The Election 2012 Playbook: Lessons for the Jewish Community

November 5, 2012

Like most politically-attuned Americans, I have been consumed by the endgame of the 2012 US presidential election, finding myself absorbing every tidbit of news, polls and prognostications with increasing focus (and anxiety) as the clock ticks down to Election Day. In the world of 24/7 news media, blogs and tweets, my only daily “must read” is the Politico Playbook, written by the indefatigable Mike Allen.  As he has counted down to the election, Allen’s email provides essential insight into the state of play of the Obama/Romney campaigns. More than that, however, he also frames insights that are directly applicable to state of play of contemporary Jewish community engagement.

In a recent Playbook (you can read it here), Allen did an excellent job of succinctly explaining the different strategies the Obama campaign and the Romney campaign have deployed during this election (the former being more of a retail strategy, and the latter being a wholesale strategy).  The Obama campaign has placed enormous emphasis on a field operation that helps “get out the vote” by establishing an expansive network of field offices, voter-mobilization campaigns and community-organizing networks, while the Romney campaign has continued to focus on the key messages and themes that will inspire the number of voters needed to tip the campaign in his favor.

In supporting his analysis, Allen quotes an Obama campaign official as follows:

“I view campaigns as a list-building exercise, and there’s three ways that you can build your list: You can do that by registering new voters who support the President. You can persuade undecided voters to support the President. Or you can increase turnout with your existing list of supporters. Ultimately, that’s all we’re doing here.  We’re going to be spending lots and lots of money doing those three very simple things.”

 As I read that paragraph over and over again, the lights came on. Isn’t the Obama campaign official articulating the same vision of what we need in the Jewish community? Of course building community is more than just a list-building exercise, but consider the corollaries:

  • You can engage Jewish young adults who might be inclined to participate in the Jewish community but have yet to be truly invited to participate.
  • You can persuade “undecided” (or unengaged) Jews to participate in the Jewish community.
  • You can increase the “turnout” list of currently engaged Jewish community members.

That essentially summarizes the retail approach to building Jewish community that many of our organizations and initiatives are built to execute. From Taglit/Birthright Israel (engaging new community members), to creating compelling invitations and opportunities for programming (convince the undecided and increase turnout), most of our organizational efforts focus on a “get out the vote” campaign to entice Jews of all ages into various elements of community engagement. It is a strategy that has its strengths, but also its limitations. Creating a successful field operation for engagement requires a substantial investment in network-building infrastructure, even with the knowledge that unpredictable elements (such as hurricanes) can dramatically impact the efficacy of a well-designed retail strategy.

Which is why the Romney strategy, one that focuses less on field operations and more on voter motivations, is also vital.  If individuals are properly motivated by big themes and ideas, then even when the field operation is limited, voters will respond to the “call to action” in a meaningful way. Whether it is the call to change the status quo, or the appeal to act on one’s values, the power of the “big message” can also activate the passion of individuals to engage in community experiences and activism. This is true in the Jewish community as well; no matter how substantial the retail engagement strategy, if the messaging regarding the Jewish community is not inviting, compelling, and relevant, individuals will not “vote with their feet” and participate in community experiences.  Rather, they will elect to stay home, refuse to be counted, and ultimately become disenfranchised in the process.

So in many ways, the 2012 election encapsulates the alternatives (and necessities) of creating successful campaigns and community engagement strategies.  We can compare different approaches including retail versus wholesale and field organization versus big messaging. The winning formula probably is somewhere in the middle. It takes both strategies to win in politics, as well as to build our local and global Jewish community.  On the morning of November 7, we will know which presidential campaign strategy succeeded; one will win, and one will lose.  In our community, we can’t afford to lose – so what type of campaign will we pursue?  Much more than an election hangs in the balance.


The Jewish Agency’s Strategic Plan: Now For the Hard Part…

November 2, 2010

“At a time when the Jewish Agency should be looking ahead to improving its role at the nexus of the emerging world Jewish polity… the Agency must complete putting its own house in order in whatever way it chooses to do so before it can truly play the leading role that it must on the world Jewish scene.” Daniel J. Elazar  z”l The Jewish Agency: Historic Role and Current Crisis (1992)

Last week in Jerusalem the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency approved its new strategic plan, one that The Jerusalem Post called “the most significant redefinition of the Jewish Agency’s purpose since the declaration of the state.”  Without question, the Agency has set off on a path that, while uncharted, is also grounded in the belief that the fundamental challenges of the Jewish future require fundamental changes in the strategic direction of the Jewish Agency.  If the past 81 years of the Jewish Agency has been about helping the development of a state, the new direction of the Agency squarely focuses on helping the development of a people that, in turn, can continue to help build a nation. In sum, just as the history of Israel and the Jewish Agency are testaments to the power of nation-building by aliyah, the new strategic plan is an experiment of nation-building 2.0 by identity.

This experiment has a substantial amount of risk, especially since it proposes to not only transform the Agency, but also to transform the nature of Israel-Diaspora relations. By staking its future on the engines of Israel experience that impact Jewish identity and deepen the relationship between the Jewries of the Diaspora and Israel, the Jewish Agency has chosen not just to refocus its efforts, but to redesign its very purpose. It is a bold move by an organization with a history of bold moves.

But in truth, the Agency is also an entity that has struggled with organizational shortcomings, ranging from bureaucracy, inefficiency, misdirection and missed opportunities. Notwithstanding its historic success, it suffers from an organizational design that needs substantial reimagination and a governance structure that requires a significant updating. Equally, the Agency needs to quickly begin implementation while facing the challenges of managing internal politics, external relations and, of course, a need for increased resource development.  Alone each of those challenges requires outstanding execution, together they demand the highest level of administrative excellence. With that in mind, a few suggestions:

  1. Reorganization. Without question, the new strategic plan requires a redesign of the administrative and programmatic structure of the Agency. The reorganization is not just needed to align functional responsibilities, but also to create a structure that is adaptable to change. If the past of the Agency has been one of silos, the future must be one of transparency and integrated execution. The leadership must not only have core capabilities, but also must have clear confidence in the future of the plan; this is not a time for half-measures or half-heartedness.
  2. Governance. There is no question that the Agency’s leadership is deeply and passionately earnest about the present and the future of the agency. Equally, there is no question that the very same leadership is keenly aware of the need or substantial changes to its governance structure.  The Jewish Agency can and should maintain its unique forum for Jewish leadership to interact, but it must take substantial measures to redefine who that leadership is and how they interact. A board structure that is representative of the partnerships that comprise the historic relationships of the Jewish Agency can exist while also bringing new leadership that also reflects the future foci of the Agency; the key is to develop new pathways to leadership and reduce barriers to participation. There is room for WiseGen and NextGen at the future governance table of the Agency, but first that table needs to be set by existing leadership.
  3. Partnerships. The strategic plan calls for new tactics to achieve new goals, including deepening a sense of social activism by under-35 Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora. But these goals cannot be achieved solely be looking inside the organization, they can only be realized by engaging new partners with relevant experience in new ways. There are far to many organizations that have either a skeptical or critical (or both) view of partnering with the Agency; one of the key tasks of the Agency is to create new confidence that partnering with the Jewish Agency will be an experience of excellence.
  4. Resource Development. Last, but by no means least, funding the new strategic plan will require a fundamental reorientation of the way the Jewish Agency partners with Keren Hayesod and the Federation system in North America. Equally, it will require a level of engagement with foundations and individual donors that has eluded the Agency in the past. This is a complicated strategy – the future of the Jewish Agency depends on energizing new resources to support new endeavors, while also realigning existing financial resources to meet changing goals. Redeploying existing funds will not be enough to achieve critical success, but waiting for new sources to fund new initiatives will be equally unsuccessful.

The Jewish Agency’s new plan is a reminder of an old fact: nothing worth achieving is easy. The coming weeks and months will be a clear reminder that making a shift of historic proportions requires an effort that is equally historic. During its great history, the Jewish Agency has helped bring more faces to Israel and now it is endeavoring to change the collective face of the nation and people of Israel. But first it must change itself –

and with that, the hard part begins.


Philanthropic Horizons and the Future of the Jewish Funders Network

September 28, 2010

If you spend enough time around philanthropists you quickly realize that their diversity of passion is equaled by their diversity in motivation. That is, they each have a different catalyst for their philanthropic activity – for some it is the result of family, for others is it is the result of personal experience. For many philanthropists it is the friend they found that activated their philanthropic impulse and for an equal number it is their internal value system that finally found an avenue of expression. Whatever the case, each philanthropist is the lead character in their own charitable narrative – a story for which they are often the author and the editor.

In the context of the broader philanthropic narrative, the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) is an interesting story. An organization that is dedicated to “advancing the quality and growth of Jewish philanthropy,” it serves a role as a meeting place of Jewish philanthropists to gather, engage one another and learn from and with peers; a place where these diverse charitable authors can hone their craft. And in a world where philanthropic activity has matured in professionalism, complexity and scale, JFN has developed into an organization that provides resources and important support to the funders who are, in turn, providing important support to our communities. In sum, at a time where funders are grappling with the new language of philanthropy, JFN plays an important role helping those individuals convert that language into impact.

Nonetheless, in light of Mark Charendoff stepping down as the president of JFN at the end of 2010 and in anticipation of the naming of his successor, it is fair to wonder what the future of JFN holds. As it looks to write the next chapter of its story, JFN’s leadership needs to look beyond the present and boldly envision the future of a changing JFN in a changing Jewish world. With that in mind, here are four suggestions for the JFN leadership as they write the script for the post-Charendoff era:

  1. Establish bold philanthropic horizons. Yes, supporting the needs of individual funders through education and services must remain an important part of JFN, but to make an indelible impact on the size and impact of Jewish philanthropy, JFN must help the broader Jewish philanthropic community set goals that inspire action. If we were to envision our optimal Jewish philanthropic landscape ten years from now, what would it look like? How many philanthropists would be active and what would their activity in the Jewish world look like? These are questions JFN needs to boldly ask and boldly answer. If JFN leaderships sets demanding goals, inspires increased activity and drives results that have a transformative impact on the size and scale of global Jewish philanthropy, it can help reset the Jewish philanthropic horizon for decades to come.
  2. Establish and communicate clear organizational priorities. JFN has numerous great initiatives, but perhaps the number of these initiatives and the apparent lack of prioritization is limiting JFN’s ability communicate its organizational impact. For JFN to remain relevant and make an even greater impact on the future of Jewish philanthropy it needs to develop precise priorities for the constituencies it seeks to serve. It must communicate those priorities and be willing to be evaluated as to its success in achieving its goals. Certainly JFN does several things well, but that isn’t enough. It needs to do things exceptionally well, and sometimes that means focusing on fewer issues, with great intensity and probability of measurable success.
  3. Reinforce the important role of Jewish women as Jewish funders. Despite women being some of the most capable and impactful Jewish professionals in funding and grantee organizations, we still have a paucity of women leading Jewish funding organizations. While JFN is not an advocacy organization, it should take a more vocal role (as an organization and as a collection of members) in advocating positive changes in a Jewish philanthropic environment where far too few women lead major Jewish funding organizations. JFN should boldly and unequivocally set a horizon for increased numbers of Jewish women in professional funding leadership roles, and actively challenge our broader community to meet measurable benchmarks in achieving that goal (perhaps even setting the best example by hiring a woman as the next president of JFN).
  4. Help develop a Jewish Grantees Network. Creating a network of Jewish funders has paid substantial dividends for our community, both in the amount of resources that are deployed and the quality manner in which it is done. JFN has created opportunities for collaboration (such as matching grants) that helps set a standard for philanthropic excellence. But the truth is, if our funder network is not met with an equally skilled grantee community, frustration and miscommunication will continue to ensue. The Jewish community is long overdue for an organization that helps convene Jewish organizations of all types for the purpose of skill development, idea exchange and the opportunity of collaboration. With more and more social entrepreneurs entering the field and more Jewish organizations facing the same challenges of similar funding challenges, the need for a more structured support network is evident. While running such a network/association is outside the mission of JFN, being a catalyst of the creation of such network is not.

So there you have it – four suggestions for the leadership of JFN to consider as it writes its next chapter of its organization’s history. Each suggestion points to what most funders (especially those that are members of JFN) inherently understand – an organization’s mission must be bold enough, the impact must be measurable enough and the horizon must be bright enough to merit the investment of time and resources of its leadership and members. The same is true for JFN, and if the leadership makes the right decisions, the future of JFN will be anything but a short story.


Incrementalism and the Need for a New Jewish Philanthropic Narrative

August 9, 2010

People need a sacred narrative. They must have a sense of larger purpose, in one form or another, however intellectualized.
E.O. Wilson, American biologist

Although the Jewish people are often described as a people of the book, perhaps the “people of the narrative” might be a more apt description. Yes, the Torah is a rich and inspiring statement on Jewish faith, law and identity, but for most Jews the Torah is accessible largely as a narrative. Equally, the post-biblical history of the Jewish people is a tapestry of narratives, spanning the ages, geographies, challenges and triumphs in a series of interconnected chapters and verses. Indeed, the endurance of the Jewish people is a testament to the narrative it has created for itself, and the complexity of that narrative is a testament to the endurance of the Jewish people.

If the narrative of our history is what helps sustain us, what about the narrative of the present? Perhaps it is impossible to ever establish a broader narrative of contemporary times when one is in the midst of its occurrence – that is the role of historians. However, the lack of a contemporary narrative that inspires faith and action can have catastrophic effects on the ability of a people to encounter the challenges of their present and the possibilities of the future. Without this broader narrative we have a tendency to rely on incrementalisim – the thought that small steps and accretive efforts will be enough to move people forward. We believe, often incorrectly, that small successes bide time for eventual transformative change; that in the world of 140 character communication, the story of our success in achieving our goals will slowly, but surely, tell itself.

Nowhere does this seem more prevalent than in the Jewish philanthropic world. The last century of Jewish life has been filled with the grand narratives of Jewish need – including the founding and development of the State of Israel, the initial waves of olim, the fight for Soviet Jewry, and the aliyah of Falush Mura. In the Diaspora our narratives have centered on the care of individuals, such as needs of survivors of the Holocaust, and the core of our communities, such as capital campaigns and endowments. But in 2010 those narratives have given way to incremental efforts observed from ever increasingly narrower vantages. In our desire to see ‘indicators of success’ and to achieve ‘outcomes,’ we have lost the majesty and motivation provided by larger, more inspiring narratives. Our efforts of strengthening the Jewish people seem to rely more and more on achieving quantitative measurements in the absence of a broader and contextualized effort.

Our communal organizations struggle and, candidly, have yet to succeed in meeting the challenge of defining a new philanthropic narrative. No doubt we have plenty of strategic visions, missions and plans, but they are generally organization-centric and inspiring only to a select base of activists. But developing five- and ten-point action plans and strategic initiatives is not a substitute for the development and communication of a bold story of our future – a future that is achievable if we all play our parts in our own unique way. As the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency, and other large institutions are realizing, the call for collective action will fall on deaf ears if those ears are not first awakened by a compelling rationale, an inspiring narrative, and an accessible plan of action that provides vision and motivation for involvement.

Yes, we are making incremental progress. Yes we are achieving outcomes. But to what end? To justify our requests for increased contributions? To achieve the goals of existing funders? At its core, is the purpose of our community effort to make incremental change in order to meet arbitrary benchmarks, or are our efforts part of a story bigger than ourselves? These questions are vital and require vital thinking.

Make no mistake, there is a role for incrementalism – it helps build consensus and hedges risk. But the greater truth of the matter is that in contemporary Jewish life, consensus is harder to find and risk is abundant. We are past the need for only small steps; we need the bold visions and narratives that will radically amaze the Jewish people of the possibilities of their future. The story of our future, while unpredictable, is not indescribable. So long as we find leaders that can craft the narrative we so desperately require, we can meet the challenges of today to realize the potential of tomorrow…

… a tomorrow that is more than just one incremental day away.


The Great Reset: The Jewish Agency and the Pursuit of an ‘Exemplary Society’

June 30, 2010
    “We once were a people without a home; will we become a home without a people?”

This was the question I asked last week when addressing the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency as part of the presentation of the Agency’s new strategic plan. A simple question, but one that embodies the countless fears we all share regarding the future of the global Jewish family. In the face of existential challenges on all fronts relating to the physical security of the State of Israel, we must nonetheless face a question that we can ask only to ourselves – will our failure to remain connected to one another in the pursuit of our common ideals be the ultimate risk to the survival of the Jewish people?

In his recent book, The Great Reset, Richard Florida writes about the impact of highly stressed moments in economic cycles, and how they ‘reset’ fundamental aspects of society. Ranging from aspects of consumption, transportation, communication and personal geographic, Florida argues that Great Resets are fundamental transformations in the way we live in the present and set in motion the trends that will impact our lives for decades to come. Understood through a blend of Schumpeterian ‘creative destruction’, Marxian philosophy and capitalist adaptability, Great Resets bring about the destruction and fundamental reconstitution of institutions and ideas, requiring us to change our perspectives in response to the change world around us.

Similar to our current economic circumstances, we are at a highly stressed moment in the history of the Jewish people. We face threats from outside, but equally, we are facing threats from within. As our history has changed, so have we changed the way we engage with one another as individualism has reshaped our sense of the collective and the realization of our dream of a home of our own has redefined what it means to be in the Diaspora. Just as significant, we have slowly begun to question whether our Jewish values are better contextualized in terms of universalism rather than expressions of Jewish idealism and Zionism. Now, at this time in our history, we are facing the a realization that our encounter with modernity, while leading to much success, has also lead us to great crisis – a crisis that calls for a Great Reset.

Last week, in response to many of the considerations described above, the Jewish Agency adopted a new strategic plan, a plan that is nothing short of a great reset of the role of the Jewish Agency in Israel and in the future of the Jewish People. As a member of the strategic planning committee of the Agency, I know firsthand how deliberate and thoughtful its leadership was in crafting this plan, and I also know how cautiously and emotionally elements of the plan were considered and approved. This is just a first step in what will be a complicated and, in many ways painful process of resetting the Agency. Although to many the plan seems to be to vague, and perhaps the redefined goals of the Agency seem too aspirational, make no mistake, this is the beginning of a process that will fundamentally and concretely change the way the Agency operates within Israel and the broader Jewish world. It is not a minor shift; it is a fundamental transformation of the Agency for a fundamentally different era of Jewish life.

However, even with high confidence that the plan is the right plan, I know and share many questions that people have asked regarding its implementation. Among those many questions are four that distinguish themselves as key to assessing the ability of the Agency to be successful in its Great Reset. These questions must be answered by not only the leadership of the Jewish Agency, but also by each of us as stakeholders in the broader Jewish enterprise.

1. Are the strategies to be pursued by the Agency, especially with respect to Jewish identity in the Diaspora, the proper strategies for what many people view as an organization that is a relic of political Zionism? The truth is, this is not the first time that a Zionist organization has shifted tactics to respond to the crisis of Jewish identity. In the 1906 the Third All-Russian Zionist Conference in Helsinki (Helsingfors), responding the Russian pogroms and the upheavals in the Zionist movement, also addressed the role of Zionism in addressing the needs of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. In their conference memorandum they wrote, “[t]o be sure, our goal remains the same, only our tactics have changed. We now understand that only an organized, unified Jewry is capable of mobilizing the vast material and spiritual resources needed to realize our objectives.” Further, they wrote,” Zionism must address all aspects of Jewish life and respond to all issues besetting Jewry.”

With this historical context in mind, the Jewish Agency’s new plan must also meet the shifting requirements of the Zionist endeavor. In 2010, we do not face physical pogroms, but the equally dangerous pogroms of propaganda that attempt to deligitimize the Jewish State and its people. In response to these attacks, we must recognize that proper effort must be made to inspire Jewish leadership and their followers, to connect those Jewish with one another and Israel, and to empower those in Israel to make Israeli society stronger. The ultimate goal, the strengthening of the state through Aliyah and the pursuit of the Zionist idea is reinforced by these strategies, not diminished. In the Great Reset of the Jewish Agency, strategies must change even as the goal of an exemplary society embodied by a Jewish State remains the same.

2. Is the Jewish Agency capable of changing its operations and functioning in a way that responds to its changing strategies? There is no question regarding one thing, the Jewish Agency has a reputation of being a bloated, overstaffed and dysfunctional organization, rife with redundancies and roadblocks. The perception, in as much as it reflects reality, must be changed if the Agency is to successfully navigate its Great Reset. This must be one of the central areas of focus of the Agency leadership, because even if its strategies are correct, if its leadership fails to redesign the Agency’s operations so that they are efficient, cost-effective and excellent, the Great Reset will fail. Budgets must be precise and grounded in realizable fundraising goals, and the Agency must adopt a system of ongoing change management within the Agency. To help build an exemplary society, we must demand of the Agency to be exemplary organization capable of achieving is goals in an excellent manner.

3. Can the Jewish Agency establish and maintain the critical partnerships it needs to be successful in achieving its goals under the new plan? This is a question that cannot be answered only by the Agency, but also by all of us. There is no doubt that there are existing partnerships that are key to the funding of the Agency, the government of Israel, Keren Hayesod/UIA, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews, but the success of the Agency’s Great Reset will depend on not just those relationships, but also the establishment of new partnerships with new service delivery partners, thought leaders and funders. The Agency must be open to establishing partnerships in ways that respond to needs of the partners not just needs of the Agency. Equally, however, those partners must be open to working with a new Jewish Agency, one that has reset both its function and its form. If potential partners refuse to engage in the future of the Agency because the past of the Agency, opportunities will be missed and outcomes will not be realized. If the Agency is resetting its approach, perhaps all of us can reset our own attitudes and optimism to the Agency’s future.

4. Will the Jewish Agency be able to energize and leverage existing volunteer leadership while also recruiting new generations of leaders and voluntary stakeholders? Having been involved in numerous Jewish organizations and understanding their somewhat unique organizational attributes, even I am confused by the complexity of Agency governance. The truth of the matter is that as part of the Great Reset, the governance of the Agency must be revisited on a substantial and dramatic scale. All of the constituencies must remain represented, but the size and substance of the governance bodies must be redesigned to match the new purpose and structure of the Agency. While the Agency must also remain a substantial nexus with Israel with respect to the conduct of its operations and governance, it must make better use of technology to convene its leaders, as well as provide opportunities for governance to meet, outside of Israel. But most of all, the Agency needs to continue to recruit and inspire new leadership (not just young new leadership) to bring new ideas and energy into the governance structure. Just as one of the key strategies of the Agency is to empower and energize social activism in Israel, it must empower Israelis (and Jews in the Diaspora) to make vital leadership investments in the Agency.

These four questions yield no easy answers, just as the challenges of our times require more than simple solutions. The Great Reset is a necessity, but it is also a gamble – a gamble that we can transform an organization that built a state into an one that can build a stronger nation; because while our land may anchor us to our past, it is our actions that propel us toward our collective aspirations of a Jewish state with an exemplary society. Accordingly, our ability to take those necessary actions give rise to one final concern that I did not voice last week, but have been thinking of since – we are a people with a long and storied past; will we remain a people with a future?

If the Great Reset of the Jewish Agency works, than the answer will be a resounding YES.


Dispatches From Jerusalem: The Jewish Agency and the Future Face of Olim

June 22, 2010

“After a certain number of years our faces become our biographies. We get to be responsible for our faces.”  – Cynthia Ozick, American author

In the midst of running back and forth among business meetings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem earlier this week, I was happy to have the rare treat to spend time connecting with a young post-collegiate daughter of a friend from back home.  Mara, a recent olah from Atlanta, has decided to make her life in Israel, finding love with a new fiancée and satisfaction with a new job with an Israeli NGO. A daughter of Young Judean alumni and a product of Jewish day schools in Atlanta, Mara is deeply rooted in her family’s and people’s history and values, and their shared love of Israel. Stepping out of the heat of the day, we met for coffee in a small café within a used bookstore, a perfect setting for sharing a little bit of old biography, a some of discussion of the ongoing drama in the world and even a few words of childhood stories. We sat together, sharing the texts of our lives, each looking from our different vantage points, but nonetheless facing one another.

And that is when, looking at Mara, I realized something important, not only to me, but also to the way we all should look at Aliyah in 2010  – while the need to attract olim has remained the same, the face and biography of the typical olah has changed.

Yes, we still live in a world where aliyah of necessity remains a constant possibility (consider the newest olim from Kyrgyzstan that arrived this week), but the truth of the matter is that necessity is less of likelihood than it has been for generations. As Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky shared with the Agency Assembly earlier this week, 94% of Jews live in countries with relative freedom and prosperity, with little need to leave these countries under duress or for lack of tolerance. Instead, the majority of the new olim are making ‘aliyah of choice’ – a personal desire to be living in Israel and Israeli society at this unique and extraordinary time in Israel history. These olim come with a different face than the waves of recent olim, they are not fleeing a totalitarian state or an economically devastated area, they are coming because of a sense of pride, an aspiration of change and inspired sense of their Jewish selves. In short, they are coming to Israel because of who they are, not where they are.

So this, in a nutshell, is the changing face of olim – where once it the face was of Jews uprooted from their homes, now it is the face of Jews deeply rooted in their identity. They can make it anywhere, but they want to make it here – here in the homeland of their people and an axis of their identity.  With this change comes an important question: will we meet these changing faces with a new face of the Jewish Agency grounded in helping reinforcing identity and inspire aliyah, or will we look for the faces no longer coming with a face of an Agency that is grounded by unchanging ways? The truth is, it would be responsible to do the former, and wasteful to do the latter.

With that in mind, it is time for the Jewish Agency, as part of its new strategic plan, to look closely at its aliyah operations and make not only strategic decisions regarding the operation of the department, but also the overall strategy of inspiring aliyah. There must always remain a basic ability to assist olim, especially for Jews in need, but the Agency must not only react to the needs of the current olim, it must inspire the future olim – by helping give root to individual identities and then strengthening those roots so they grow all the way back home to Israel.  This will not be easy, and it will take a reimagining of the very way the Agency operates, the way the government of Israel views the role of the Agency and the way the Diaspora Jewry embraces the strategies of the Agency.

Possible? Yes. Achievable? Hopefully. But it will take more than lip service to identity to change the face of aliyah, it will take political courage and new approaches to the Israeli-Diaspora partnerships; and it will take many more biographies and faces…

just like Mara’s.


Dispatches from Jerusalem: The Jewish Agency and the Myth of Collective Bargaining

June 21, 2010

In recent days, as I have shared with my communally-engaged friends that I would be in Jerusalem for this week’s Jewish Agency meetings, the response has been consistent and all too predictable. First the person expresses jealousy that I get to spend some time in Israel (even in the heat of the summer) and second, they express complete confusion and condolences regarding my involvement in, as they call it, the quicksand that is the modern Jewish Agency. Others also wonder why I (or they) should care about an organization that is purportedly a relic, an instrument of a Jewish time long past. They ask, tongue firmly planted in cheek – isn’t the Jewish Agency something that the leadership of big organizations like Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) should be addressing on behalf of all of us?

The truth of the matter is this: my friends are right to be jealous of my time in Jerusalem, underestimating the possibilities embodied by a reinvigorated Jewish Agency, and dangerously wrong regarding the abdication of their own personal involvement in the Agency’s future.  In fact, I firmly believe many of my friends and many others make two false assumptions: (1) that we, as communities, individuals, local organizations, donors and foundations, don’t have a stake in the future, and (2) that organizations such as  JFNA have the true ability to represent the overall Federation system (much less North American Jewry as a whole) in shaping the future of the Agency.

Having spent time in the leadership of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, including as chair of its Allocations Committee, I know this first hand. Several years ago Atlanta and St. Louis started engaging the Jewish Agency directly with respect to outcome based funding for respect to programs in Israel and Minsk, Belarus. In the intervening years, more and more communities like Atlanta are structuring independent relationships with the Jewish Agency, and based on the success of initiatives like Partnership 2000, local leaders have been able to interact with Jewish Agency professionals and programs on a more individualized basis. The more they disintermediate JFNA with respect to their overseas funding, the more these communities become direct (as opposed to indirect) funders, and accordingly their voices must be heard in direct, not just indirect, ways.  In this spirit, the Jewish Agency’s future is not some theoretical issue to be debated in the halls of Jerusalem hotels by JFNA leadership, but is an issue of vital interest to individual Federations and throughout North America.

And that leads us to the myth of collective bargaining vis a vis the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency.

One of the first lessons taught to attorneys in contract law is the limits of agency and due authorization – the rule that a person representing an interest must have actual, or at least implied, authority to represent the interests of others. Many years ago, JFNA (then known as UJC) had the apparent authority to represent the interests of the Federation movement in the Jewish Agency, and in most cases had actual authority. Now, the nature of local Federations funding strategies has diminished the ability of JFNA to collectively bargain with the Jewish Agency on behalf of those local Federations – becoming more of a myth than a matter of fact.  Make no mistake, JFNA is still a vital voice at the table, but the table isn’t the same shape it once was, and the guest list has changed.  Yes, JFNA expresses the voice of the Federation movement in North America, but only so much as that voice is in harmony, which it is increasingly is not. So we must recognize this diminished ability of JFNA has left us not only with significant issues (whose voice to listen to) but also an opportunity: inspiring increasing numbers and types of people to invest their time and efforts in the Agency. Of course this can’t be done unless the Agency develops new ways of engaging those individuals in the future work of the Jewish people – this is, and must be, its imperative.

As we will see and undoubtedly read this week, the Jewish Agency is on the cusp of its most significant and necessary redefinition in decades. But the future of the Agency will not be changed if we all rely on the myth of collective bargaining, it will only be truly reimagined if we increase and inspire a mix of people who feel they have a vital interest in its possibilities – a mix that can transform the quicksand of the present into the concrete of the future.