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(Jewish) Community Organizing: Lessons from the Obama Campaign

December 12, 2008

Regardless of one’s political affiliation, the recent election of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States is a momentous event to consider. In a time of dramatic concern by so many, the Obama campaign has given an equal number of people in the world a moment of radical amazement.  There are certainly many lessons to be learned with respect to the Obama campaign in the political context, but the strategies and tactics deployed by the Obama campaign also hold numerous lessons of how we can better organize our Jewish communities.

1.    Positive messages create positive results.  Certainly in 2008 there were numerous negative topics to be discussed, including a war in the Middle East, and a troubled economy at home.  But Obama, while voicing concern about those several topics, nevertheless focused on a message of hope and change. So too must our Jewish community focus on positive messages.  While so much of our Jewish message is framed in the context of “never again,” too little of it is framed in the context of “Yes we can.”  True, there are great challenges facing our community – slowing affiliation, a nuclear Iran and Jewish apathy.  But much is going right as well – and we need a positive message if we expect people to join a positive Jewish campaign for change.

2.    Small contributions count as much as big ones.  Much has been made of the Obama campaign’s record-shattering fundraising.  But what has been remarkable about that effort is how many of the contributors were first-time political contributors and how many made small, but repeated, contributions. Also remarkable was the way Obama’s campaign tapped into the financial power of the netroots community.  Our Jewish community would be wise to quickly learn these fundraising lessons and apply them to our own efforts.  We are missing a tremendous opportunity to engage community members philanthropically in new and different ways – ways successfully deployed by the Obama campaign.

3.    Investment in field operations and social networks matter.   The Obama campaign redefined the power of the ground game in the recent election. Whereas Hillary Clinton focused on the big states with large primaries, Obama also focused on the states that had caucuses, understanding the power of small collections of passionate individuals. By engaging in places big and small, Obama created a network that engaged voters where they were in ways they wanted to be engaged, where in person or online. Sounds like something we would be wise to do with American Jews – meeting Jews where they are, and leveraging emerging social technologies to make those meetings happen.  We need to improve our Jewish ground game, before that game becomes too difficult to win.

4.    Agents of change still need voices of experience. Obama knew that one of his greatest weaknesses was the perception of his inexperience. So what did he do to counter that criticism? He found one of the most experienced senators to serve as his running mate. Rather than fear the influence of a more experienced leader, Obama embraced it. We should apply the same lessons in our Jewish communities.  While we need to embrace the fresh ideas that come from inexperienced Jewish innovators, we need to make sure those innovators embrace the experience and wisdom of our more seasoned leaders.

5.    Words matter. Perhaps the one critical mistake of the Obama campaign was when he commented that voters in Pennsylvania were bitter and cling to their guns and religion.  The Obama campaign credits that moment as a defining one in the campaign – after that episode Obama took a greater role in the campaign and worked to more carefully craft his message.  The care we need to use in choosing words in the Jewish community is no less important. When we refer to the “problem” of intermarriage we would be wiser to describe it as a “challenge.” Just like voters don’t like to be considered bitter, spouses don’t like to consider their marriages problems. If we want to be successful in our campaign for the engagement of more Jews, we should mind our words carefully.

6.    Create multiple paths to success.  Early in the campaign the Obama campaign said they were going to create multiple paths victory, including campaigning in states long ceded to the Republicans. And that is exactly what they did, so that on election night there were multiple ways for the electoral votes to add up in Obama’s favor. If we are wise, the Jewish community will learn from this experience and also focus on strengthening multiple paths to engagement.  If we want the numbers to add up, we need to create new and novel ways of Jewish engagement.

7.   Embrace the complexities of identity.  Obama has a complex racial background, one he embraced and transcended during the campaign. The Jewish people also have a complex background, filled with nuanced and conflicting identities.  Rather than getting mired in identity conflicts, like Obama we need to find common threads that help us transcend our individual insecurities about our identity.  Jewish identity has become a word we struggle to define and often endeavor to avoid. We should embrace the complexities of Jewish identity and perhaps we may find that there will be many more of us to embrace.

8.    Believe.  Obama believed he could win the presidency, and defying all expectations, he did.  People believed in his potential to effect change because it encouraged a belief that change could occur. Perhaps no greater lesson to be learned the Jewish community is the power of belief – belief in one another and belief in our collective ability to make our Jewish community stronger.

So there you have it, eight lessons from the ’08 Obama campaign. Even with these lessons in hand, it is fair to wonder if can we change the way our Jewish community engage individuals with the same level of success the Obama campaign achieved.  The parallels are remarkable – just like the current state of our nation, the current state of American Jewry gives us much for concern, but much more for pride. And while even the greatest challenges may still lie ahead of us, the strength of our Jewish past and the resilience of our Jewish spirit give us much to aspire for our collective Jewish future.

As a Jewish people, can we too achieve our goals?  The answer must be no different that the one boldly spoken by our new president on a clear, and clearly victorious night  – yes we can.

And we must.

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