A non-Zoom moment in time

Being decisive in the face of uncertainty: Andrés Spokoiny’s address to JFN 2022

In Short

If we need to rebuild the relationship of Jews with each other, we need a coalition of the sane. We need to reclaim the art of conversation and listen to one another in a different way.  

The challenge of our time – said Bertrand Russell – is how to be decisive in the face of uncertainty. 

Now, I’m by temperament at ease with ambivalence and uncertainty. I generally welcome it, even enjoy it, but having lived through the last couple of years, I feel like the guy having a glass of whiskey on the deck of the Titanic saying, “I know I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous!”

But jokes aside, the last couple of years took a toll in my psychological wellbeing. 

It’s less depression and more shell-shock. I don’t know you, but I feel that events keep coming; one thing after another. The ordered rhythm of what we knew before is gone. 

It’s as though I’m crouching all the time, looking at the world in fearful anticipation. 

And now, as we hopefully come out of the pandemic, we want to have our innocence restored, to once again believe in a kind of permanence to our lives. 

But the truth is that’s gone for good. Plagues, wars, natural disasters, those were things that happened in other times, to other people. As my young son told me: those were things that happened in black and white. Alas, they aren’t. 

The shock of the pandemic wasn’t so much about recognizing our own mortality but rather the fragility of our lives and the broader societies we are embedded in. I’m always afraid of some new blow. 

This feeling, of course, was compounded by the brutal invasion of Ukraine. That permanent state of alertness is exhausting, and that’s why during the pandemic we suffered from “languishing,” that sense of feeling “blah” all the time. 

One of the themes of the pandemic was the strain on relationships. Some relationships suffered because of distance, others because of the lack of distance, some became less functional, some were recalibrated. 

Relationships were challenged on the individual level, but if we look at the Jewish people as a whole, the basic relationships that make us a people also were challenged. 

To be Jewish involves living in three different relationships: 

a relationship with our fellow Jews, 

a relationship with the outside world, 

and a relationship with Judaism. 

On these three key relationships, we have a crisis of potentially devastating consequences. To be sure the pandemic didn’t create those crises but accelerated them and gave them dramatic urgency. 

1 – In terms of our relationship with each other, with our fellow Jews. We are living in times of extreme polarization and extremism. The Jewish people was always fractious and divided, but the level of discourse today, the demonization of each other has reached extremely dangerous levels. 

The utter incapacity of having civil conversations is destroying the fabric of the community and driving Jews away from Jewish life altogether. We are splintering into groups that have very little in common with each other. 

Yes, Jews were always diverse, but we always felt we had a commonality of fate, we felt in our gut that what happened to one happened to all. We had shared dreams and aspirations. Not anymore. The dreams of ones is the nightmare of others. 

The strain in the relationships between Israeli and Diaspora Jews existed before the pandemic, and now, we added the fact that for two years, we couldn’t visit or travel. Our link is so tenuous that we suspend Birthright for a few months, and we tremble. 

The truth is that we live in different universes, and we are sharing way less than we need in order to maintain a cohesive people. 

And at the local level, in North America, we are failing at building an inclusive community. 

Big chunks of our community: Jews of Color, Haredim, Mizrahi Jews, Russian-speaking Jews and many others are underrepresented in so-called mainstream institutions. In sum, we don’t have a “Jewish Public Square.”

It’s true that this isn’t only a Jewish problem, but a general one. Society is polarized and fragmented; social media facilitates the creation of echo chambers. But we have compounded the problem by ceding the field to the extremes. 

When I see the statistics, I’m simultaneously hopeful and infuriated. I’m hopeful because the people holding extreme, exclusionary ideas are a minority, maybe 10% on the right and 10% on the left, but infuriated because we let them control the conversation. 

If we need to rebuild the relationship of Jews with each other, we need a coalition of the sane. We need to reclaim the art of conversation and listen to one another in a different way.  

2 – The second key relationship is that of Jews with “the other.” And in that realm, the resurgence of antisemitism has made that relationship – for the first time since World War II – one of fear and mistrust. And we may be tired and exhausted, but antisemites are not. They have tons of energy; they are inventing ever new ways to demonize and attack us, from Jewish space lasers to demonizing Israel. 

Let’s face it, our record on fighting antisemitism is not great. I’m the first to say that eliminating antisemitism is impossible, but even the little progress we CAN achieve, we fail to attain. 

And that’s because, regardless of where we stand politically, we look at antisemitism through a lens of ideological rigidity. We are more interested in being right than in being successful. We can’t (and we don’t) resist the allure of politicizing antisemitism and get into pissing matches about “which antisemitism is worse, right or left” and use antisemitism as a club with which to hit our political opponents (and also to attack other Jews). 

The truth is, left and right antisemitism believe the same things: that Jews “control the world,” that “Jews have too much power,” and that “if it wasn’t for the Jews” the world would be a better place. 

We are also totally perplexed on how to fight antisemitism on social media. We think that “posting on social media” is like buying a full-page ad in The New York Times. We have little idea of how the dynamics of influence on social media work, and we keep throwing good money after bad. 

We have made “preaching to the choir” into an art form. 

And if we talk relationships: We have become worse at building bridges and coalitions with others. We are rigid and we demand all sort of litmus tests that make coalition building impossible. It’s hard to build coalitions when we are not empathetic to the needs of others. 

3 – and third, the relationship between Jews and Judaism is also in crisis. 

Is not that the crisis of Jewish literacy and engagement was created by the pandemic, but it was exacerbated by it. Because after the pandemic, like after every pandemic in history, people will engage in a quest for meaning and if Judaism isn’t RELEVANT, COMPELLING, and ACCESSIBLE, Jews will look elsewhere. 

North America is the safest, richest and most powerful Jewish community in Jewish history, and yet, one of the most Jewishly illiterate. We keep creating shortcuts, gateways to nothing, all paltry substitutes to a meaningful and deep engagement with our tradition. 

How is it that poor communities in Eastern Europe or Morocco could provide free Jewish eucation to every child and we can’t make Jewish day school affordable? 

We have been very good at creating frameworks for connections among Jews, and that’s very important, but we have been bad at adding meaningful content to those frameworks. 

When it comes to Judaism we have – to use a concept in vogue – inoculated: We received small doses that prevents us from catching the real thing. 

I’ve written about setting an aspirational goal: ensure close-to- universal Jewish literacy in a generation. It may not be realistic, but the point remains: We can’t keep talking about Jewish engagement without talking about what we are engaging with. 

It was a priority before, it’s a bigger priority even know. 

And let me add a fourth set of relationships that are in crisis: the ones we have with Jewish organizations. 

The pandemic made more evident that there are deep cracks in our organizational models. We are stuck with 19th– and 20th– century models, models that worked well in times of low volatility and slow change but are woefully inadequate for times of uncertainty. 

Let me tell you something that will illustrate what I mean: the largest water distribution system in Europe is owned by the Italian Railroad System. 

It’s not being used, but they own it. Do you know why? It’s a relic from the times in which the trains were steam powered. They still have it, even though steam engines haven’t been in use since 1960. The pandemic has exposed the Italian railroad’s water systems that we all have in our organizations; the things that are relics of a different era and don’t serve us anymore. Rather, they drag us down and prevents us from operating in a 21st-century paradigm. 

I know that because we averted the worse, and organizations didn’t fall like dominoes during COVID, we think that we’ll go “back to normal,” but the pre-pandemic “normal” wasn’t that normal. 

Think, for example, about the membership model that many organizations depend on. Is it still viable? Are we having any serious conversations about how to renew it? 

Are we thinking about our leadership paradigms? Are we changing them in any meaningful ways, or we still follow the template of the “strong man” and the pyramidal organization? 

Think about the duplication and lack of coordination that exists within our communal system. 

Are we ready to deal with the transformation of the workplace? With the talent crunch that will follow? Did we really learn the pandemic lesson that brains are more important than bricks? 

Have we invested any serious thought on how to integrate technology into our work in functional ways that don’t harm the human connection? 

If all this sounds daunting, it’s because it is. 

And yet… despite our fatigue, despite everything, we are here, like cicadas, emerging out of the ground after a long hibernation. 

We are here, reconnecting, having braved our fears and anxieties to gather again in person. 

We are here, hoping that this spring will finally bring renewal and rebirth. 

And we need to hold onto that feeling, because we are going to need all the energy and all the optimism in the world to tackle the challenges that we face. 

The next couple of days, we are going to expand on the themes I just mentioned. But I think that each of us needs to have an internal journey. One in which we re-examine our own leadership and deploy the skills and attitudes that will be critical in the months and years ahead. I’ll suggest two such attitudes. One is intellectual humility. You see, in the aftermath of the Spanish flu, many were shell-shocked and paralyzed by the uncertainty of the world. 

But not Werner Heisenberg who embraced that unpredictability and had one of the most important scientific insights of all times: the uncertainty principle. 

Instead of trying to avoid uncertainty, he saw that “uncertainty” was woven in the basic building blocks of the universe. In other words, there’s no knowledge without uncertainty. 

That mindset ushered a wave of intellectual humility; it prompted scientists to relentlessly challenge their own biases and enquire in a freer and less dogmatic way. Maybe it was that attitude that led to the exponential development of human knowledge in the second half of the 20th century.

Today, most of the conversations we have are just collisions of competing dogmatism. In fact, the basic fault lines today are not between people with different beliefs but between people who hold these beliefs with an element of uncertainty and people who hold these beliefs with a pretense of certitude. 

(The truth is that a lot of humility is called for: if we were as great as we think we are, the world would look really different than it does. We have a lot to be proud of but we have a lot to be humble about.) 

Only through intellectual humility can we have the difficult conversations we need to have; only by knowing that we don’t own the truth we can build spaces of cognitive diversity that don’t stifle but embrace dissent. 

Only through intellectual humility can we build and maintain partnerships and coalitions that propose creative solutions to difficult problems. 

Only through humility can we leave space for the other, to be open for the uniqueness that only “the different” can give us. 

Only through intellectual humility can we learn and grow as people and as a community. 

Secondly, we need boldness. There is indeed a time for small steps and incremental approaches, but now is not that time. As Danton said during the French revolution, in times of crisis one needs boldness, more boldness, always boldness.

You see JFN’s role is sometimes to hold the mirror to the philanthropic community. In that capacity, I can tell you that COVID saw the finest hours of the philanthropic community: we stepped up and literally kept the community afloat during the worst crisis in a generation; but we also fell short, because we failed to dream big; to use the pandemic as a moment to reimagine the community and make bold bets. 

We need to create philanthropic moonshots, to truly use the power we have to produce the changes we need. 

And we need to ask ourselves some hard questions: are we willing to push ourselves to be bolder? To give more boldly? To have big, transformational dreams? 

Are we willing to reject the path of least resistance? To challenge conventional wisdom? In a word, are we willing to lead by example? 

Are we willing to create a culture that incentivizes rather than penalizes risk taking in ourselves and in our grantees? 

To be bold in times of uncertainty is not easy. People are scared, and rightfully so. But as Volodomir Zelensky is teaching the world “leadership is helping terrified people be brave.” (Especially if you are terrified yourself). And you know what’s the phrase the God tell to Moses the most times? “Al tira,” don’t be afraid. 

God knows it isn’t easy, but God also knows that we can only advance if we… 

  • risk more than others think is safe, 
  • love more than others think is wise, dream more than others think is practical,
  • and expect more than others think is possible.

These two qualities: humility and boldness may seem contradictory, but they are actually complementary. Boldness without humility is arrogance, humility without boldness is cowardice. 

Now is the time to challenge our limits instead of limiting our challenges. Each of us can make a big difference and together, we can make the most ambitious dreams come true. 

For all our problems, despite our fragility, the Jewish people is now stronger than ever in our history. 

If other generations didn’t lower their arms in face of problems that were way more terrible than ours, we don’t have the luxury to give up. 

So yes, we may be exhausted and demotivated, but we are here. 

We are here to repair those relations that are strained and build new ones, to relearn the art of being a people, to get energized and share our dreams, to discover that not only viruses, but good things like courage and passion are also contagious. 

Yes, these couple of years, and this last month took a toll, but to paraphrase James Joyce’s Ulysses

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; 

We are still that strength which in old days

Moved heaven and earth, 

that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Maybe weakened by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and never to yield.

And one that strove, that sought, that fought and never yield was my dear friend.. 

Andrés Spokoiny is president and CEO of Jewish Funders Network.