enable constructive discourse, Adina explains they teach and embrace a concept called sacred vulnerability. They intentionally create a supportive environment without judgment for their participants and for one another. To be a good partner—in life, in learning and leading, you have to be “willing to be vulnerable,” says Adina. “When that happens, the unknown can emerge.”

According to Forbes Magazine, couples that partner to lead an organization tend to describe their experience i­n one of two extremes: They either love or hate it.  Those who love it demonstrate the following: they show equal commitment; fulfill roles suited to their skills; have the same vision; respect each other; and know how to shut it off at the end of the day. Clearly, Adina and Jeff exhibit all five. Notably, because Adina and Jeff are more than just entrepreneurs, they embody a sixth practice.

“We believe,” says Jeff, that each of us is “b’zelem Elohim, made in God’s image.” They see one another and their participants through a lens affirming each person’s inherent creativity. Through a holy looking glass--seeing each person as inherently good and capable--they are learning and leading The Jewish Studio Project to success.

The results are transformative. As one participant recently said, “The Jewish Studio Project broke open our hearts and souls. They created a safe space for exploration and allowed people who feel creatively-challenged to go deep within themselves. They opened the door for us to think in new ways and develop new ideas.” Through their partnership they are developing a “methodology that combines time-tested tools of Judaism, like questioning and reinterpreting, with processes from the creative arts, like drawing and reflective writing.”

Adina and Jeff eschew the myth of rugged individualism. In doing so, they illustrate what is possible for any couple or small group that is willing to pool talent and resources in order to change the world.

One more thing that each couldn’t accomplish on their own is their newest creation: mazel tov to these inspiring hevrutahpreneurs, on the birth of their second son, Tovi, earlier this month.

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