Archive for July, 2008


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.



July 18, 2008

A few readers of this blog have inquired about the Nehutai initiative that I submitted as part of the competition related to the Charles R. Bronfman Visiting Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation at Brandeis. I am happy to forward a copy of that document on request, but for convenience I have also stored it for individual download HERE. The Nehutai initiative was developed shortly after my circulation of the Federation 2.0 White Paper which can be found HERE and my corresponding essay on the need for Jewish communal risk and ruah, a version of which was published in the Atlanta Jewish Times and can be found HERE.


New York, New York – It’s Up To You?

July 17, 2008

So I have just come back from a brief visit to New York City, where I had a series of meetings with some tremendously talented and thoughtful individuals who are making an impact on the local and national Jewish community. Much of my notes from those meetings will be the genesis of several posts on this blog, but one of the overarching perceptions I took away was that, while much of the ‘organized’ Jewish community was quick to point out to me that a substantial portion of the community development that is occurring in NYC can’t be replicated elsewhere (on the assumption that the size, strength, wealth and diversity of Jewish life in New York made it a uniquely fertile place for Jewish innovation and experience), many of the grassroots/entrepreneurial Jewish innovators believe that their work is at least conceptually transferable if not specifically replicable.

Atlanta is certainly no New York (and most native Atlantans would prefer to keep it that way, thank you very much). But the question should be asked, why can’t Atlanta have the same level of innovation and creativity with respect to Jewish life that takes place in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and other centers of Jewish life? Anyone who observes Jewish demographic trends can easily recognize the tremendous growth the Atlanta Jewish community has seen in the past ten years as well the potential for equally impressive growth in the future. Included in that growth is the influx of creative, spiritual and artistic individuals who want to innovate Jewishly, whether on a personal or communal level. And Atlanta by no means is a community without resources. So why then should we not believe that a culture of Jewish creativity can’t take root in Atlanta in a manner similar to the culture that permeates Jewish life in New York City? Even if it we can’t replicate the creative culture of New York, shouldn’t we at least be inspired by it? And if we are inspired by it, what initiatives and strategies should we use as a community to actualize our own Jewish Atlanta creativity in a way that makes sense given the contours of our community?

Notwithstanding what the song may say, it’s not up to you New York, New York. It’s up to all of us – including those of us in Atlanta.


People of the (Face) Book – Part 2

July 16, 2008

Continuing on the Facebook thread, after only a week of experience I continue marvel at the joys of interacting virtually with current friends and renewing connections with friends from my near and distant past as well. But notwithstanding the constant curiosity that envelops my Facebook experience, I can’t help but critically analyze the experience as well. After all, if I am about ready to endorse social networking as an important source of inspiration when developing new approaches to engage Jewish people, perhaps I should recognize some of its limitations first. In summary, here are a few of the things about the current state of electronic social networking (as exemplified by Facebook) that I think are due further consideration:

Friends vs. Acquaintances – It does make a difference. When I was a teenager my grandmother Hilda would come and spend the summers with my family. I can still recall one afternoon where I was trying to explain to my grandmother how I had to go out of the house to see “all of my friends” for the afternoon. In response, my grandmother was explaining to me that I would be prudent to always remember that I had many acquaintances but only a few are truly friends – and that knowing the difference between the two was important.

Fast forward to today on Facebook. Every connection and relationship is a ‘friend’ and there is no way to categorize someone as just an acquaintance. That guy that sat next to me in chemistry in 11th grade – is he really a friend? Especially as compared to the person with whom my wife and I see socially a few times a month? On Facebook they are both ‘friends’ even though clearly the former is merely an acquaintance. And examples go on and on. Absent some other deeper connection, a friend of a friend us truly only my acquaintance, right? I don’t believe the distributive property of friendship applies in that case. How about the person who I know only in passing, who I have never seen socially and who has very little in common with me except that our children go to school together. Is he a friend? No, he is merely an acquaintance, but one to whom I don’t want to be rude by ignoring his ‘friend’ request. So absent a third alternative, we have become friends – ‘Facebook Friends.’In sum, I want to heed my grandmother’s advice, but at least virtually, Facebook won’t let me. When we refer to every acquaintance as a friend, don’t we trivialize what that means… at least in our virtual space? And when we spend time reading up on the status of all of our acquaintances, do we still have the energy to understand what is going on with those few individuals who are truly our friends? There is a difference between friends and acquaintances – notwithstanding the fact that Facebook blurs the lines. And as my grandmother said, knowing the difference is an important skill to master – even on Facebook.

Communication vs. Interaction – Sometimes what you see is what you get. Another thing about Facebook that has me pondering its utility is what the Facebook experience says about the bonds that to tie us together as ‘Facebook friends’ (assuming we get past the friend/acquaintance issue). What is it that, in this virtual space, we share – actually communicate – to deepen our bonds of friendship. Yes, there is a ‘chat’ feature that allows friends to talk to one another. But much of the communication is based on the updated profiles of friends and the ability for other friends to review and respond to those profile updates. Friends can send messages to one another, but they can just as easily ‘poke’ one another, throw virtual pies at each other, buy virtual beers for one another and make other non-verbal overtures to their friends. And when profiles do change, there oftentimes is no explanation. For example, and old friend (or perhaps acquaintance) has changed their ‘status’ from dating to single with no comment and no explanation. A person has just joined the ”friends of (fill-in your choice of celebrity/political; candidate/sports star/mythic figure)” group without any discussion of why the friend might identify with the group, or why they joined the group at that point in time. Friends have interacted with information about the individual, but has communication truly occurred. In sum, there is a tremendous ability of individuals on Facebook to interact with information about one another, but because of that ease of interaction there is an inherent limitation on the depth and substantiality of the ‘communication’ that occurs.

Ideas vs. Experiences – Which are the ties that bind? The last thing about Facebook I have struggled with is the question of what, at its essence, binds friends together on Facebook. It is not necessarily ideas, values, religion or political orientation. It is sheer experience – and the results of that common experience. And at its core – it is the experience of having met one another at some point in our lives. In this regard, Linked-in (an alternative to Facebook used more frequently in business circles) has the more appropriate name for this observation. We are all linked in to a common experience, perhaps it was social or professional, and now it is the experience of Facebook itself. We may have very different views of the world, but at least we have bumped into each other in this world, and that has made the genesis of our ‘Facebook Friend’ connection possible, with or without the deeper connection that my grandmother would suggest as a distinction between a friend and an acquaintance.
Friends vs. Acquaintances. Communication vs. Interaction. Ideas vs. Experiences. These are some of the same dynamics that we struggle with in helping build Jewish community. Who in our community feels like they are truly engaged in our community as opposed to those who feel merely a passing acquaintance with that which our community has to offer? At what level are we merely interacting with community members rather than more deeply communicating with them about ideas, dreams, values and needs? And last but not least, are we a community that is built merely upon shared experiences, or do we interweave within those experiences discussions of the ideas that will sustain us as a community well past the time of our shared experiences?

Certainly the Jewish people have been sustained for millennia by learning the lessons as a people of the book. But as we look to the future, perhaps we would also be wise to learn the lessons to be heeded as people of the (Face)book as well. And if we do, perhaps we will all one day truly be friends, not merely acquaintances.


People of the (Face) Book – Part 1

July 12, 2008

Ok, I will admit it. I am a little bit addicted to Facebook right now. I signed-up last Sunday afternoon, and in the span of one week have spent an embarrassingly large amount of time connecting with individuals from all corners of my past.  High school, youth group, summer camp, college, law school and work… they are all out there on Facebook, just waiting to be discovered. Discovering them is not so difficult, but what I do with that discovery is a different question altogether.  Do I invite them to be my ‘friend’ or do I wait to be invited? If they invite me, do I ignore them? If I accept them, is it irresponsible not to send them a note that says “FYI – we knew each other 23 years ago and I have changed quite a bit in the interim. You may not like me now, maybe should we take things a little bit slower and reacquaint ourselves before we confirm our friendship for all the world to see?”

Notwithstanding my reservations though, I can’t help making those connections with my past, while also engaging with the friends that are participants in my ‘present.’  And the information I find out is fascinating. Life trajectories predicted and altered, marriages formed and dissolved, career paths changed and musical tastes refined. It is equal parts nostalgia and voyeurism, a strange mix of comfort and exhilaration. My past is still out there, but it too has moved forward. All the places we thought we would go…some of us have. And others have gone to other places that we would have never imagined.  And in the present I have found my friends with whom I socialize on a daily basis have secret lives that, but for Facebook, I would never know.  One is a superb Scrabble player, another one likes Metallica.  One of my friends who I thought was in a solid relationship notes on his ‘profile’ that his relationship status is ‘complicated.’  Interesting – but what isn’t complicated these days?

At its essence, Facebook is – to me – an updated, technologically powered version of the old game of ‘Jewish geography.’ However, now with Facebook, Jewish geography is on steroids – not only can we find our links in the past, but we can link them forward to our present with photos, factoids and witty (or not so witty) status updates. And then there is the serendipitous moment of realization that an old camp friend maybe really could be a current friend too – maybe be reconnecting through Facebook we can realize that friend lives in the same city, maybe has the same career, maybe is searching for the same things we are searching for -– personally, socially, spiritually – Jewishly.

And speaking of Jewish connections – these individuals from our pasts – are they lost members of our personal tribes but still members of our collective Tribe? And can Facebook be more than just a tool in the exploration of Jewish geography, but rather an approach to developing its social and spiritual landscape?

Interesting questions to consider, and I will.  But in the mean time – I need to go connect with my past, and make plans for my future.


Boundless Drama of Creation – Why that title?

July 10, 2008

Well, it’s a phrase that I fell in love with the minute I read it – the words were written by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in Lonely Man of Faith, one of the most thoroughly profound theological essays in modern Jewish thinking. The exact quotation is:

“The man of faith, in his continuous movement between the pole of majesty and that of covenantal humility, is prevented from totally immersing in the immediate covenantal awareness of the redeeming presence, knowability and involvement of God in the community of man. From time to time the man of faith is thrown into the majestic community where the colloquy as well as the covenantal consciousness are swept away. He suddenly finds himself revolving around the cosmic center, now and then catching a glimpse of the Creator who hides behind the boundless drama of creation.” (emphasis added)

We are living in a modern world of exponential endeavors of creativity and extraordinary tools of communication. It is exhilarating and exhausting, unrestrained in its breadth and unrelenting in its persistence. And this modern world is having its thoroughly modern impact on the lives and futures of the Jewish people – in the Diaspora and in Israel. The “”People of the Book” are defining their futures in an era where the books are about faces as much as words. It is a dramatic change in the way Jews are creating their connections, to one another and to God. This change is boundless in its unfolding. It is dramatic in its importance. And it is the creation that is borne of the Jewish imagination, and its presence in its majestic community.

The Boundless Drama of Creation. Let’s discuss.


What a difference a year makes

July 10, 2008

What a difference a year makes.

This time last year I was in Israel with my wife Marci and the Atlanta Wexner ‘07 group for the culmination of our participation in the two-year Wexner Heritage program. To be more exact, we were in Jerusalem with our friends Jon and Elizabeth Barkan, celebrating Jon’s 39th birthday. We spent the evening in Jerusalem at dinner speculating on the due date of the Barkans’ new baby, whether Marci and I would have another child to join our two daughters, and what the coming months held in store for us.

Little did we know.

It has been 10 months since we celebrated the birth of Benjamin Barkan. And now it has been 8 months since we mourned the death of Jon Barkan. It has been 5 weeks since the birth of Jordan Cohen, our third child. And it has been exactly one year since Jon’s 39th birthday. One year since that evening in Jerusalem.

What a difference a year makes.

Jon maintained a blog about his life, his passions, his friends and most importantly, his family. In December, Jon stopped writing in his blog – far before the time when his story should have been finished.

Today, on what would have been his 40th birthday, I am going to begin writing mine. It will not be as funny, nor as colorful as Jon’s, and I am hoping that it will be more of a conversation rather than a blog. A conversation about Jewish questions, Jewish people and Jewish futures. But more about that later.

In looking back at the past 12 months – a year – I have seen joy, and sorrow, and joy again. I have seen highs and lows, feelings of tremendous audacity and tremendous humility. And I have seen everything in-between. I have learned some lessons, but I have also learned some of the questions that are revealed to you only when you are faced with the boundless drama of creation that unfolds through our lives.

But mostly I have learned that a year does make a difference.