by Michael Brooks
In his characteristically thoughtful reflection on the meaning of community affiliation (“We Need a New Way to Count” eJP September 29, 2010), James Hyman makes a persuasive case for why the message that so many Jewish organizations send to the institutionally unaffiliated suggests to them that if they don’t join, pay dues or make a contribution they don’t count. I would like to offer a gloss on his cogent text.
Notwithstanding the two censuses in the wilderness chapters of our people’s story, both the Torah and the rabbinic tradition take a very dim view of counting people. God’s anger at King David for conducting a census (II Samuel 24) – the first Jewish demographic study commissioned by a community leader – is given as the reason for the terrible punishments subsequently meted out to the people. A later version (I Chronicles 21) avers that it was actually Satan who enticed the King to carry out the census though David, to his credit, acknowledged that “I have sinned greatly in having done this thing … I have acted very foolishly,” eschewing the easy out embraced by some contemporary political leaders (“the devil made me do it”).
The Talmud’s injunction that “Israel must not be counted even for the sake of a mitzvah” (Yoma 22b) is the basis for determining whether or not we have a minyan by tallying those present as “not one, not two, not three . . .” and the message could not be clearer: people must be treated as unique individuals, not as numbers. Having said that, the fact is that we do have to count people if they are to count. We can pray alone at home or donate to the local food bank as individuals, but we can’t read the Torah in public unless at least nine other Jews are present, and we can’t feed tens of thousands of elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union or provide significant aid to those suffering in Haiti or Ethiopia any way other than collectively.
There is another important valence to counting. In Hebrew the word lispor /to count is both etymologically and conceptually related to the word l’saper /to tell. The sofer /scribe is the person who recounts and retells our sippur / story in a sefer / book. (Interestingly, the same is true in other languages, including English – the person who counts our money and informs us how much is in our account is a teller.) We have to count people because they are a vital part of our story, and we can’t tell it without them.
Counting in and of itself isn’t the issue – it’s why we count, how we count, and also whom we count. Unlike the biblical censuses that only counted adult males, a look at the photos of past presidents in the boardrooms of our Federations, synagogues and JCCs suggests that while we’ve begun to make progress, we still have some distance to go.
The biblical census was in fact conducted by the contribution of a half shekel – not a large amount to be sure, but nonetheless a contribution – and the population of the community was ascertained on the basis of the total amount donated. In 1991, Jewish students at the University of Michigan launched the UJA Half Shekel Campaign based on this biblical model. Instead of announcing a total dollar goal, they decided to measure the success of the campaign by the number of students participating. The theme was simple and compelling: Because Every One Counts.
To be sure, they didn’t secure a contribution from every Jewish student on campus but they did triple the number of donors (including for the first time some non-Jewish students who said that they were impressed and moved by the idea) and doubled the amount raised in any of the previous years, and it wasn’t about fund-raising but about building community. It was actually replicated over the next few years on 15 other campuses under the auspices of the UJA’s University Programs Department until that unit was eliminated in a cost saving measure, one that might be described as the institutional equivalent of eating our seed corn.
Building community and raising money are not antithetical to each other – they are inextricably linked, and if we’re not raising more money each year we probably aren’t yet doing a good enough job building community. We should be talking more, not less, about the vital importance of our annual campaign, but there should be two thermometers in the lobby: one announcing how many of us have contributed and one indicating how much we as a community have raised and what we are going to collectively be able to do with it.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis, (who is shul wise the way some people are street wise) tells an insightful story:
I frequently have demographic discussions with the president of my congregation, who sizes up the attendance in the synagogue and at lectures and counts the house. The president asks me, “How many people do you think there are here?” “Six hundred,” I say. “No,” says the president, “it’s closer to three hundred.” I have, after many years, figured out the nature of this disparity. The president counts the heads. I count the feet. It’s all a matter of perspective. People vote with their feet.
Indeed they do, and better marketing isn’t going to bring them back. It’s what we do in both word and deed that signals to Jews what we are all about; if we have to explain it to them in an “elevator speech” we shouldn’t be surprised when they get off the elevator two floors after we begin our pitch. These signals have to make it unambiguously clear that all Jews have a place at the community’s table regardless of how much they give or to whom they may be married or committed or how they feel about Israel (frustration, like pride, is a sign of connection, not indifference); that we are incomplete as a community unless all of us are at that table; that it is a privilege to be a member of our community, to participate in it and to support it; that we all need to contribute and be counted because there are so many people, at home and around the world, who are counting on us; and that the story we tell about ourselves – and that others tell about us – is as inspiring as it is inspired. This is the text of our story. The rest, as Hillel said, is commentary.
Michael Brooks is Executive Director of University of Michigan Hillel.