Jewish Builders. Not Jewish Fixers.

July 20, 2008

In many of my recent discussions with Jewish peers, volunteers and Jewish community professionals I have noted a consistent theme of concern for the state of the ‘organized’ Jewish community. Nevermind that many of these individuals operate firmly within the organizations that make up the so-called organized community (federations, foundations, agencies, etc.); they nonetheless lament what seems like a steady ossification of institutions and bureaucratization of leadership. These conversations sound more like a refrain of “can’t live with them, can’t live without them,” with each individual having their own prescriptive remedies for the health of Jewish communal organizations or the Jewish community as a whole.

However, just as much as there is a steady outpouring of energy by Jews to remediate the challanges and opportunities of Jewish life through groups, organizations and initiatives, oftentimes the consistent response of the “organized” community to the lamentations of these young Jewish activists is to develop a ‘strategic plan’ or a ‘new agenda’ – each developed with the requisite number of volunteer stakeholders and professional strategists. The substance of these efforts is the development of organizational approaches to reengineering or refocusing of the organization to meet the needs, challenges or ‘strategic opportunities’ facing the organization. The desired result being to engage the young leadership of the organized Jewish community to become ‘fixers’ of that which needs fixing.

I believe the orientation of these organizational activities is wrong. We don’t need fixers, we need builders. And critically, the Jewish activists of today don’t want to be fixers either – the essence of their desire is to be builders of Jewish community in their own distinctive ways and focused on their own distinctive interests.

This is nothing new. At the now legendary 1969 General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds, a group of students (enabled by their own self-organization and coordination through the North American Jewish Students NETWORK, an outgrowth of the World Union of Jewish Students) were exceptionally effective in disrupting not only the proceedings, but also the staid tenor of the GA. The tone and approach of the students was not destructive, but constructive – appealing to the need to build more vibrant and responsive Jewish institutions in response to what the students perceived as a stagnant and unresponsive system. As a representative of the students chosen to speak at the GA by his peers Rabbi Hillel Levine expressed the sentiment of the students in a manner that still resonates today, stating (with respect to how the students viewed themselves):

“…we see ourselves as more than children of our times; we see ourselves as children of timelessness. We see ourselves as your children, the children of Jews who with great dedication concern themselves with the needs of the community, the children of those who bring comfort to the afflicted, give aid to the poor, who have built mammoth philanthropic organizations, who have aided the remnants of the Holocaust, who have given unfalteringly to the building of Israel… We are your children, and I affirm this, but we want to be not only your children, but also builders. We want to participate with you in building the vision of a great Jewish community.”

Builders. Not fixers.

And this is the state of affairs today as well – almost 40 years later. Engaged Jewish young adults (and within that category I include anyone who considers themselves young) want to build the vision of their community in the distinctive way that resonates with their individual perceptions, needs and talents. They may want to work in partnership with the ‘organized’ Jewish community, and they may even want to work within it. But the idea of simply ‘fixing’ it is uninspiring at best and disengaging at worst.

They want to build. Not fix.

And while it is partially semantics, the ‘organized’ community must be sensitive to the subtleties within the voices of Jewish innovation that can be found working outside the ‘organized’ community today. Rather than demanding to be builders (they have taken that role on themselves), they are asking the organized community to build with them. To not cleave to closely to what clearly must be fixed, but to also believe that certain institutions must be reimagined, reinvented – rebuilt.

In 1969, the students at the GA bypassed the option of woeful ambivalence and, rather, took the option to present an impassioned appeal to the ‘organized’ Jewish community to think differently about the vision of building a stronger Jewish future. Almost 40 years later, students and young adults are facing a similar option.

What will they choose? And how will we respond? Will we ask them to be fixers? Or will we embrace and support them as builders?

Builders or fixers. We should choose like our future depends on it. Because it does.



  1. I’m not sure there isnt room for both in the modern Jewish community.

    While the innovators would rather build than fix, and building is much more “impressive” than fixing, we still recite many times daily, לתקן עולם במלכות ש-די. To fix the world…to perfect it…not build it. Brit Milla is also about correcting and fixing…

    However, we also recite the mishna daily, “אל תקרי בניך אלה בוניך” — builders.

    Maybe it should be the 80-20 percentage — 80% should be fixing, and 20% should be new building.

  2. What do you see as the proper relationship between these young Jewish builders and the institutional Jewish community as it currently exists?

    Fundamentally, the institutional Jewish community is needs-based. On the service end, their are organizations that extend services (like soup kitchens, elder care, or Hebrew school) to people who need services. On the development end, organizations offer affiliation in exchange for contribution.

    What’s the new model?

  3. […] how traditional Jewish institutions, be they synagogues or Federations, are interested in having young Jewish leaders fix what’s wrong with these  institutions, when the blogger thinks that these young leaders need to be building […]

  4. The terminology speaks, lulei demistafina, for itself: Fixers see things as broken; builders don’t. It’s a big difference in attitude. Even when some things really are broke.

  5. […] post and then riffs a bit about tikkun olam. But the question the blogger asked in a comment to my post is… so what do I suggest is the new model of Jewish communal […]

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