A 20th Century Solution to 21st Century Problems

by Jay Michaelson

In the old days, by which I mean the twentieth century, we consumed media curated by experts. On LPs and Cassettes, record producers and company execs picked and ordered songs that they thought we ought to hear, and paid radio DJs to play them. On the five channels of television, industry experts picked which sitcoms we’d watch at what times, and even added laugh tracks so we’d know when to smile.

For better or for worse, and I think for better, this mode of media consumption is being rapidly washed away. In place of vinyl records, we create iPod playlists with the artists we find interesting. In place of TV, we TiVo, and watch programs selected from 500 channels when and where we want. This is how we live now – at least, those of us privileged enough to afford such technology.

To praise, as JFNA chair Kathy Manning does, “the ability of our leaders to determine the greatest needs of the Jewish world” is as anachronistic as the 8-track tape. What Jewish world? What leaders? What needs? Are we really to suppose that top-down planning will accurately identify, prioritize, and address a unified set of needs that somehow applies to the secular Russian diaspora, Haredim in Ariel, and communities at risk in the developing world? No doubt, such plans will be carefully drafted by well-meaning and well-informed Jewish insiders. But they will face a daunting task selling such a product to generations used to deciding for themselves what causes to support and what priorities to set.

I applaud the sincere efforts of those who will be doing this work. I have done some of it myself, in past federation-related think-tanks that bear an uncanny resemblance to the Global Planning Table. Yet it is so out of step with contemporary sensibilities among non-professional-Jews that it seems not just like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but steering the ship more closely toward the iceberg.

First, the Federation model is based on the notion that a self-appointed group of curators are better at allocating Jewish philanthropic dollars than philanthropists themselves. But is this true? Some of the most successful Jewish programs of recent years are actually due not to these committees but to rebellious mega-donors – Steinhardts, Schustermans, Bronfmans, et al – who chose to work outside the system. Birthright Israel is one example. Moishe House is another. Can you think of a Federation program with the same kind of impact?

Moreover, because Federations are constrained by finding consensus-oriented, mainstream solutions, they leave out the margins, where most exciting work happens. Why is it that Federations have been so behind the curve in reaching out to LGBT Jews and multi-faith families? Well, because someone might get offended. Nor is this just a left-wing complaint: on the Right and Far Right, a few individual donors have had a far more powerful impact on Israeli politics than the federations’ mainstream. The mushy middle is just too mushy.

Everyone knows that Jews don’t agree about anything: “two Jews, three opinions.” But even the notion that we should agree is misleading. Open source development, crowdsourced social media, and the decentralized successes of the Tea Party and Occupy movements should by now have taught us that the best path to innovation is not Soviet-style central planning, but the anarchic chaos of the free market, in which lots of ideas are experimented with, and only the strong survive. This is precisely what is happening anyway in the Jewish philanthropic world, for the temperamental reasons noted above. But rather than embrace the change, the Federation movement is convening yet another central planning process, flying in the face of history.

And for whom are they doing this? Is there really a “Jewish world”? I don’t think so. There are multiple Jewish worlds, often operating at cross-purposes. Occasionally we come together – and indeed, Federations are great at doing the inoffensive, important, and often unsexy work of social services and community support. But often we do not come together, and that is okay too. Some Jews support settlements in the West Bank. Others support the Palestinian declaration of statehood. Some Jews think spirituality is the center of Judaism. Others think spirituality is nonsense. No Global Planning Table is going to find a middle ground between these positions, because it doesn’t exist. Better to let a thousand flowers bloom.

Federations continue to fill vital roles, and do important work. They are able to capture the attention of those American Jews motivated enough to give to Jewish causes, but not motivated enough to direct where their money goes. At the other end of the spectrum, for those high-capacity individuals able to take leadership roles in Federation campaigns, they offer the possibility of significant resources to get big things done, and a network of similarly high-capacity people to do it with. This is all good, and, as I have said, much good does come from it.

But the myth that federations represent “the” Jewish community is as mythic as the notion that such a community exists in the first place. What does exist are numerous self-selected and often temporary communities working toward various ends and with different values motivating them. Ironically, the subset of American Jews interested in Federations is itself one such Jewish subculture, and, for the moment, one of the richest. But not more than that.

Jay Michaelson is the author, most recently, of “God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality” (Beacon); Associate Editor of Religion Dispatches magazine, Contributing Editor to the Forward, and Founder and Editor in Chief of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. In 2009, Jay was included on the “Forward 50″ list of the fifty most influential Jewish leaders in America.