A New Model?

July 22, 2008

So there is an interesting pair of posts over at Rejewvenate in which the blogger responds to my ‘Jewish Builders, Not Fixers’ 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 life?

Great question, and one that I think about often. I agree with Rejewvanate’s articulation of the status quo of Jewish Federations as a ‘needs based’ model – linking those ‘who have’ with organizations and initiatives ‘who need,’ particularly a financial need (whether it is for social services, education or other engagement and ‘continuity’ initiatives). A review of illuminating history of the Federation system, its colorful participants and its substantial (and meaningful) impact, makes it clear that during its evolution, and in its prime, the Federation system responded to needs of the Jewish community (and I use that term broadly) in a way that could not have been undertaken but for that system.

Critically, I do not agree with those who might argue that the Federation system is beyond repair and should be ignored as an ancient relic from a time in our past. I think there is an important role, a vital role, for Jewish organizations that create connections between those ‘with’ and those “without “and facilitate the financial impact of those connections. Federations are important institutions, but are nonetheless a product of their time and its place, and therefore their relative importance must be placed in a broader context of today’s American Jewish community. As a result of this shifting relevance, we should allocate our energies appropriately. Although we must continue to build Federations in a way that helps adapt them to current trends in Jewish living, structurally we can’t depart too significantly from their core mission, lest in the process they suffer from doing too much but with an impact that is too little. In addition, we must create new tools – while Federations are an important tool in building community, they are only one tool in the model – not the whole model.

So what is the new model? One, part of the new model must include morphing Federations into more broadly relevant organizations (perhaps not even being referred to as Federations) that don’t stick with the methodologies, biases and limitations of their needs-based orientation, but adapt to the Jewish communal dynamics of the late ‘00s in startling speed and adaptability. Without losing sight of missions, Federations must remodel themselves into flexible organizations with permeable walls, not hierarchical structures that build communities not only by engaging financial assets of Jews, but by empowering the Jews themselves in building community engagement.

In essence, we need to put the “move” back in the Federation movement. Federation staff should be distributed within our communities rather than centrally located and move among the community – helping instigate, challenge and incite Jewish building and creativity. The strength of communities should not be measured by dollars alone but by the numbers of those engaged, the number of ways in which they are connected and the depth of meaning in which those connections reinforce themselves. We should modify our language at Federations and refine the tone in which we speak that language. Lay leadership needs to be challenged forcefully to lead, and professional staff need to be dynamically challenged at all levels to deliver professional (and self-rewarding) excellence. And just as importantly, volunteer leaders and professional staff should each hold the other accountable for the success of their joint initiatives. That, together, is part one of the model.

The second part of the new model includes creating other service organizations, synagogues, religious and spiritual communities, learning, and social initiatives, however informal or formal (i.e. independent minyanim might eschew the label of organization, nonetheless are organizations in their own informal way), that harness the technologies and sensibilities of modern Jewish life in this ‘Bowling Alone,’ ‘Jew Within,’ blog-reading, Facebook-friending and hyper-diverse era. Jewish life has become ‘bursty’ – most of us engage in bursts of episodic communal Jewish activity and some of us experience more consistent activities that create longer-lasting and individually-oriented socio-religious experiences. Our Jewish communal infrastructure needs to be able to respond to these ‘bursty’ demands and needs to have a flat leadership dynamic that leverages the urge to create in this era of mega-creativity.

Binding these two parts of the new model together must be an element that is old as the Jewish people themselves – Jewish learning. The new model must be imbued with a sense of Jewish learning that is not just a goal (and not just a predicate) but also an inherent element of the development of Jewish communal life. Our organizations must be learning organization. Our leaders must be learning leaders. Our creators should have a sense of the Jewish context of their creation and our Jewish skeptics should use their learning to enhance the impact of their skepticism.

Refining the old. Building the new. And learning the Jewish importance of each.

I will think and consider further, but I think that is one approach to the development of a new model of Jewish communal life.


One comment

  1. The Associated of Baltimore (aka Federation) has been doing something along these lines the past few years.
    They form a group of about a dozen selected individuals from within the community to take part in a Leadership group. It is a 3 month long process in which there are weekly meetings about how to best go about having an impact and being a communal “leader”. They discuss opportunities/problems that are present within the city and ways in which they might be addressed, both on an issue specific level and an “in theory” level. At the end of the program these people go back to their regular lives and places in the community with tools to better acheive.

    And then a new group is formed and the whole thing starts again.

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