Can Jewish ‘wisdom’ become the new religion of corporate America?

Can Jewish ‘wisdom’ become the new religion of corporate America?

Jewish values are at the core of the new Wisdom 2.0 movement, believes Yaakov Lehman, who is dedicated to bringing that message to America’s top executives

Wisdom Tribe's logo (Courtesy)
Wisdom Tribe's logo (Courtesy)

There’s a new wind blowing in corporate America; compassion and attention to workers’ inner sense of peace is now in fashion in many companies, according to Yaakov Lehman, a self-described “social entrepreneur” — and the age-old wisdom found in Jewish sources complements the new movement very well, he believes.

“Judaism has very nuanced directives on how people must interact, how to treat others in a respectful and positive manner,” said Lehman. “Employees are definitely looking for that kind of respect and compassion today, and the Torah has a rich tradition that businesses can draw on to foster that kind of atmosphere.”

Although the idea of a “compassionate, wise workplace” sounds like something out of the 60s, Lehman is no old-time hippie trying to revive ideas that for many were swept away by war, recession, and 9/11; he is the leading Israeli edge of a worldwide movement, which for the past three years has had its own symposium in Silicon Valley. Called Wisdom 2.0, the 3000-plus attendees at the event represent the cream of American corporate culture, with speakers from companies like LinkedIn, Facebook, Google and many others talking about how they tap into spiritual traditions of the East and West to help workers feel more satisfied, fulfilled — and thus productive.

On Thursday, Lehman will be bringing an Israeli — and Jewish — facet to the Wisdom seminar series, with the first-ever Israel Mindfulness Conference. The conference, like other Wisdom 2.0 events, “addresses the great challenge of our age: to not only live connected to one another through technology, but to do so in ways that are beneficial to our own well-being, effective in our work, and useful to the world,” explained Lehman.

That the event — and the movement — is being taken seriously in the corridors of the corporate world is evident from the list of speakers, which includes executives from LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, GoDaddy, the Stanford Law School, video tech start-up Glide, and others. “There’s a growing consensus in academic research that cooperation and compassion build strong companies,” said Lehman. “A recent Pew poll showed that as many as 80% of workers are disengaged from their workplaces’ activities, which means that they don’t care about what happens to the place. Even worse, a substantial number are actively disengaged — meaning that they are actively harming their firms’ chances of success.

“From a corporate point of view, it makes sense to figure out what makes workers tick — what turns them on and makes them more engaged,” said Lehman. “There needs to be a better alignment of their activities and inner sense of purpose. Otherwise productivity sinks, and companies can’t afford that today. Companies have to ask themselves how to engage a new generation of workers who want to have a personal impact.”

Members of the audience at a Wisdom Tribe event in the Jerusalem Forest (Courtesy)
Members of the audience at a Wisdom Tribe event in the Jerusalem Forest (Courtesy)

What the kids are looking for, it turns out, is some autonomy at work, fulfilling personal relationships, fairness — and a little understanding from the boss, whom they expect to treat them not as a cipher, but as a person. “Workers today are looking for more than money nowadays — and companies that ignore the trend risk losing out on the best workers,” continued Lehman.

Google, for example, runs a program called Search Inside Yourself, which proved so popular in the company that there was a six-month waiting list to get in. And it has now been “exported” for the general public (Lehman plans to bring a version of the event to Israel in May).

Billed by Google as “a highly interactive course that blends evidence-based mindfulness, emotional intelligence and neuroscience to awaken the best in people and organizations,” SIY is “an inside-out approach that empowers people to thrive in the face of ever-increasing stress and instability. Lehman said that there was a clear reason why SIY was so popular — it works.

“Google, as we all know, is a very data-driven corporation, and you can imagine that they collected plenty of data on the effectiveness of this program.” Although the company does not publish those metrics, Lehman said that he has been told by numerous Google executives that it does the job in increasing worker engagement and satisfaction.

When did young workers become so internally focused — as opposed to previous generations, which had its eyes on the material prize to a much greater extent? “I believe this is a true cultural shift that is the result of the always-on digital age, which began with the advent of the smartphone and other digital devices that keep us connected at all times,” Lehman claimed.

As head of Wisdom Tribe — the company he runs to promote Wisdom 2.0 ideas and programs — Lehman “speaks to new employees, teenagers, college students, and many other millennials. They are all very aware of the challenges of the digital age to relationships, to the mind.”

In addition, the experience of their older brothers and sisters in the go-go 90s taught the kids a lesson, Lehman added. “Generation X worked overtime and partied hard, but that didn’t stop them from getting beaten down by the recessions in 2001 and 2008. The bottom line is that people are looking for genuine relationships, for internal fulfillment — for spirituality, if we can use that word.”

Chade-Meng Tan, creator of Google's Search Inside Yourself program (Courtesy)
Chade-Meng Tan, creator of Google’s Search Inside Yourself program (Courtesy)

Spirituality, of course, is what Judaism thrives on, and Lehman wants to bring the Jewish take on spirituality to the world of business, using Torah-grown ideas and concepts to enhance the work environment — and the internal life of workers and managers.

“Judaism offers us many ways to connect — for example, on Shabbat, when we turn off our digital devices and interact with the people around us,” said Lehman. “Those are exactly the kinds of relationships the new generation of workers are looking for.” The fact that, in the US, there is a “national day of unplugging” called the Digital Sabbath (set this year for March 4-5), which its organizers call “a creative project designed to slow down lives in an increasingly hectic world,” just proves the point, Lehman added.

Another — perhaps surprising — aspect of connectedness and inner peace that Judaism uniquely brings to the table is the Jewish way of learning, as it has been conducted for thousands of years in the House of Study (Beit Midrash). There, students of the Talmud or even more esoteric works spend hours at a time connecting with the material — and each other — intellectually.

“One of the greatest gifts of Jewish learning is that it encourages questioning as a pedagogical tool — and a way of connecting,” said Lehman. “I showed this to an executive at Google and she was blown away at the idea of concentrating on something for three hours at a time — and engaging with others during that time.”

A third leg of the successful workplace in the modern era is compassion: bringing about a better working relationship between workers, and between managers and subordinates. Here, too, Judaism, with its precise plethora of laws and strictures about torts, damages, mutual respect, and any and every other aspect of relationships between humans, can make a major contribution to the Wisdom 2.0 movement, said Lehman.

Yaakov Lehman (Courtesy)
Yaakov Lehman (Courtesy)

“Let’s say a worker didn’t get along with some of the staff and left a job, and his former manager gets a phone call from the new firm looking for a reference,” said Lehman. “How much are you allowed to say? Do you give a recommendation on the worker’s performance, his ability to fit in, his ability to work on a team? Judaism has time-tested answers to those questions, and that can help contribute to a better workplace.”

Among the companies that has made compassion a cause is LinkedIn, said Lehman, which is consistently voted as one of the best places to work in Silicon Valley.

“I see my job as distilling the wisdom of Judaism and bringing it into the modern era,” added Lehman. “Much of that wisdom, available only in Hebrew, or even Aramaic, is inaccessible even to Jews, much less non-Jews.”

And while cynics will claim that Wisdom 2.0 is just another “flavor of the month” that will evaporate as soon as Google, Facebook, etc. realize there is no money in it, Lehman believes that it is here to stay. “It is no passing fad. Golbie Kamarei, a top executive at top Wall Street firm Blackrock, had a hard time getting Mindfulness workshops in the company. She had to prove that it would be effective, and that took work.” Now the company can’t do without the workshops, he added. “There are always going to be cynics who see this as shallow and insincere, but the numbers show it differently. Corporate America is not stupid — and if they are rushing to adopt these ideas, there must be a good reason.”

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