Archive for August, 2008


Success vs. Wonder (Finding the Balance of Volunteer Engagement)

August 31, 2008

I spend a fair amount of time volunteering in the Atlanta community for  Jewish and non-Jewish causes.  And much of my volunteer work involves attending many meetings (in both boardrooms and in parking lots) and reviewing many strategic plans, initiatives, approaches, and objectives.  And while I continue to find meaning in my personal volunteer experience, I have becomes increasingly concerned that we have developed a balance of volunteer life in the Jewish community that incorrectly manifests the essence of the volunteer experience.

In essence, we are focusing increasingly on the language and recognition of success, when I think we should be focusing more on the language and appreciation of wonder.
I worry that by focusing on communal ‘success’, we make our volunteer experiences too objective and results oriented, whereas if we spend more time focusing on the wondrous nature of volunteer experiences, we might actually enhance our volunteers ability to make a difference – individually, Jewishly and communally.

By now those who are familiar with Heschel’s writings know that I am referencing his often-repeated statement that was in the preface to his book of Yiddish poetry:

“I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.”

I admit that I am partial to Heschel in many areas of thinking, but none more than this statement. In its simplicity it is a profound commentary on so much of our lives. However, I have found it particularly insightful in understanding the way we increasingly view our volunteers and volunteer leadership – as instruments of institutional success, rather that embodiments of Jewish wonder.

We need to change this viewpoint.

How many times have you been to a meeting of a Jewish institution where leaders are defining what success might look like in organizational terms rather than Jewish terms? How often does the conversation around the tables of Jewish leaders focus on why certain efforts are (or are not) successful rather than focusing why it is Jewishly important that they are successful?  How many times have individual leaders defined their prospective terms in office by enunciating their ‘goals’ in the beginning of their experience, only to then struggle with the meaning found in achieving those goals once the experience has ended?

In sum, how often do all of the “success-focused” moments in Jewish volunteer life outweigh the “Jewish experiencing and learning” moments that are encountered by volunteers in Jewish organizations?

Admittedly, there needs to be a focus on achieving organizational efforts in a thoughtful, strategic and measurable manner. And key to that focus is the performance of professionals and volunteer leadership working together – seizing opportunities, engaging in tactical approaches and measuring performance.  But that is what happens in for-profit organizations as well. Aren’t Jewish community organizations intended to be different? And doesn’t that raise a few other questions?

In using the secular language of business and organizational management we gain many things.  But what do we lose?

In using business rules, are we losing the wonder of Jewish involvement?

Are we ‘organizing’ so much that we are losing the Jewish ‘experiencing’?

Are we ‘evaluating’ so much that we are losing the Jewish  ‘learning’ and ‘appreciating’?

At their origins, our community institutions where built with an essence of Jewish souls – a collective neshema that reflected the efforts of the many.  Are we in danger of our strategic plans replacing our collective soul as the center of our organizational efforts?

These are some heavy questions that merit significant consideration by minds greater than mine.  But they need to be raised, and they need to be answered, because these questions impact tremendously on the way we engage, educate and empower (what I refer to as the three “E’s”) our community volunteers and leadership.  If we orient our volunteer experiences in ways that only manifest themselves in a semi-professional endeavor for success, what happens when we don’t succeed in a particular endeavor?  What happens when success is elusive and long-term?  Will our volunteers still come back to our community organizations for more experiences, or will they seek out those in which they feel more successful, regardless of whether they are Jewish organizations or not?

My guess is that when we overemphasize ‘success’ to the detriment of encouraging ‘wonder’ we might find that in those areas where success is not instantly measurable we miss the opportunity to engage volunteers in wondrous ways.  Those wondrous ways include helping the volunteers experience spiritual moments, community moments, creative moments and learning moments in their capacity as volunteers.  These moments, taken together, may not instantly yield the measurable success that donors individuals, foundations and federations seek, but they may very well yield the wonder that will fuel future success.

Leveraging highly skilled volunteers to achieve critical plans for the future of the Jewish people is important, and we must not lose sight that we need to measure our performance in achieving those goals. But when volunteers (and even professionals) are oriented to evaluating their experiences in terms of wonder rather than success, they might come back for more – in more ways than they did before.  They will continue to ask for (and experience) wonder, and in turn, be willing to continue to assist with success.

Because we need volunteers that encounter both success and wonder in our communities…

… whether we ask for it or not.


Opinion in the Forward on Enabling Jewish Professionals

August 29, 2008

In this week’s Jewish Daily Forward there is an opinion piece I wrote about the state of Jewish professionals and what we need to do to encourage them to dream big and believe in their ability to effect change.

The opinion piece can be found here.

In reading week’s Torah parsha Re’eh, we recall how Moses directs the Israelites that if there are needy among them, the Israelites should not harden their hearts and close their hands from helping their needy brothers. And coupled with that directive, Moses also reminds the people that there will always be needy among them.

Jewish professionals embody the fulfillment of Moses’ instructions – they maintain an open hand and a tender heart, and are worthy of not only our encouragement, but also our praise and thanks. While we may always have needy among us – whatever those needs maybe – we should pray that we always have inspired and caring professionals to help the needy, and make our community stronger.

Shabbat Shalom.


Spirit in the Night: Springsteen on Jewish Community

August 26, 2008

This past Thursday I attended an old-fashioned spiritual revival. It wasn’t at a synagogue or a church and barely a mention of God was heard. But from the moment it started until the last word was spoken, the crowd that assembled was held in an uplifting emotional rapture that stirred the heart, strengthened the soul and made everyone move to the rhythm of the night.

The man who led the revival wasn’t a man of cloth (unless you include denim) and wasn’t passing around a collection plate or tzedakah box at the end of his sermon (unless you include references to the local food bank). But for a large portion of the people in the room, the man up front was guiding everyone thorough an experience that most would characterize as religious.

So who was the leader of this spiritual revival?

Bruce Springsteen.

That’s right, Bruce Springsteen. If you have never seen Springsteen in concert you might not appreciate my description, but if you have seen Bruce in concert, even once, you understand what I mean.

As a Northeast kid growing up, it’s hard not to have the Boss in your blood, so I admit I am partial to the man and his legendary band. The Nashville concert I attended with my friend Adam Rubin on Thursday night was the umpteenth time I had seen him in live and, like the Atlanta show a few months earlier, Bruce didn’t disappoint. Listening to a 3-hour set of classics, mixed with rarities and new classics, the audience was delivered a rare treat of spirit, nostalgia, passion and promise. We laughed at stories, sang our (secular) psalms, clapped our hands and praised the past while screaming for the future. We danced in the aisles…even in the dark.

There was definitely a spirit in the night.

Exhilarated and exhausted, on Friday morning I drove the 3 ½ hour trip back to Atlanta and my family, but on the way home I couldn’t help but think about the show the night before and the lessons it held. Not just how to put on a good rock concert, but also how to connect people to their communities, and particularly the Jewish community. What are the lessons that Bruce could teach professionals and volunteers in the Jewish community about how to touch people in a way that revives their Jewish spirit? Using some of the lyrics from the song the Boss sang that night in Nashville, I offer a few thoughts…

“When I’m out in the streets, I walk the way I wanna walk. When I’m out in the street, I talk the way I wanna talk” (from Out in the Streets).

Lesson #1: People use their own actions and language to define who they are. If we want to walk with them and talk with them, we need to understand them first.

Our Jewish community is filled with a diverse group of Jews with individual experiences and aspirations. They are complex and constantly shifting. If we want to understand what will get them to come in off the street, we need to understand how they act and talk when they are out on the street (and in their homes, and in their social groups).

“Jack the Rabbit and Weak Knees Willie, you know they’re gonna be there; Ah, sloppy Sue and Big Bones Billie, they’ll be comin’ up for air” (from Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)).

Lesson #2: All types of people (and I mean all types) will come out for experiences in the community, so if we want them to come back, we need to have diverse options for their diverse needs and desires.

Members of the Jewish community, especially younger generations, don’t always conform to what the community expects, they expect the community to conform its offerings to their expectations. They have different names than they once had (because of intermarriage) and they have different ways of communicating (because of technological innovation). When they finally come up for air to breathe some breaths of Jewish life, we need to have what they are seeking – or they will seek it elsewhere.

“Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night” (from Thunder Road).

Lesson #3: Have faith in what lies ahead – when we create a constant culture of apprehension and fear about the state of our community, we leave little room for the faith in the magical future that lies ahead.

There is much to be concerned about with our collective Jewish future. How do we engage assimilation in different ways that may be more impactful? How do we prepare for the increasing number of Jewish elderly that we must care for? How do we help support a safe and strong State of Israel? But for all of those concerns, we must make sure that we don’t only focus on the challenges, but also the wondrous experiences of modern Jewish life. There are many magical experiences to have and share and we need to make sure that we encourage and embrace that culture as well.

“Someday girl I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun” (from Born to Run).

Lesson #4: Community leadership needs to believe in the ability to reach the destination charted for the community, even if we can’t quite measure the timing of that arrival.

In our focus on measuring success in quantifiable terms we sometimes belie the faith we must have to assure the very same success we seek. Especially in the areas of Jewish engagement and enrichment, we need to look longer term with a degree of patience. And our funders (federations, foundations and otherwise) need to find some of that patience too while balancing it with the appropriate level of fiduciary oversight. We might not know when we will get ‘there,’ but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying, or that it will be any less wonderful when we do arrive at that place we seek.

“You can’t start a fire; you can’t start a fire without a spark” (from Dancing in the Dark).

Lesson #5: The rapturous flames of community do not start without instigation – they need a catalyst (or several).

Building community has a slow burning element to it, but it also sometimes requires a fanning of the flames. And those flames don’t always start without there being an encouragement of new ideas, new sparks, that help the burning to create community grow. We need to orient our community institutions to nurture these catalysts and to support them. Support isn’t just financial, it includes encouragement and mentoring too – but when the time for financial support does come we should not be overcautious. If we snuff out too many sparks we won’t have a fire that is growing.

“Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man; and I believe in a promised land” (from Promised Land).

Lesson #6: We need to create personal and enduring relationships between individuals Jews and Israel that transcend childhood and teen experiences.

My friend Ken Stein often reminds me that while we must create connections with Israel at the teen level, we must not lose sight that it is when we create meaningful experiences that endure throughout adulthood we will truly be able deepen our relationships with Israel. So while we invest in programs like Birthright, we must also start younger and maintain those experiences far after the Birthright experience has ended. In our era of Jewish life we have witnessed the return of the Jewish People to the Promised Land- we need to continue to believe in its importance, and create avenues that strengthen that belief in youth and adults.

“I believe in the love that you gave me; I believe in the faith that could save me. I believe in the hope and I pray that some day it may raise me above these Badlands” (from Badlands).

Lesson #7: When building community, we must not lose sight of the religious and spiritual elements that give meaning to the Jewish faith.

There is more to the Jewish community than organizations, activities and experiences. There is also a faith, a belief system and a spiritual fabric, and we would be remiss not to emphasis those elements as we try to raise our community higher. Formal and informal spiritual networks are vitally important for the strengthening of our community because it is our collective faith that has helped us endure all these generations. Belief and prayer are important parts of Jewish life and we need to continue to embrace them as a way to encounter God as individuals and as a community.

“Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life); Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life)” (from The Rising).

Lesson #8: The skyline of Jewish life is filled with love and glory even while it sometimes feels filled with tears and sadness. The key is continuing to dream of what Jewish life could be.

We often struggle with the tragedy of the Holocaust in Jewish history and life as well as seek understanding of the countless tragedies Jews have suffered in the past. We mustn’t lose sight of the experiences and lessons of being an afflicted people, but we shouldn’t let it cloud our ability of also being a dreaming people. A people of creators and inventors, and people that find joy in the everyday. We continue to dream of Jewish futures – near, far and ultimate. And we need to continue to keep painting the sky with those dreams even as we guard against the danger that often confronts us.

“Familiar faces around me; Laughter fills the air; Your loving grace surrounds me;
everybody’s here”
(from Mary’s Place).”

Lesson #9: The goal of building community is not just to collect as many names and emails as possible, but to bring people together for experiences of joy and the feeling of community.

Ask a dozen people how they define community and you get a dozen different responses. Often time one can describe community as a “know it when I feel it” answer. That is the way we need to remember the goal of community building – not just a means to an end, but an end to itself. When we are all together in community we are closer to God and the wonder of all of creation. Lists of names are important, but not as important as when they are all familiar names.

“We made a promise we swore we’d always remember; no retreat no surrender” (from No Surrender).

Lesson #10: Don’t quit.

Being Jewish isn’t always easy. And building Jewish community is even less easy. But it is meaningfully important – it is our great task as a people. We may struggle, but we mustn’t quit – regardless of the challenges.

So there you have it, some of the wisdom with a little bit of ‘drash thrown in for good measure. Whether you agree with all of the interpretations or none of them, one thing that we all can agree on is that a look at Bruce’s lyrics (and exhortations) present a distinct voice that is able to capture prophetic musings while rooting them in everyday struggles. He is a leader with a voice.

But not to be lost in our appreciation of Bruce is the recognition of the E Street Band. Every night, as Bruce tries to deliver his flock of fans to the Promised Land, the E Street Band is carrying Bruce too. He couldn’t do it without them. And that too is a reminder to all of us that even though we admire our leaders who find the voice to lead, the singer is just one part of a band. To make the music that moves us, it takes many instruments and rhythms, mostly in sync, but not necessarily always. Some times the sound that comes from the band is mixed, but if it’s loud enough it still might push us through the darkness on the edge of town into the promised land. And even the followers of the band help push the whole crowd forward…dancing, swinging and urging the revival to continue.

Like the fans at a Springsteen concert urging the rock n’ roll revival to continue, we all must take a role in the continuation of the revival of our Jewish community. Leaders, band members, followers and fans – we all have a role in building community. Nobody can do it alone… not even Bruce Springsteen.

But it sure is fun watching him try.


The (Renovated) House of Hillel

August 18, 2008

Those who know me know that I am a product of Jewish camping. Growing up in central Pennsylvania, my summer escapes to Jewish camp in the Pocono’s were the lifeline that my parents threw me to keep me on my Jewish journey. Being a camper, counselor and unit leader were some of the best life experiences, Jewish experiences and summer experiences I have ever enjoyed, and when it is summer time I can’t help but “think camp.”

So of course, when I was invited to spend the day at Camp Ramah Darom in North Georgia to visit with some Hillel professionals, it was an invitation I could not turn down. And (not so) secretly, I was just as excited about being at a camp as I was about seeing what Hillel was up to. But after just a few hours with the folks from Hillel, I realized that what Hillel is up to might be as interesting as a day in the mountains – and it may be more interesting than a lot of things from my Jewish past and maybe even my Jewish present.

Quite simply, it’s not the Hillel it used to be. And that is exactly what makes it so interesting.

To put my observations into context, when I was at the University of Maryland in the early 90’s I was not a “Hillel guy.” I was in a fraternity and part of a several diverse social groups, attending the occasional Hillel program and being passively involved in a few of their activities. I was not an attendee of Friday night Shabbat programming (by any stretch) but nonetheless appreciated the value of occasionally using the resources Hillel provided. On a campus with a tremendous number of Jewish students, the Hillel of my era had great professionals (Rabbi Seth Mandell and Todd Sukol), some great student leadership, but not a broad-based ‘presence’ on campus.

And that was the Hillel of my memory – something that was there if you needed it, but did you ever really ‘need’ it? Sure there was the back-to-school BBQs and the holiday get-togethers (and of course high holiday services if you needed them), but that was the Hillel crowd, and my crowd was not the Hillel crowd.

So imagine my surprise when I walked into the dining hall at Camp Ramah for the Hillel training conference when I saw…my crowd? Wait a second… had I changed, or had this crowd changed? Well, maybe a little of both, but in any case this group looked like the people I would see at a Friday night party at the AEPi house, not at a Shabbat service. Was my excitement about being at a summer camp making me delirious? I mean, was there something I was missing? Does Hillel seem to get it – or at the very least seem to understand how some of the ‘rules of engagement’ have changed? Or is what I was witnessing simply a repackaging of what Hillel has done in the past?

In essence, had Hillel really changed or did it just look like it really changed?

The answers to those questions are not easy, just like everything else about Jewish engagement. But just like the need for Jewish engagement, those questions bear closer examination.

The training experience I was visiting was for the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative (CEI), a project operated by Hillel that employs on-campus students with broad and diverse social networks to serve as paid interns (campus entrepreneurs) in order to engage thousands of uninvolved Jewish students in some Jewish experience (read clearly, ‘a Jewish experience,’ not necessarily a Hillel program). In its third year of operation, the program is expanding to several campuses across the country, building on its success. As preparation for the internship, Hillel brings the students together for some intensive training and experiences that help them engage the involved, while having a meaningful engagement experience themselves.

During a jam-packed schedule of training that the professionals were managing, I, along with some professionals from the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, had the chance to speak with two of the professionals with Hillel who are part of the team that developed the Campus Entrepreneur Initiative – Graham Hoffman and Clare Goldwater. In our discussions with Clare and Graham I realized this: it appears that where once Hillel was once solely focused on delivering Jewish programming, they are now (at least with respect to CEI) strategically focused on engaging in the development of Jewish relationships. Where once Hillel was about numbers, they are now about ideas (and numbers). And where once Hillel was stuck in the paradigm of trying to bring students to Hillel, now it is about bringing authentic Jewish experiences to students, regardless of whether those experiences are at Hillel.

I will be the first to admit, I have not been a close observer of Hillel over the years and I am not certain if CEI is truly representative of a change in Hillel’s thinking or if it is an innovative tactic that is (either finally or once-again) having its hour in the sun. What I do know however is I liked what I saw, and it bears closer examination by me and all of us. Just as we study our texts we learn the lessons form our sage Hillel (the Elder) of the past, perhaps in connection with the closer examination of the Hillel of the present, we can make sure we don’t miss some of what Hillel has to teach us for our future?

So with the context of Jewish learning in mind, in the Talmud we read of the House of Hillel (Beit Hillel) and the House of Shammai (Beit Shammai), each often disagreeing with the other a point of text or law. Now, I am not a not a skilled Jewish planning professional (I am not a Jewish professional at all) nor a Talmud scholar. But for the sake of argument and exploration, I present two views on what I saw at the Hillel CEI training – one that I will refer to as the strengths of (the House of) Hillel, and a corresponding view (let’s call it the House of Shammai) that asks the critical questions that should be asked of Hillel. The two viewpoints, like a Talmudic debate, explore in a respectful manner the questions of the substance of the matter, wile recognizing the answer is often what is in-between those two sets of questions.

So to that end, some observations about (the House of) Hillel:

1. With the CEI initiative, Hillel has oriented itself to a post-program and pro-relationship mindset. Now this doesn’t mean that Hillel has abandoned its program structure, it appears it hasn’t. The programmatic approaches Hillel has always taken, it still does (probably with varying degrees of success). But through the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative, it has moved the student-to-student relationship to the center of its focus rather than putting the program-to-student relationship as the center. While it still seeks to attract “Core Jews” to engage in with Hillel programming, it focuses on cluster engagement of those Jews in social networks not made up of Core Jews. By putting the interests of students at the center of its focus, it is finding a way to meet Jewish students on their Jewish journeys at the places they want to be met – even if that place isn’t at the campus Hillel center.

2. Hillel is focusing on decentralizing costs while increasing results by leveraging students as engagement entrepreneurs. Even the best professionals have limitations. They can only do so much, with so much time and money. As a result, it appears Hillel has realized that the best engagement tools are engaged individuals themselves, properly trained and incented. In essence, what Hillel is endeavoring to do with its Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative is distribute its engagement costs by paying for multiple intern “touch-points” rather than big, costly programmatic campus recruiting initiatives. Sure the events are still necessary to help identify potential engagement relationships, but they are not the end result, simply a means to an end of developing engaged Jewish students. And by using a distributed network of students, Hillel can leverage the diversity of its resources to reach diverse populations. As smartly observed by the Hillel professionals we spoke to – people (and college students particularly) are attracted to people, not programs. And when you invest in people as your means of engagement, concentrated costs go down, and results go up.

3. With CEI, Hillel is focusing on language, not branding. One thing that most impressed me in our conversation with Graham was the sensitivity to his use of ‘engagement’ language. With CEI, it appears Hillel has recognized the importance of refraining from using loaded words like “identity” and focusing on terminology that resonates with students. At the same time, Hillel doesn’t focus on branding the Campus Entrepreneur Initiative with Hillel logos and branding (just go to the website and see if you can find the word Hillel or its logo anywhere – here’s a hint, its the tiny print at the bottom). Consistent with its focus on engagement, Hillel understands how important the language of engagement can be and how some words (and brands) are more loaded (read as ‘off-putting’) than others. By letting go of constantly branding the initiative as its own, the initiative isn’t met with preconceived notions by the entrepreneurs or the target audience. Make no mistake, CEI is a Hillel initiative – the funders know it, the professionals know it and those involved know it. But Hillel is not focused on having that knowledge work against the success of the initiative. In essence, Hillel has recognized that by letting go, it is more likely to succeed.

4. Hillel started CEI in moderation, and built on its success. The Campus Entrepreneur Initiative was not rolled out to all campuses at once; it was piloted with seven campuses, and resulted in 3,200 engaged students. In subsequent years it has built on its success, rolling out the program strategically and systematically. Rather than go big quickly, it has gotten big results by developing the program in a systematic and well-timed manner. The need for engagement may be pressing, but it appears Hillel realized going too big too fast might result in an inability to make adjustments along the way. And if we all know anything about engagement, it is that the target audience is, well, a moving target.

5. With CEI, Hillel thought strategically, took a risk and is evaluating while still advancing. CEI was a strategic (if not entirely novel) shift in the way Hillel operates on campus, and was undertaken as part of Hillel’s strategic plan. It was risky, because it was unproven and would run the risk of alienating “Core Jews” on campus and on Hillel boards across the country. It required believing that students could be engagement catalysts, and at the same time letting go control of the Hillel experience. It also required new ways of thinking about how and when results are measured. At the same time, Hillel is consistently evaluating the project’s performance while still advancing it in new campuses. It is an interactive project – and Hillel is still acting as a learning organization, while it nonetheless has some professionals that have help make it a thinking organization.

Each of the above observations is a strong argument in favor of recognizing the strategic direction of Hillel and the way it is orienting its proverbial ‘house.’ But as I noted above, the critical part of me, my personal House of Shammai, has some serious questions about what Hillel presents as the brave new future of campus engagement. And those questions are as follows:

1. Is the CEI initiative (and the corresponding post-program/pro-relationship orientation), truly a new approach, or is it a re-packaging and re-branding of old approaches? The saying that everything old is new again is a well-known saying because it has the hallmark of being a truism. And it is fair to ask the question in this case as well – is CEI simply a more creatively branded Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps? After a few hours with the folks at CEI, and despite the amazing energy, it is hard to tell if it is truly new engagement energy being built on campus or the same energy newly-channeled. Is it the same solution, simply tailored to a slightly differently framed problem? And while it seems like Hillel has made adjustments to its old initiatives to make a bigger impact with the new initiatives, is that bigger impact really occurring? And when we talk about impact, how do we define it? That question is old, new, and all-important.

2. Regardless of decentralizing costs, is Hillel making a wise investment in spending more money on the unengaged when those same funds could be used to deliver innovative experiences to Core Jews? Few among us would argue that we should abandon the unengaged, and many people (including me) would argue that we need substantially more investment in engaging more Jews (Core or otherwise) with authentic Jewish experiences. But the key question is: at what cost? And how do we justify that cost? It may all go back to how we define the desired impact of engagement, which is not so easy. But with the investment that Hillel is making in this strategy, it is a question it needs to thoughtfully answer.

3. Different language and limited branding is all well and good, but does it really make a difference? Hillel is smart to recognize that the newest generations of unengaged Jewry don’t respond to some of the language of the past generations; words like ‘identity’ might muddle more than they clarify. But oftentimes using different language doesn’t change the way we think, it just changes the way we reflect how we are thinking. So is Hillel merely speaking differently, or is it truly thinking differently? And while refraining from over-branding may be a way to overcome pre-conceived notions of what Hillel represents as an organization – what does that say about the branding of Jewish institutions in general? If we have to hide who we are in order to advance our agenda, how will these students know that the veiled organization with a forward–looking agenda and tactics is the same organization that they have pre-conceived notions about? When we limit the view of who we are, how much harder is it to later educate individuals about what we did?

4. Is CEI sustainable and is its impact truly measurable? And are we sure those are the right questions anyway? With a moderated and well-timed rollout, Hillel has been strategic in testing, evaluating and adjusting CEI as it grows the initiative. And the numbers seem to bear out, at least on the surface, that there are more students being touched by the initiative then there otherwise would. But are they really? On a comparative basis, how many of those Jews who were ‘touched’ by CEI would really not have otherwise been touched by a Jewish experience in their on-campus years? Revisit my own experience, CEI was not around when I was at Maryland, but I ended up going to Hillel occasionally (for the BBQ), dating a Jewish girl (now my wife) and discovering Jewish authentic experiences (one of my fraternity brother’s homes for Shabbat dinner). Is the different strategy really resulting in different outcomes? And how are we testing the strategy to make sure that is true?

5. Hillel has made some strategic moves forward with the deployment of CEI, but does one tactic make a strategy, or does it make… well… just a tactic? As much as CEI looks like a strategic step forward for Hillel, it alone is not enough to truly transform Jewish life on campus. Campus Hillel leadership structures need to be reimagined and the sustainability of the authentic Jewish experiences need to be maintained. Jewish engagement can’t merely be a job of a few, but a responsibility of a many. And while the approach is different and we should be supportive, perhaps we should not be too congratulatory until we see that the longitudinal results are different. Hillel has some more strategic thinking to do, even if it is off to a good start and critically it needs to figure out ways to deploy new tactics, while still reengineering those tactics already deployed.

And there you have it, the insights of (the House of) Hillel as subjected to a Shammaian critique. But regardless of what one might think of CEI (and whatever the critique may be), it is clear that it’s not your parents’ Hillel anymore. It’s not yours, and it’s not mine. At first review, it is something different, while still rooted in its core values of enhancing Jewish life on campus. And as the new strategies above evidence, Hillel is taking on the role of thought leaders in the way we engage Jews not only on campus, but everywhere. But by being thought-leaders, Hillel needs to keep thinking to meet the critical questions about its direction and its results. It is not good enough to be different, it is only good enough if different equates to success. And being successful means answering the tough questions that are asked and meeting the tough challenges that are presented to it.

We might not all have been part of the “Hillel crowd” when we were younger, but perhaps we should now. That crowd is going places, and not just to a summer camp in Georgia. It is going into the Jewish future – and perhaps we should join the House of Hillel along its journey, while being mindful of those tough questions that Shammai might throw our way.

But let’s still root for the House of Hillel, it has a pretty good record of beating out the House of Shammai. Just read the Talmud.


Memo to the (Federation) File: Think Differently

August 13, 2008

One of the things I have realized in posting some of my thoughts on my blog is that different topics generate dramatically different levels of interest.  Of course that is to be expected – some topics just don’t resonate with a diverse audience. What has surprised me however is the number of visits and emails I receive related to those posts about UJC or local Federations.  It appears that for as many people there are that are frustrated about the “system,” there are as many, if not more people that care enough to read about it, to write about and to work  (in a constructive way) towards positive change within it.  And as my recent posts on the UJC search committee and young leadership cabinet structure have reminded me, when people find a voice that shares a common concern, they are more likely to lend their voice to the chorus, hopefully in a constructive manner.

So keeping that in mind, as a regular part of the blog (and as an effort to consolidate some of my thoughts on the topic) occasionally I am going to post what I am going to call a “memo to the file” about a topic relating to the state combined Jewish philanthropy and the organizations that work to that end.   While I suspect those posts will not necessarily interest the small number of regular readers of this blog (Mom, Dad, thank you!), by posting the “memos to the file” I will be able to flag those posts that may be of interest for those who might not otherwise be interesting in my personal noodling on Jewish communal life.  And it gives me a channel to be constructive, while also being thoughtfully critical.  Hence…

Memo to the (Federation) File #1: Think Differently

In reaction to our increasingly branded world, I suppose it was inevitable that we would endeavor to brand the combined philanthropic experience and (at least cosmetically) reduce the essence of our efforts to a memorable catch phrase.  I realized this yesterday as I was sitting in my law firm’s United Way planning meeting when we were advised to use the United Way slogan “Live United” in our campaign.  Of course it got me thinking about our national UJC/Federation branding of “Live Generously” and how that slogan represents the way donors are approached by Federations.  And what I think is this –

Catchy, but not convincing.

First of all, although the slogan’s strength comes from  its normative message, that message is also its inherent weakness.  While we often need to be assertive in our approach to engaging Jews philanthropically – we need to meet them in the way they are currently living at the same time we are inspiring them how to live.  Living generously sounds great, but what are they doing now? If they are not giving, are they not generous? If they are generous but not through Federations are they not living generously (or maybe merely living united)?  By being normative we run the risk of excluding as much as we are inspiring. We need to strike the right balance in the way we think and act in response how Jews perceive the slogan.

Second, by shrinking the essence of the message into a catchphrase, we lose a critical word – Jewish. Look again at the slogans above. “Live Generously” vs. “Live United” – just based on those two phrases, how would you differentiate which one is the Jewish organization’s message? Maybe by process of elimination since the “Live United” slogan incorporates part of the United Way’s name.  But even in our catchy slogan, shouldn’t we hit on a Jewish theme?   I mean, isn’t that the essence of our efforts?   Don’t we want them to think Jewishly when they are living generously?

Now I understand there are reasons why slogans are helpful, and this memo to the file is not an effort to diminish their value, but merely demonstrate their limitations.  “Live Generously” is good marketing, but it is not sufficient messaging. We need to do better in our messaging, and that doesn’t come from a catch-phrase or a slogan, but a whole lot more.

So let me humbly propose a new slogan that we start to use within our system when it comes to messaging, engaging and interacting Jews to live generously:

Think Differently.

We need to think differently about ways to embrace new strategies to massage to potential donors/philanthropists while we continue to leverage those tried and true strategies that are effective with existing donors. If caucuses work for a certain group of individuals, great, but if impulse campaigns work for another group, or another generation, let’s use those too.  Let’s embrace new media, but not as a cosmetic approach to covering up our lack of new thinking. Let’s recognize service donors in a meaningful way so that when they do have financial capacity they become financial donors. Let’s imagine the new ways of engaging young leadership while still maintaining the effective way young leadership cabinet does it currently.  Let’s evaluate our campaign strategies and donor management strategies not to point fingers, but to point out the holes that need to be filled and the opportunities that need to be realized. We need to meet our youngest donors at their critical stages in their Jewish Journeys, not with a card, but with an experience and a smile, a book or a blessing. We need to meet them at different places and in different ways.  We need to think differently, and then act differently too.

Transformational thinking doesn’t result from just thinking about the same things in different ways. It comes from thinking about different things in different ways.  So even while we review and revise our existing approaches to engaging people Jewishly and generously, we also need to think through and embrace those different ideas proposed by different people.  That transformational approach will create transformational experiences and transformational results in our Jewish community.

So perhaps in the end, the “Live Generously” slogan has its benefits, even from an internal messaging perspective.  It reminds us each day, on every email and every piece of marketing material what the goal is  – to get more people to live generously in a Jewish way to make a Jewish impact.

But to get to the goal we will need to do something else:

Think Differently.


On Kosher Megastores and Jewish Megatrends

August 11, 2008

Let’s be honest, we have some serious issues facing us as a Jewish people. Intermarriage rates are skyrocketing, Jewish philanthropy is struggling to adapt new challenges and corruption in Israel threatens to diminish our opinion of the success of political Zionism. Oh, and not to mention the dramas related to conversions and agriprocessors.  But tucked in one corner of the Jewish world there is discussion about what appears to be something dreadful about to occur to the Jewish community in Brooklyn – the opening of a high-end Kosher food megastore.

Really?   I mean, is it really that bad?

While I sometimes have sticker shock at the prices of gourmet items at Whole Foods and other high-end supermarkets, I only have myself to blame when I pay those prices. And deep down, I know that I can get high quality food at my regular grocery stores and neighborhood delis as well. But you know what? At Whole Foods, they make their food look so…well…good.  So good that I have to remind myself that just because it looks good doesn’t make it healthy. And just because it is displayed in the right lighting doesn’t make it low fat.  I know all that – but I still can’t help but occasionally stop in and pick up a bag of groceries that may cost a little more than I want to pay, but are exactly what I want to have at the exact time I decide I want to have them. And that look good.

So back to the opening of the new kosher megastore in Brooklyn. In many ways, I can understand the feelings of those who lament the opening of one more big store crowding out the smaller stores that have been around for a long time. And I also bristle at use of the word “schlocky” that the owner of the new store uses to describe the smaller stores and delis (perhaps “quaint” would have been a better word). But there is nothing stopping the people who want to shop at those smaller stores from continuing to shop at them, and even if those stores struggle at first, they ultimately may find that they are challenged to become more responsive to the changing tastes of their customer.  These small stores may find that they are going to be just fine without adapting to new approaches of stocking, new food displays and new sales strategies, but maybe they will be even better if they do adapt. And even though there may be a lot of history in some of these small stores, there may not be much of a future if they are not mindful of the changes and challenges they face.

That isn’t something to lament, it is something to understand.

And understanding this little microcosm of our Jewish world can help us understand the challenges we are facing elsewhere in our Jewish community. We need to understand how Amercian Jews embrace their Judaism – many want the megastore buffet of well-lighted, well-packaged Jewish experiences. Some want to get their Judaism at the storied (and sometimes quaint) places filled with Jewish pasts. We might disagree about how we want our Jewish experiences, but the important thing is that we want them in the first place. And while we don’t need to adapt certain core aspects and beliefs of Jewish life to meet changing tastes, we do need to have our Jewish institutions adapt to the ways Jews encounter those core aspects and beliefs. Just like the small stores and delis in Midwood, Brooklyn, the synagogues and Jewish organizations of America will need to adapt in order to survive, or alternatively be prepared to meet the challenge of maintaining relevance in an environment increasingly competitive for peoples Jewish attentions.

So perhaps the opening of a new kosher megastore in Brooklyn isn’t the worst of the challenges we face as a Jewish people. But it does remind us of the need to meet the challenge we do face – creating the types of Jewish experiences that keep people coming back for more. And there is nothing schlocky about that.


(South Ossetia) Georgia on My Mind – and the Jewish Agency Too

August 10, 2008

On Sunday morning I woke up with a few things on my mind. The heavy lamentations that come with the observance of Tisha B’Av, the anticipation for the U.S-China Olympic basketball match-up and…

The situation of the Jews in the former Soviet state of Georgia.

Now normally I am much more likely to be found on a Sunday morning playing with my children or talking about the Jews of a different Georgia, the one in which my city of Atlanta is located. But it is hard not to pay attention to the political tensions and armed conflict between Russia and Georgia, and it is equally hard to not think with concern about the fate of the Jews that live in that part of the world.

Fortunately, what has me thinking more appreciatively than worriedly is the report that, in reaction to the situation in Georgia, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) has been resolutely working to evacuate all of the Jews from the troubled region to the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi.  Yes, that Jewish Agency. The Jewish Agency that so many of us have challenged and criticized (oftentimes rightfully so). The Jewish Agency that seems to have a bureaucracy as big as its mission, and budget problems that are as lamentable as a dirge chanted on… well… Tisha B’Av.

But at this time, and at that place, the Jewish Agency, despite all of its own financial challenges, is helping meet the existential challenges of Jews in a war-torn area. Helping them to safety.  Helping to see that even in this small comer of the world, Jews are looking after Jews. Facing the urgency of the moment, the Jewish Agency has set up situation rooms in Tbilisi and Jerusalem, is assisting impacted individuals in making Aliyah and is continuing to determine how it can, as an organization, do more.

Yes, that Jewish Agency.

Now I will be the first to admit that I too have expressed concern with aspects of the operations of the Jewish Agency. Not without knowing the value of its important work however.  After several trips to Minsk, Belarus over the course of the past two years, I have seen the important work of the Jewish Agency from a very close perspective. I have seen the efforts of determined professionals in both the education and Aliyah departments. I learned that names like Igor Gitelman, Elina Akselrod, Miriam Milstein and Nella Feldsher are more than just names on an gigantic organization chart, they are the names of individuals who work as part of the Jewish Agency to support, educate and empower Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. I have seen them do it in Minsk, Belarus and in Yokneam, Israel. In their work, they are vital to the Jewish Agency’s role in bringing Jews home to Israel and bringing Israel to Jews wherever they might call home.

Yes, that Jewish Agency.

I will also admit that one more than one occasion (and in more than one piece of writing) I have articulated a strong need for Jews in the United States to deploy engagement strategies at home that might, in the short term, require decreased funds to overseas partners like the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committees. And while those shifts in funding are painful, in areas where there is a lower level of Jewish engagement, in the  short and long run  funding engagement strategies they will help secure a legion of future supporter of overseas organizations that, in turn, support Jews worldwide. And as we utilize new and innovative tactics to engage Jews at home, we need to remind those newly engaged Jews that ‘engagement’ doesn’t just end at the local synagogue or JCC.  It doesn’t end at the post office after writing a check once a year to support the financial needs of local organizations that address local needs. Jewish engagement needs to mean more than that.  It needs to mean being engaged with the needs of Jews wherever they may be, in Israel, in South America, and even in South Ossetia. It means being engaged in the future of the Jewish Agency like the Jewish Agency is engaged in the future of the Jewish people.

Yes, that Jewish Agency.

Finally, last Spring I had the chance, along with a few others in the Atlanta community, to meet with Moshe Vigdor  – the Director General of the Jewish Agency. During the course of our group’s meeting we talked about the JAFI/Federation relationship in organizational terms. We talked about budgets and alliances, strategies and customers. And while it is important to not lose sight of the need to operate our community endeavors in an efficient and responsible way while also being sensitive to the needs of partners and benefactors, we also shouldn’t lose sight that we are more than Jewish organizations. We are part of a larger Jewish family, a larger Jewish people and a larger Jewish journey.  Together.  And while we may have expectations of one another as organizations, we also have responsibilities to one another as family members as well. Notwithstanding those challenges that vex us internally and externally, we need to stand together in times of trouble to confront those challenges that face us.  Where there are Jews in need, we need to be sure we are there searching for them and helping them. Just like the Jewish Agency is doing today in South Ossetia, Georgia.

Yes, that Jewish Agency.