Be Strong, and Strengthen One Another

Thinking about the future, I worry about the state of our communal belief in ourselves. Low expectations suggest little confidence in the possibility of doing better, and our institutional language and processes convey a similar lack of resolve. We need to get our moxie back: higher standards, more nerve, and more independent thought.

My concern about standards stems from the extremely modest expectations that are attached to a lot of current ventures. Take the many programs aimed at bringing young Jewish adults together. When a Jewish young-adult group signs up 30 people to see the Yankees play the Red Sox, is that a successful Jewish outreach event? The answer can be yes only if the bar is set very low. And when institutions and their funders count such activities as a success in community-building or Jewish programming, they are settling for far too little.

What’s more, we pay a large opportunity cost. When money, staff time, and volunteer time are devoted to activities with little real impact, we are implicitly not putting those resources behind an alternative that could yield more powerful experiences. That’s a cost we can’t afford. In the next decade I hope we can raise the bar and insist on more substantive, lasting outcomes.

The question of standards also applies to the way we do or don’t grapple with change. All too often we hear one of our policymakers urge that “we need to start a conversation” about some issue. That’s not a solution or a proposal or even a diagnosis of a specific problem; it’s a content-free, risk-free, anodyne suggestion, and again, that’s not good enough. We’ll never be able to arrive at sound decisions about communal issues if we lack the courage to be direct, clear, specific, and even outspoken about what we advocate.

Which brings me to “nerve.” A sure sign of a lack of conviction is the substitution of abstract, quantitative data in place of values. Donors don’t ask for data to justify the idea of supporting meals for the indigent elderly; they simply believe it’s the right thing to do. The funders of many new ventures, on the other hand, ask for numerical data to demonstrate for bureaucratic reasons that a project is needed and/or effective. The explosion in the Jewish survey industry is a major symptom of the desire for at least the appearance of objective justification.

Numbers are even more constricting in the post-hoc evaluation processes that are becoming more popular among foundations. The problem with relying on quantitative targets for evaluations is that those measures work best in narrow, specific undertakings: a program to increase Hebrew literacy among a specific group of post-bar/bat mitzvah students, for example. This encourages micro-thinking in grant-making, assuming that communal transformation will somehow result from enlarging the marketplace of ideas and activities.

Societies, however, don’t work like the high-tech venture-capital marketplace. Social goods like cancer research may not produce any tangible short-term results at all, apart from some lab reports, but they are basic to the long-term health of humanity. Of course we need small, targeted projects. But without the nerve also to support sustained, big-scale projects that may not have a near-term quantifiable impact, there is a danger we’ll plant a lot of trees while forgetting to look after the forest.

A third enemy of progress is dogmatism, the inclination to insist that a given point of view is the only acceptable one, leading to the exclusion of others from public discourse. The dogmas keep changing: unity, continuity, diversity, innovation, social entrepreneurship, social media, youth engagement, etc. While each is in the ascendant, however, it is not open to question; skeptics are treated as retrograde, rear-guard, reactionary, or simply rebarbative. That creates a herd instinct and it stifles honest, independent, creative dialogue.

Embracing trends and spreadsheets is no substitute for the hard work of articulating broad values that will inspire future generations to identify as Jewish. In the years ahead I hope we’ll be bolder, aim higher, question the conventional wisdom, and get closer to communal transformation. Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek – Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.

Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity and vice-president of Zeek Media, lives in Jerusalem. He can be reached directly at bob [at] jewishcreativity [dot] com.