Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Engagement’

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Strange Love of National Organizations (or how I learned to stop worrying and love my local community)

November 18, 2009

Do not separate yourself from community – Hillel (Avos 2:5)

All politics is local – Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill

Quite simply, the GA is a reminder of the gravitational force of national Jewish organizations and the important role they play in connecting us to one another. We often exhort one another to ‘not recreate the wheel’ in our respective community efforts, but if it wasn’t for networked cadres of national leadership and large conferences like the GA there wouldn’t be opportunities for the mass in-person sharing of new ideas and lessons learned in order to avoid such redundant efforts. Certainly technology has given us all the ability to communicate more quickly (even instantly) and has removed geography as a barrier to the exchange of ideas. But nevertheless, there is no substitute for harnessing the collective power of diverse and distributed Jewish leadership so that together, under the umbrella of a national organizational endeavor, they can meet challenges and seize opportunities that are continental and even global in scope.

And having watched some of my friends ‘go national’ I also know the seductiveness (and impact) of being engaged in community discussions that transcend ones own local community. Whether it is the national young leadership cabinet of The Jewish Federations of North America in which many of my friends participate, or the boards of continental endeavors like Joshua Venture Group (in which I am involved), the involvement in initiatives that have a scope beyond one’s city limits are often perceived as a form of ‘graduated’ leadership. For others, however, ‘going national’ is a matter of necessity – to effect the level of transformative change they seek to achieve, local communities (especially small ones) may be too limiting. Whatever the reason one decides to expand his or her role in more national endeavors, there can be no question that it can be extremely educational and enriching.

But it can also be distracting.

There are a few reasons why involvement in national organizations and initiatives can present both challenges and opportunities related to the success of Jewish leaders. First – the challenges. “Going national” is a substantial commitment to individual resources and time commitments, and requires a high level of patience with long-distance communication, collaboration, and politics. While not always the case, the exhaustion from national involvement often limits activists from greater engagement in their own local communities. But there is another issue of greater significance (and often related to the first issue) – often national endeavors can feel a bit disconnected from local needs and issues. While solving issues on a national scale may involve a level of grand planning and implementation, it ultimately is often excellent local execution that make those solutions achieve their intended results. In sum, while passions may be national, needs are still local.

But on the other hand, the positive impacts of national involvement are clear. Engagement in national (or international) activities often give scale and scope to the imaginations of local activists. Connecting and sharing with peers is one of the best ways to meaningful exchange ideas and experiences, and the ability to connect with different people with different perspectives is a true benefit of national involvement. Also, as one of my friends reminded me at the GA, often in small communities the opportunity to become more engaged in the Jewish community is limited and becoming involved in national endeavors is the most meaningful way to provide engaged Jewish activists a way to make a Jewish impact. Lastly, understanding that there is a large community of which we all are a part (and that requires some of our attention and effort) is a key benefit of exposure to national initiatives – the more we feel a part of something bigger than ourselves, the more we are empowered to view ourselves as vital instruments of empowerment and change.

But with all that being said, I think that one can’t lose sight of the fact that community starts at home; first in our own home and then in our home communities. Sure, the lure of the faraway is great – its often feels more significant and less limited. But the ability to invest in our own communities is great as well, and there is no lack of need to impact the communities around us in the smallest and most significant ways. While we may worry about issues that transcend just our individual cities and towns, the love of our local communities – the communities that care for us – must remain great. Whether it is innovation, connection with Israel, Jewish arts and culture or otherwise – if there is a national need, that means there is a local need. And if there are local needs, we need local activists just as much as we need national ones.

So with that in mind, and the GA in our rearview mirror, lets make sure we all think communally, learn and interact nationally, but not forget to act locally. It makes a difference – a difference that can change a nation of Jews one community at a time.

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Dropped Calls and the Challenge of Jewish Discontinuity

October 11, 2009

Perhaps one of the greatest aggravations in this era of high tech communications is the scrooge of the dropped call. It is a ubiquitous experience regardless of your phone or your service provider, and it can happen in the densest of cities and most rural of areas. Dropped calls often result from gaps in cell coverage but are also increasingly the result of high usage at certain times and places.  Whatever the reason those conversations are lost and frustrations found, dropped calls impair the efficient communication we strive for, while also reminding us that our ability to continue to communicate with others is often dependent on resources and networks outside of our control.

Recently I have been thinking of the impact of “dropped calls” in the Jewish community.  As we have already advanced from Jewish life in the iPod era (as the folks at Reboot smartly discussed back in 2004) to Jewish engagement in the iPhone age, it is worth considering the community lessons we can learn from how dropped calls occur in our own community.  These lessons take on increased significance in the Jewish community telephone conversations, because once there is a disconnect relating to a sense of community, it may be harder to redial the connection that was made in the first place. Unfortunately though, just like the root causes for dropped calls in the telecommunications network, much of the reason for dropped calls in the Jewish community is lack of sufficient (or lack of sufficiently dynamic) infrastructure to maintain those connections.

Similar to the overly spaced mobile networks, our “cell towers” of Jewish connection leave gaps in service (often at the most inconvenient places and times). Just like the manner in which phone calls are maintained, the connectivity to the Jewish community is dependent on there being well placed conduits of communication and the right types of interconnection. While the Jewish community certainly has points of contact throughout the Jewish lifecycle, it is the time in-between those key life moments that that are often the place where the connections are week.  Therefore the more towers of Jewish connectivity, the fewer chances for conversations to get dropped. Additionally, we need to make sure that Jewish connections are not dropped because the system is insufficiently dynamic to maintain quality connections in high-use times. For example, even though the High Holidays put a strain on resources (too few seats for people, too few chances to experience true spiritual moments), our community infrastructure must be sufficiently dynamic to be sure that people don’t lose connections to the their community at those times either.

Like the iPhone, Jewish life has seemingly limitless ways to encourage, engage, and sustain individual connections.  Similar to the network that supports the iPhone, the network maintained by the Jewish community needs to be robust enough and of sufficient quality to make sure that there are no broken conversations when someone wants to dial-up a Jewish experience. Dropped calls on the cellular network are aggravating, but dropped calls in the Jewish community can me much more troubling and their disconnection can be much more long-lasting; or even permanent. So in the spirit of the old communications advertisement, lets make sure our Jewish community is not just focused on reaching out and touching someone, but also keeping in touch and avoiding those irksome (and perilous) dropped calls.

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Response to Dr. Sarna: We have a mission; communal life must be about meaning

August 9, 2009

As a Jewish community volunteer and part-time critic, I often vacillate between hopefulness and concern. From the volunteer perspective, I experience moments of enrichment that sustain my belief that Jewish differences can be made and the promise of the Jewish people can be kept. As a critic, I find myself compelled to question not the merit of our Jewish communal efforts, but the quality of our Jewish communal experiences?

But while I may question many things, never have I questioned the mission of the Jewish people. Perhaps because it is too complex a question, and I am too simple to even ponder the answer? Perhaps because the mission is so inherent in what we learn from our faith and understand from our history that our mission as a people cannot be defined, it must be experienced?

It is that question, however, that Dr. Jonathan Sarna asked in his recent essay “Communal Life After the Recession” in London’s The Jewish Chronicle.  In his thoughtful essay, Sarna examines the state of the Jewish Diaspora in these challenging times and ask key questions about what the future looks like. In an era where the Diaspora is now concentrated, and where the protection and rescue of persecuted Jews is no longer an urgent focus of the Jewish people, Sarna asks “[w]ill the Jewish community be able to identify a mission compelling enough for young Jews to become passionate about?” In response, he closes his essay asserting “the goal of formulating a new and compelling mission for our Jewish community need to be high on our collective agenda.”

To his merit, Dr. Sarna presents both an interesting question and thought-provoking response. However, I believe both mischaracterize the nature of the challenge facing the Jewish people at this time in our history.  Quite simply, I do not believe it is about mission – it is about meaning.

In reading Dr. Sarna’s essay I am reminded of another great Jewish thinker, one of an earlier generation – Leo Baeck. In his seminal book (and testament to late German Jewish philosophy), This People Israel, Baeck wrote that “[o]nly as a people of meaning could, and can this people Israel be.” He further wrote “[t]his people’s constitution is founded in God’s commandment; it is a people to that is disposed to God, on that in all its development, its wandering, in all of the ebb and flow of history, must remain within  relationship toward the One-Who-Is.”

To Baeck’s point, we already have a timeless mission – to be a people of meaning.  It is a mission framed by and within the context of our relationship with God and is reinforced by the Jewish embodiment and experience of humanity.  The unfolding experiences that reflect our mission may change, and even the tactics and strategies that we as a people may choose to express that it may change, but the mission itself does not change.

So rather than question what our mission as a people should be, we need to question how we make that mission more meaningful and more relevant to generations of Jews to come.  Perhaps a cause can help us derive meaning, and perhaps an entrepreneurial approach can help shape relevance, but we should not mistake either for a reconfigured mission of the Jewish people; they are each tactics to bridge a timeless covenant with a timely need.  Rather, our immutable mission dictates that our priority, regardless of the era and economic environment, must be to explore and encourage new experiences that provide meaning to the covenantal relationship between the Jewish people and G-d.  Our mission, which we have already chosen to accept, is to fulfill our destiny of meaning through individual experiences of meaning.  That is our priority, that must be our goal.

When reading Dr. Sarna’s essay I was reminded of one other phrase used by Howell Baum in his book The Organization of Hope.  In describing two communities in Baltimore (one of which was Jewish), Baum writes that “[c]reating a community of hope depends on building a bridge of transcendence from a community of memory.”  Those powerful words are a gentle reminder that it is not just mission and meaning that are important, but memory matters also.

So with appreciation to Dr. Sarna for raising the question of “where do we go from here,” I respond differently.  Let us not question what our mission is; let us celebrate it by encouraging ways to find meaning within it.  And moreover, let us use those experiences of meaning to build bridges of memory, communities of hopefulness and a people of Israel that can, as Baeck wrote… be.

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Memo to the Federation File: The New (Human) Capital Campaign

November 9, 2008

During the past few months, one can rarely avoid a discussion of the impact of the ongoing economic challenges facing many Americans.  Avoiding such conversations is even more rare in the hallways of nonprofit organizations that depend on the generosity of their donors to provide critical financial resources to address a variety of compelling needs.  These organizations that often struggle for funds even when times are good now find themselves in a time of dramatically increased need even while many of their supporters are more hesitant about their individual ability to give generously. Notwithstanding data that indicates that generosity does not diminish (and often increases) in times of great need, it is nevertheless clear that in these belt-tightening days that many people, when reconciling the numbers of diminishing 401(k) returns and increasing 501(c)(3) appeals, just can’t make the math work.

So these are long days and nights for fundraising campaigns – calls to donors are as much about friend-raising as they are fundraising, for just as there are many individuals who may offer a bit more financial help, there are those who reveal that they are in a bit more financial need.  And along with the greater demands to find financial resources to help those in that seek it, there will soon be challenges to be faced in ways that we haven faced domestically in perhaps generations. How our communities meet those challenges, and how we allocate the resources necessary to help overcome them will be defining questions for community leaders in the months and perhaps years ahead.

So it might seem odd that I would suggest that at this time of immense challenge that we focus on an immense opportunity to commence a new type of national Jewish communal campaign – a capital campaign of sorts, a human capital campaign.

Yes, we must continue and expand important financial appeals in our Jewish communities to serve local, national and overseas needs (we should not forget that the crippling effects of the global slowdown that impacts us at home has tremendous impact on the needs of vulnerable and at-need Jews in places like the former Soviet Union).  But we need to expect that for many individuals who are struggling to cope with their own personal financial challenges, engaging in acts of Jewish philanthropy may be an option that, for the time-being, must be left untaken.  Whether helping shore up their parents’ financial needs, struggling with their own limited ability to maintain synagogue memberships, day school fees or JCC dues, many Jews who would nonetheless like to remain engaged in the community may feel financially shut out.  In the face of these economic limitations, they may feel like what they have to offer the community is diminished, and therefore their engagement in the community should diminish as well.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. And the leaders of the organized Jewish community need to make sure that not only does the false perception of these individuals manifest themselves in our communities, but that we proactively take measures to seize the opportunity offered by those who want to find alternative ways to give back to their community.

Now is the time for us to engage in discussions with those who want to give time rather than money and capture their energies in ways that help us collectively face the challenges that confront us. Sure, many of our most vaunted professional leaders and long-time volunteers may be able to put the current challenges into perspective, but the emerging viewpoints and ideas of new volunteers and leadership will help us define pathways to future achievement.  Individuals who long invested in the community by writing checks may now find that being engaged in a volunteer leadership role is equally fulfilling. And then as economic times improve and they can more generously give once again, our communities will benefit from both time and money.

Therefore, I think right now is the time, an important time, to engage in a discussion of how we embark on the great Jewish human capital campaign.  A campaign with realizable goals locally and nationally for engaging new volunteers, and new volunteer leadership.  A campaign that does not diminish the value of giving financially to philanthropic endeavors, but one that reinforces the value of investing personal time in the organizations that pursue those endeavors.

Now this campaign would not be without its challenges.  Like any great effort that brings in new individuals to organizations and movements there are always questions of ability to integrate the new volunteers leaders into existing roles, to create new roles and opportunities for personal investment and to provide volunteers/leaders high quality experiences that reinforce their desire to give their time to the community.  These volunteers and leaders must be powerfully engaged, educated and empowered to effect change in our communities and help create new avenues of Jewish experience.  And they should have some fun.

Equal to the systemic challenges with respect to the new volunteers/leaders we need to anticipate challenges for our professionals. Many of our senior professional leadership have grown up in systems (most notably the federation system) that have not achieved much-needed and dramatic reengineering of core strategies related to volunteer engagement. Figuring out new ways to engage leaders and new ways to synthesize their strengths into existing organizations is no small task. And as many have realized, Jewish communal organizations are not necessarily bastions of adaptability – recruiting substantial numbers of new volunteers/leaders will require many organizations (and their professionals) to be responsive to the new ideas, approaches, and technologies – each which may be at odds with decades of organizational experience/tradition.

This human capital campaign needs to start at the bottom and at the top. We need new faces at our most basic committee levels in our local communities, and as I have suggested previously, we need new ideas at the top of our local and national organizations.  The human capital campaign is not narrowly focused or easily satisfied.  It requires fundamental changes in the way we recruit engaged Jews and the way we govern organizations that are led by them. We need to challenge old assumptions and embrace new visions. Even those visions that require resources we might not be able to collect in the coming days, months and perhaps even years. Because by encouraging and allowing those visions to take root, we will be harnessing the passions of visionaries who create them.  And when the financial resources are there to transform those visions into realities, the human capital campaign will infuse new life into these financial campaigns as well.

Yes, we face challenging times. And yes, in these challenging times we tend to monitor our campaigns closely – aspiring, stretching and achieving those goals we must achieve to address the needs we face. But lets not be too cautious lest we lose this opportunity to engage in a great new capital campaign  – a human capital campaign that seeks to benefit from the greatest resource of all – the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.

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Star (of David) bursts: On the “Bursty” Nature of Jewish Engagement

October 14, 2008

Bursty. It’s a term I have started to use over the past several months when attempting to describe the nature of Jewish engagement.  Borrowed from the technical understanding of network theory, “burstyness” occurs in structured networks when the network experience a “burst” of activity, either as the result of intentional stimuli or because of the natural behavior of the network. The exploration of burst activity in connection with computer networks is an area that has received increased focus as our world has become more and more network-oriented.  Additionally, it has even taken on more innovative usage when characterizing the nature of workforce productivity.

My use of the term however relates to my concern for something far older than current network technologies – the Jewish people. The more time I spend in my local Jewish community and with my engaged and not-so-engaged Jewish friends, the more I recognize the ebbs and flows of their Jewish engagement.  While there are some friends who have consistent patterns of Jewish experience, many others seem to be engaged in bursts of Jewish activity. These bursts may participation in a single event, observation of a particular holiday, or association with a particular cause that they care about for Jewish reasons (even if the cause isn’t distinctly Jewish).  Sometimes they go through periods of time where they engage in several Jewish activities – only to then disappear from the community radar for an equal if not longer time. And while sometimes the burst of activity is driven by individual growth and opportunism, many times the engagement is more inspired by habit, fear, guilt or social pressure and acculturation.

Take the recent high holidays for example. There are many Jews whose familiarity with the rhythm of synagogue life is based on three days a year (for many it may even be only two). Shabbats, daily services and other holiday celebrations come and go, but the amount of time that many individuals spend in and around the synagogue barely registers on the dial. But on the high holidays, the activity is off the chart.  People who don’t make it to one Shabbat service a year get there hours early (early!) for Kol Nidre.  People who rarely peruse the synagogue bulletin, read every word of the service schedule and parking instructions (and of course the babysitting forms) twice (or three times!) to make sure nothing is missed.  The opportunities for spiritual experience can be found inside the synagogue (and outside as well) all year round – the network is always there, but on these few days, the burst of activity nearly overloads the system.

And the same occurrence happens in less Jewish religious experiences as well. Many people who have never thought of joining the JCC also never fail to miss the JCC community festival. And even those Jews who spend time in the Jewish community living and learning on a more consistent basis create their own times when their Jewish lives slow down or speed up – taking the summers “off” from the Jewish engagement and then bursting back into their Jewish lives as the first leaves fall in autumn.

Without surveying the vast landscape of literature on the state of modern Jewry, it is easy to recognize that the “Jew within” as described by Cohen and Eisen continues to redefine Jewish behavior across the spectrum of Jewish life. And while there are plenty of studies that review patterns of Jewish association and engagement, I have found that many of them fail to make the final reduction of theory into what is increasingly obvious – Jewish life in 2009 is not only made of the “sovereign Jew” choosing experiences and investing time and money in independent manners, but those experiences and investments are increasingly coming the form of discontinuous bursts. These bursts manifest themselves episodically over the course of Jewish lives, but also on a much short timeframes; bursts of Jewish engagement may cycle in the matter of weeks or months.  Taken together, these patterns of bursts of engagement give flavor to the burstyness of Jewish life as a whole.

And I don’t believe that as organizations, communities and as a broader people we have sufficiently adapted the opportunities for Jewish engagement to be responsive to this developing landscape of Jewish burstyness. As professionals and as volunteers we need to do so – much faster than we have to date. And our response can’t be bursty – it needs to be strong and consistent.

I will leave it to the much more thoughtful Jewish thinkers and academics to explain in more artful terms the nature of Jewish burstyness. But I think the imperative is simple enough – we need to develop Jewish experiences that create more and longer sustaining bursts of Jewish engagement. Birthright is one example of a large-scale systemic approach to developing one particular burst of Jewish experience and one correlative impact – a bursty experience of Israel is intended to create a lifetime of affinity for Israel. Without exploring the merits or results of that approach, one thing is clear – there is a burst of activity.  How we sustain that burst is another matter altogether, and as more and more communities focus on developing “post-Birthright programming” what they are beginning to find out is that when you start with a high quality, high-energy burst, the follow-up opportunities for subsequent burst need to be equally attractive and inspiring. If not, that initial burst may turn out to be… well … a bust.

So the question we should then ask, must ask, of our existing Jewish infrastructure is this: Are we designing and implementing opportunities for Jewish experience that are responsive to the bursty nature of modern Jews?  Similarly, are we coordinating the opportunities for bursts of Jewish activity in a way that help increase the number of bursts, sustain their lengthen and increase their magnitude?  These questions are questions that can be reduced to a more granular set of questions for each organization and initiative. For example, when planning a multi-part education/social/philanthropic initiative, is the programming responsive to the bursty nature of the target audience? Does its time commitment parameters exceed the typical length of burst that the target audience considers “available engagement time” for the offered experience? What is the follow-up plan for the burst, and when is the next burst opportunity?  If the answers to these questions aren’t known, or aren’t even considered, than it is likely that the potential of that specific opportunity to develop and magnify the number of Jewish bursts will be limited.

So back to network theory  – most network developers would tell you that a high functioning network is less bursty and more regular in its performance.  The network should be used in an optimal manner with a high level of activity so that bursts are irregular, not the norm. 

However, the Jewish network is a bit different… in an era where the level of engagement is inconsistent, and where we seek to encourage a high level of activity, bursts of activity and results in the “Jewish engagement network” are signs of what works, and perhaps what doesn’t. Understanding what makes Jews bursty will ultimately strengthen the future of one of the most important networks of all – the Jewish people.