Rigid Institutions in a Fluid Era

We’ve spent so much time building institutional Jewish life, and protecting it, and charging for it, that we’ve often lost track of why we needed these organizations in the first place.

by Allan Finkelstein

In June of 1969 I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis at the University of Minnesota on “duplication of services in the Twin Cities Jewish community.” I was concerned even then that the way Jewish communal services were organized made absolutely no sense. What bothered me wasn’t only duplication, but, the rigidity and hard boundaries in Jewish life that duplication symptomized. Even as an idealistic undergraduate, I was sure that we could be so much more effective in how we engage people – all kinds of people – and help them pursue their Jewish journeys. Sadly, more than 40 years later, little has changed. We’ve certainly added tremendous new services, built well-designed and attractive buildings, and arguably improved the quantity and quality of our staffing, but, we still lack a sufficient awareness of the public we aim to serve, engage, and energize, a public that is diverse and fluid and has even less patience than I did in my college years for highly bounded, ridiculously competitive, and needlessly petty Jewish institutions. I have had a lifelong interest in examining Jewish communal life and even though I concede that I may be part of the problem at times, I’m convinced that we can do much better.

Let’s take one issue: Money. For the past 40 years, I’ve heard us bemoan the high cost of being Jewish, yet collectively we’ve layered on so many costly demands that just the basics of “being Jewish” are prohibitive. The infrastructure that we built in the 1970s and 80s is largely responsible for the high fees that are required today. Ideally, we’d like every Jewish family to raise two or three children, join congregations and JCCs, send the kids to day camp, overnight camp, and Israel, support the campaign, and make lots of other Jewish purchases (films, books, recreational activities, etc.). It doesn’t add up. Well it does add up, but makes no sense for a population whose median income is about $60-70,000 annually.

Add to that our “silo-ization.” To take a glaring example, for approximately 14 years, we’ve made it possible for thousands of young adults to claim their “birthright” by accepting a free 10-day trip to Israel. The research bears out the success stories – the return to Israel on longer trips supported by Masa, the increased Jewish friends, the “birthright marriages,” and more. But the reality is that the vast majority of these alums – along with the vast majority of our young people – are still largely unconnected with Jewish life. We’ve done a terrible job of hand-offs and follow-up, to say nothing of availability of basic information. We have failed to make it possible for them to access Jewish life; we haven’t even made the offer, in most cases.

The PEW study has told us what we all knew: too few Jews are Jewishly engaged, even tangentially. It doesn’t take an outside study to tell us to change. We have everything at our fingertips – buildings, staff, and, yes, money. We have professional expertise, committed lay leaders, and years of experience. What we don’t have is the good sense to make a few hard choices that could, in a relatively short time, change the dynamics.

A few concrete suggestions:

Let’s attempt to change the institutionally protective discourse. Can we survive without “defending” our institution/organization/denomination at the expense of another? What positive messages can we send?

What about eliminating membership requirements from Jewish organizations? Most of society is selling service, pay as you go. Can we take the chance that people will want to be with us on their terms, rather than forced to join on ours? Are we confident enough in the quality of programs and services that we will let people in without a barrier? While we’re at it, can we please stop referring to fellow Jews as “non members?”

More broadly, we need to increase the interaction of Jews with Jews, and of different kinds of Jews (both locally and globally), and, of course between Jews and friends/family/spouses of Jews. Last week in Israel, I met a fascinating young man who is inviting Hasidic Jews to sit down and have coffee with secular Jews. We need to provide more spaces (real and metaphoric) where Jewish connection, community and journey can happen. I’ve had the joy, for many years, of watching these friendships build and sustain across the boundaries of age, social class, and yes, denomination.

How about trusting ourselves when it comes to the ongoing challenge of engaging alumni of Birthrightisrael? Imagine if we had called every participant immediately upon their return to welcome them and bring them in, rather than “waiting” for the right activity to attract them. It’s about the basics of engagement. There’s still a huge opportunity here.

Years ago Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote a song called “Make It Easy on Yourself.” Why don’t we do so? As I’ve already said in several ways, we’ve made it hard on ourselves – and on unengaged (or even moderately engaged) Jews to enter Jewish life. We’ve spent so much time building institutional Jewish life, and protecting it, and charging for it, that we’ve often lost track of why we needed these organizations in the first place. We’ve built more walls than we’ve torn down. We’ve labeled, criticized, categorized, while we’ve lost people.

We know the answers. Do we have the will to make the decisions we need to make and take some risks? Institutions that fear for their own survival have already missed the point. It’s about being loose enough, adaptive enough, and relational enough to engage individuals and broaden their involvement in Jewish life. Let’s keep our eyes on the ball!

Allan Finkelstein is president and CEO of JCC Association.

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  1. Dave J. Stein says

    One way is to eliminate elitism. Many temples talk about open door but these
    Same temples have sky high dues and are constantly try to get new eager potential members to join. Any Jew should be able to go to services without being economically intimidating to join In fact groups like NAMI offer a three dollar membership for people who cannot afford thirty dollars.

    Also like it or not especially with Millenials very few of them will go to a typical 90 minute or Two hour plus service. We live in an age of Twitter and online email subjects.

    Also many temples need to reach out better to the Non-Jewish community
    They may not believe exactly like we might but religions such as the Baha’is
    would be glad to attend a Sabbath Service.

  2. says

    Thank you for this article. The paragraph about engaging post-Birthright 20-somethings in active rather than passive ways is intriguing and perhaps vital. I agree with you 100% – this is indeed the basics of engagement work and our silos prevent it from happening. The professionals at Birthright Next are working hard to empower communities to solve this problem, and voices like yours pushing from the top down as well as young people from the bottom up will eventually make it happen!

  3. says

    I want to highlight just one powerful question that Allan raises that could fundamentally change Jewish life: “Can we survive without “defending” our institution/organization/denomination at the expense of another?”

    I know that we can – will we? Thanks, Allan, for writing this piece.

  4. BAH says

    It’s tough for me to feel good about working my butt off to come up with the dues that help to pay a full-time rabbi’s annal salary of $75,000 or more a year when I am scraping by on less than $12,000. And that is why I don’t pay synagogue dues. I recognize that rabbis work very hard and carry a lot of responsibility. As a Jewish religious school teacher, I also work hard and carry a lot of responsibility, abd I do it while working a strange schedule that makes it harder for me to find a second part-time job to fill in the cracks.

    Also, looking at sites like Jewish Jobs, I see a lot of listings for positions in that huge infrastructure referred to in the article. How many of those positions are absolutely necessary, and how many are layers added on in the interests of shoring up the silo? Synagogue boards — and leaders of other Jewish institutions — need to ask themselves some very hard questions about how much bang for the buck they offer to prospective participants, and whether the membership model still makes any sense in an economy ruled more and more by individual choice.

  5. says

    Allan, thank you for bringing up some important issues facing our communities, and highlighting some ways we can address them. Here at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation, our strategy is focused on much of what you propose: we consult with Jewish professionals and organizations on engaging young Jewish adults (like Rabbi Aaron Meyer–and thanks for mentioning us!), connect Birthrighters and their peers to opportunities and to each other, and catalyze opportunities where gaps exist.

    In fact, one major area of our consulting work is convening and training “engagers”–those who work directly with Birthrighters and young adults in their home communities. Just last month, we gathered 36 engagers who represented 11 communities from throughout the Western US, and a wide array of organizations. This national network of engagers from across communal institutions and grassroots projects is helping to create more trusting and inter-dependent communities that are better equipped to welcome back and engage Birthrighters. During our two days together, engagers shared ideas and learned the skills necessary to discover and respond to the needs of young Jewish adults within a Jewish context. Conversations revolved around collaborative programs, evaluations, and developing community-wide engagement strategies.

    I am happy to talk to you more about our work offline, including what we are learning from engagers and young Jewish adults. You can reach me at adam.pollack@birthrightisraelnext.org.

    Looking forward!

  6. Rabbi Aaron Bisno says

    Thank you, Allan, for putting this out there! Yours is an incredibly important thought piece that I sincerely hope our community’s local and national leaders will soon take to heart. It is all well and good for folks to speak about making our respective institutions more welcoming, hospitable and relational, but if we fail to recognize and address the fundamental, systemic realities you highlight, I fear, our congregations, institutions and national movements, are at best whistling past the graveyard and at worst failing the very community we are ostensibly committed to serving. After all, pride goeth before a fall. Again, Allan, thank you! Truly this is the courageous conversation we all need most to engage!

  7. says

    Thanks for adding some great perspective that needs to be discussed in order to change the culture of our communities. Who takes the lead? Can we get out of our own way and check siloed eagos at the door? I believe we need transparent, grassroots, honest relationships to be built that listen to concerns and address these issues without the elitism that critics say drive decisions. Not only have we made Judaism too expensive, we have made it difficult and for most, that is a huge turn off. Time to change the paradigm!

  8. says

    We’ve found it difficult to maintain our JCC membership at any price. Simple requests like updating our credit card number seem to result in administrative SNAFUs. It’s hard to imagine a secular gym (which I realize the JCC is not, but a large part of why many people pay dues there) staying in business that way.