At the Same Table

by Dr. Misha Galperin

In 1929, the Jewish Agency was created to pull together multiple Zionist movements that were working for the same cause but in ways that were often at odds with each other. More than a 100 years ago, Boston began North America’s first Federation to pull together small volunteer groups with the same goal of helping new Jewish immigrants but who were fighting for limited resources. Thirty years ago, multiple Jewish organizations were created to free Russian Jews from the clutches of communism so that they could live openly as Jews outside of the Soviet Union. Many of them engaged in turf wars with each other that impeded their progress as a whole.

In all of these instances, everybody wanted someone else to support them exclusively. The political battle for limited resources to accomplish similar ends was hurting everyone, but you need foresight and hindsight to see it. We achieved our goals only when we were able to buy into a collective vision that could have more power than the sum of its parts.

Today, we are in need of such an amalgamated push once again to bring together organizations across the world that want to strengthen Jewish identity but all want to do so independently. We all think we have the answer, the magic bullet, the obvious solution. As a result, we want people to fund our organization exclusively. We have very few Jewish leaders today or organizations today that are reaching across institutional boundaries to take on the project of the Jewish people in its totality. We are not working together well, and we won’t be able to strengthen Jewish identity until we do.

Sociological research points to a reality in Jewish life today – the pervasive and urgent need to strengthen Jewish identity in a climate of openness and inclusion. The gift of modern life is a double-edged sword. We live in relative peace and security with those around us, but we have also assimilated the value of universalism such that we are not supporting our own enough. If we don’t take care of ourselves, who will? This is not a new question, but the way we are solving this problem is its own double-edged sword. In seeking exclusive institutional support we minimize our collective impact.

We actually have consensus about what to do to strengthen Jewish identity. Intensive expressions of Jewish life come through immersive experiences of study, travel and community. Strengthening Jewish identity requires funding institutions that can provide those immersive experiences: day schools, youth groups, Birthright, camping, MASA (long-term Israel Experience programs), adult Jewish learning. If the recipe is clear, why isn’t it working?

I believe that the fragmentation of Jewish institutional life is hurting our capacity to do this critical work. When we compete with each other to help create personal Jewish identity, we sacrifice collective Jewish identity, what we call the peoplehood agenda. Institutional splintering creates a picture of Jewish life that is slivered rather than one that is whole. The remarkable network of Jewish institutions that we have created over the last century lacks systemic coordination. The Jewish body may ultimately have one heart but it has too many legs today that are all running in different directions.

In his book, Silos, Politics and Turf Wars, Patrick Lencioni writes that the only way departments, organizations and individuals can transcend the narrow confines of their work is by engaging in a joint project that brigns everyone together with a unified goal. I believe that we need such a project right now.

My recommendation: let’s create a global summit to bring together every institution that is working on strengthening Jewish identity with the government of Israel. Let’s agree to sit at the same table. Let’s figure out what is getting in the way and what needs to be done. Let’s point our oars in the same direction. We need the overarching drive and goal that brought institutions together in the past. We cannot afford to squander the moment with myopic thinking.

In ancient Israel, the king was commanded to bring the entire nation together every seven years to read the Torah in the presence of the kahal, the community. This ritual served an incredibly important purpose. It helped us understand and recommit to a shared vision of purpose and meaning. It forced us to transcend our individualism under the umbrella of a majestic larger vision. It’s time now to gather together and do the same.

Dr. Misha Galperin is President and CEO of the Jewish Agency International Development.