So really, what does running a huge, successful, innovative, powerful business for many years teach a business leader about the Jewish community?
Is there really any way that someone who, say, led Verizon, the massive telecommunications company formed by the merger of the telephone companies that rang all the bells and buzzed all the wires throughout many of our lives, would be able to know anything about the little retail islands that make up Jewish life?
Well, as it happens, and perhaps unsurprisingly, yes he does.
Ivan Seidenberg of New City has been a member of Temple Beth Sholom in New City for more than three decades.
He is going to talk about his ideas about change in the Jewish community on Tuesday, November 27, for the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County’s Giving Tuesday. (See below.)
He has just written a book about his life, focusing on the lessons he learned at Verizon; it’s called “Verizon Untethered: An Insider’s Story of Innovation and Disruption.”
“I gave a copy to Rabbi Brian Leiken, from Beth Shalom, and he read it. “He’s been very focused on creating a broader and better Jewish experience in Rockland County, and when he read it he said he saw parallels with my work, in terms of how the company changed over the years, and how I had to expand my thinking.”
The question, Mr. Seidenberg said, is “how do you pool resources in the community?” More broadly and more deeply, “how do you move from this individualistic set of temples to a cohesive community?”
He’s been talking to community leaders since his talk, and now, he said, “my goal is to draw the parallel between the challenges that the Jewish community faces in Rockland and the challenges that the business faced.
“It’s kind of a funny thing,” he continued, addressing the inevitable question. “What does the Jewish community have to do with the phone company?
“The whole idea is to create a large conversation about how we work together. About how we serve our constituents better.
“If you look around the country, and Canada, you see that there are some Jewish communities that do pool resources and purchasing together. We don’t do much of that in Rockland County. It’s all much more individually focused. Also, to be frank, there are too many temples for the number of people we serve. There is a business component to it. I feel the Jewish community faces so many changes — my job is to explain, in a friendly way, how the forces of change rally people to do things that otherwise they never would do.”
(First, a word about names and labels. Mr. Seidenberg talks about temples, but really he’s talking about the synagogues and JCCs and federation agencies and schools and other institutions that make up the Rockland Jewish community. His vision encompasses the range of the Jewish community, from the Reform through the Conservative to the modern Orthodox, although realistically he understands that the charedi world will not be part of this collaboration.)
He understands how important religious communities can be to people’s lives, and how that connection often makes them averse to change, but “I’ve watched the entire Jewish community in Rockland County shrink, and the entire set of synagogues that continue to serve the community become less useful.
“Let’s look at it the other way. If you are a family or a customer, you always want the best products. You want to be part of something bigger. We have found that no temple really has the resources to provide everything that people want, and that is why they migrate away to join other temples, to do other things.
“It’s just like in business. If your business is stagnant, you need to infuse new products, new ways of thinking. You need to figure out how to serve people better.” How to give them what they want.
Mr. Seidenberg has a very firm grasp of what the communications company he headed, and the telephone companies out of which it was formed, needed; he grew up in the north central Bronx and went to work as a telephone lineman, climbing up to head the whole behemoth. He knows about scaling up.
“You can have tiny little temples with 30 members, or 120 members, there needs to be some thought about how you can scale up and work together so that you can offer people what they want, instead of seeing if you can eke out another year.
“There is room for both working together and for the personalized services that people have come to expect from their temples and their rabbis,” he continued. “No one is expecting that you trade one off for the other. You do both. People learn that it is not a choice, so you have to figure out how to do both.
“If you don’t, you just will go out of business. That much is indisputable.”
Mr. Seidenberg doesn’t think that he has every answer a failing synagogue could need, or even a shrinking one, but he does know that whatever the full answer might be, some of it has to do with coping with change.
“I started out a long time ago,” in New York Telephone, “when we were the only game in town. We are not any more. Now people can go to any number of different suppliers, so we had to change, to make sure that we were much more customer-centered.” He and Verizon created family plans, let people call anywhere, and use unlimited data.
“I have always considered our business to be community-based,” he said. And there is a physical element to it. “We don’t operate over the internet. We put wire on poles, and we install stuff in houses. We send a bill. We are a community-based business.
“It’s not like we just show up on the internet, like Google, but you never see us. We need a connection with your customers, and we do that.
“People in the Jewish community want to be part of something bigger than themselves. It has to be broader. Not necessarily bigger, but broader, if it wants to be better.
“I’m not comparing religion to the phone business, but any company that is trying to redefine itself or transform itself to be more relevant in the current environment faces some of the same challenges. Rabbis are to some extent CEOs, and if you want to be clinical about it, every time the rabbi has to take off the rabbi hat to put on the CEO hat, that’s when I can help. That’s when I can help make my temple more relevant.”
When it comes to spiritualty, on the other hand, “that’s the rabbi’s part. Nobody ever accused a businessman of being spiritual.
“I’m just a transient, a speaker, who comes in and out,” he continued. “It’s important to reinforce the fact that the community’s rabbis, the heads of the federation and the JCC, the groups that ride above all the individual institutions, are all trying to stimulate this wide conversation.”
It’s important for young liberal Jews to realize that Rockland County can be a destination, Mr. Seidenberg said. It can be a place where they come to live, start families, and find their places in the community.
“Look at where Verizon started, and where it is today,” he said. “It’s a good example. It started as a crappy little phone company, a little monopoly, and now it is powerful.”
“Ivan gets the inherent power in bringing groups together, to do more with what you have,” Gary Siepser, the CEO of the Jewish Federation, said. “It’s not that you have to do more with less, it’s that you have to work with what you’ve got. How can we work together? How can we be more effective at connecting people in the community?
“I’m excited about Ivan sharing that vision with the leadership of the community.”
Rabbi Leiken has been the rabbi at Mr. Seidenberg’s synagogue for about seven years. “When I got here, I instantly felt an affinity for him,” Rabbi Leiken said. “I found his thoughtfulness to be really inspiring. And he took time to spend with me.
“I treated my first year at the synagogue as a learning curve, and he compared my early years here to high school. He really walked me through them.
“I am so grateful that he was willing to take his own life experiences and compare them to the journey of the community.
“And there are so many connections! Ivan’s career largely is about people and relationships, and about taking vision and ideas forward. That is largely the story of Verizon, and the story of the company largely is the story of the leader.”
In being among the leaders in developing mobile platforms, “Ivan and the people around him were willing to look not just at the present but into the future,” Rabbi Leiken said. “And that is so necessary right now in Jewish life.
“Not everybody is convinced of the need to join the Jewish community — but not everyone understood the need for mobile communications. People now believe that they can get their Judaism privately, as individuals. They can hire tutors. They don’t feel the need to be part of a bigger community. The don’t need the obligations or the responsibilities. But I think that what is becoming clearer to me is that people do need it. They do need community. They need to be part of something bigger than themselves. That truth is still as vital and important as ever it was.
“What Ivan has helped me to understand more is the necessity of taking risks, of not really ever allowing yourself to be comfortable with the present. With things as they are. That is a huge problem for the liberal Jewish community today. There is just a sense here, now, of okay, this is comfortable. This is easy. We are just trying to move forward by doing some modest, easy things. Nothing truly bold.
“And we need something truly bold today. Especially here in Rockland County.”
Who: Verizon’s former CEO, Ivan Seidenberg
What: Will explore ways to “Connect Your Jewish Past to Your Jewish Future and Build Your Jewish Legacy”
When: On Giving Tuesday, November 27, at 7 p.m.
Where: At the Schwartz Family Social Hall on the Jewish Community Campus, 450 W. Nyack Road, West Nyack, N.Y.
How much: Free, but please bring at least one can of kosher soup to donate, (More would be welcomed.)