Beyond Coronavirus, Connecting Our Communal Conversations
By Shai Franklin
[Am op-ed by the author on the same subject can be found here.]
How our community responds to this crisis, and how it returns to normal in the aftermath, will shape what the new “normal” looks like. But we cannot afford to lock in these changes as faits accomplis, absent a proactive and broad communal deliberation which transcends the immediate landscape of adaptation, triage, and tragedy. The wider and more intentional this conversation reaches now, the wider and more relevant our community will be for years to come.
Yes, critical resources and attention within our community are preoccupied with addressing immediate needs and continuity of programs. But we also need a framework to reassess and re-envision fundamental changes and challenges facing our community and the way we do business. And not just because of Coronavirus/Covid-19. If we wait, then these realities will either lock us in or overtake us, eventually leaving behind only the shell of a community.
By the end of this crisis, every Jewish institution and cause will have conducted some sort of audit and review of resources and mission. Let’s provide tools for this, and tabulate and cross-fertilize their viewpoints and priorities. Let’s maximize collaboration and inter-operability, in a way that hears them, celebrates them, and responds to them. This includes individuals and families, for whom the pandemic has spurred introspection and spirituality along with trauma and transition.
The purpose here is descriptive as well as prescriptive, and will ideally help spark a reawakening and soul-searching.
The need for these conversations and for a grand unified matrix interconnecting them and their constituents has become urgent and unavoidable. When I first sought input from scholars and thought leaders, those established and those still emerging, these communal conversations seemed necessary but also ahead of the curve. Since March 2020, the curve has overtaken us.
The questions and the issues are too complex, too decentralized, to be answered or decided even by a dozen of the best experts and visionaries. Nor would serious findings fit into even the longest article. I am highlighting observations and challenges here (1) to demonstrate the need, scope and possible impact of these issues, and (2) to spur a conscious communal investment into organized conversations and broad engagement.
While Zoom and its kin are here to stay, no virtual community can fully replace physical settings to worship, study, exercise, socialize, and mobilize. But those institutions and social entrepreneurs that thrive by harnessing this online-only season – not just as a temporary substitute for in-person activities, but in ways that reimagine Jewish engagement – will undoubtedly occupy a larger slice of the communal footprint going forward, even as that footprint may shrink in total size.
Startup initiatives with no overhead or acreage are running circles around well-funded digital campaigns, especially this year, and mavericks with deep pockets easily leverage the online anarchy. Unless we can accommodate and connect the countless online communities, this new digital culture will end up fragmenting and dividing us even more than before. No building fund will be able to compete. Perhaps – true to Judaism’s roots as a portable religion – we can wean ourselves off the endemic and costly “edifice complex,” repurpose existing buildings and expand pop-up opportunities.
I am proposing a conversation leading to new parameters, not a process to decide which organizations should be closed down or defunded. By the time this crisis is behind us, sadly, many of these decisions would anyway be moot. And there can be no candid, constructive conversation when the participants have to defend their raison d’être or play to the judges.
The conversations we facilitate will lead nowhere if the legacy institutions and the major funders try to pre-cook or otherwise control them. At the same time, these conversations won’t be impactful if we are not all equally engaged in them.
We need to reach out to various segments of our community, and to those who are outside or even unaware of “the community,” to best frame, inform and spin off these conversations. This includes the LGBTQ space, Jews of color, Jews by choice, Jews with disabilities, major funders and venture philanthropists, politically active Jews of all stripes, AIPAC and J Street, “cultural” Jews and “religious” Jews, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, U.S.-born and immigrants, Orthodox and Reform, Conservative and Lubavitch, Reconstructionist and Renewal, Federations and social entrepreneurs, grandparents, parents, and youth, singles and families, men and women.
What do we even mean by “community,” and is it more than just the sum of the Jewish population – by choice, by practice, or by fate? What are our remaining common denominators, and are they sufficient to act upon?
How We Got Here
In the 1930s and 1940s, most of American Jewry came together and laid the groundwork for the Federation system and its priorities – coming in the shadow of the Great Depression and against the backdrop of World War II wasn’t entirely coincidental. The idea was to generate a compelling and timely matrix for funding and program decisions, to coordinate and cluster charitable giving around shared priorities.
A generation ago, the annual Super Sunday phone marathons to reach every Jew in each community, for even the lowest contribution, were scaled back or eliminated. Federations found it was easier to raise money by reaching out to fewer Jews for larger donations. In parallel, these large donors used the advent of donor-advised funds to take over the decisions for how their money would be spent within the community. As the historian Jonathan Sarna has described, Reagan’s mantra “big government is the problem” easily translated over to Big Federation, and wealthy donors – many of them Reagan supporters – saw this shift as better for everyone.
Simultaneously, many Jews were finding their own way out. Intermarriage has continued apace and, since Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon the Jewish solidarity following Israel’s stunning 1967 victory has ebbed and flowed. We have been slow to incorporate women into decision-making roles and to address the reality that 25 percent of our community is not Ashkenazi, including many Sephardim, Jews of color, and Jews by choice. And our institutions lag behind the rest of America in being physically and organizationally accessible to the one-fifth of Jews with disabilities.
Just a few examples of the paradoxes and uncertainties we need to articulate and process, if not reconcile:
- What do we even mean by “community”? Do we still have such a functional whole?
- In the wake of Coronavirus, what new business models and value propositions will be most applicable out of necessity or opportunity?
- Even after the “all clear” is given, the conventional university model will be forever altered, with online courses and distance learning now routine. How should the community, including Hillel and a bevy of issue-based groups, adapt to meet new needs in changing circumstances?
- What are our respective visions for the model community, and what are “our” goals writ large… To get more Jews involved? Provide higher-quality content and experiences for those who seek it? Have more open and participatory decision-making? Ensure “continuity” down the road, depending on what that means?
- Why are we even here as Jews – is continuity its own goal, denying Hitler a “posthumous victory”? Do we have a mission in the world no matter how few of us there are? How much should we compromise or adjust in order to get people in the door?
- The perverse and insidious nature of anti-Semitic myths should not free us from examining the very real shortcomings within our own community and by some of our own heroes. Whether #MeToo or financial scandals, or communal policies, openly confronting and correcting these breaches will strengthen us far more than instinctively circling the wagons or looking the other way.
- Can we agree on the imperative of defending Jewish rights without framing anti-Semitism as a reason to be Jewish and “do Jewish” in the first place?
- Where are we “losing” Jews today? Birthright Israel makes a great impact with ten days in Israel, but then most participants go back to living their lives with little if any communal follow-up. And rather than Birthright reflecting “our” success in inspiring a sense of Jewish identity and commitment, it’s only a success because we’ve outsourced it to Israel.
- Are we willing as a community to transcend the survival instinct and foster – not just tolerate – candid conversations that don’t dismiss the real contradictions of Israel’s merits and flaws? Can we package these into a new, credible and ultimately more sustainable hasbara?
- What are the boundaries for eligibility and for legitimate opinion, including with respect to Israel? Sidestepping this empowers zealots, especially online, and makes it difficult to define ourselves as a community. Even supporters of annexing much of the West Bank must realize this imminent action will polarize and undermine Israel advocacy for decades.
- Throughout most of our lifetimes, Israel has occupied and defined much of what we consider to be “Jewish” and “good for the Jews.” As religious affinity and centrality of Israel decline for many American Jews, and with the impetus from current politics here and there, what are the positive and intrinsic reference points for Jewish identity going forward?
Capabilities & Modalities
- With online programming and content increasingly available for free, do we need to permanently realign the community’s fee-for-service model?
- With the rediscovery of “family time” and online support clusters, and with the possibility that today’s senior citizens and others at risk may not be able to risk fully reentering our public spaces indefinitely, what new understandings of “community” should be incorporated into our organizational planning and programs?
- For many of the Jews who are most involved, and many who are not, participation in the community – especially in education – has become unaffordable and therefore unsustainable. In Zoom Generation, can we integrate “blended” learning, distance learning and home-schooling into a more affordable and sustainable Jewish education?
- Are legacy institutions prepared to evolve into post-digital beings? There’s a quantum difference between uploading conventional lectures or programs and rethinking the entire format, staffing, and organizational culture.
Politics & Governance
- For those who aren’t already participating, being “represented” or enfranchised within the Jewish community may not be a priority – what is it they want, or what would they want if they were aware enough or welcomed enough to tell us? In the meantime, do they mind our organizations all speaking out on their behalf?
- Is the Jewish community just out of step with the disruptive politics of outsider candidates like Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Or, by relying increasingly on the wealthy few to fund most of the community, are Federations actually following the prevailing status quo of big-money and dark-money politics?
- Wealthy donors who call the shots inhibit the representative character of our community, and yet it’s been just such plutocratic instincts that break through the communal bureaucracy to produce major innovations like Birthright. And major philanthropists like Sheldon Adelson are simultaneously bankrolling community institutions along with right-wing politics in Israel and the United States.
- Can Federations be incentivized to become more transparent and inclusive, rather than seen as top-down, reliant on money from the few wealthy visionaries who make that happen? Do we as a community have a structural obligation or inherent benefit to try reaching every Jew, as stakeholders as well as customers or clients?
- We might at least recognize the innate contradictions, such as wealthy Republicans who fund Democratic-leaning social programs and endure their rabbis sermonizing against Trump, and Democrats who resent right-wing Israelis coming to tell them how to be Jewish and what it means to be “pro-Israel.”
This raft of conversations will have to engage interlocking dimensions. We need to discuss, debate, share and listen to what it means to be “Jewish,” and what kind of community – real or digital – each Jew seeks. Beyond this identity dialogue, we need to see what kinds of initiatives and services, and what kinds of structural changes, would best position us for the new era in which we already live.
To remain one community, we need to meet people where they are even as we seek to inspire them – across lines of religious and political outlook, heritage, race, gender, and socio-economic situation.
Ownership isn’t something we can give away, it’s something we have to sell. If we aren’t asking – and listening to – the right questions, then we won’t hear more than our own echo, which won’t reverberate forever. We will never forget the Great Depression and World War II, the founding of Israel and 1967, the Kennedy and MLK assassinations, the Moon landing and Watergate, the Yom Kippur War and oil embargo, “Zionism is Racism” and Solidarity Sunday, the Berlin Wall and 9/11. But what are the new formative experiences for Jews in their teens, 20s, and 30s? How will the 2008 Recession and 2020 Coronavirus impact their worldview and their expectations for Jewish involvement and commitment?
How many Jews are looking to be “transformed” and innovated, and how many are just looking to get connected and to grow Jewishly on their own terms? Can we listen to and validate their narratives? Can we break through the silos of disciplines and localities in order to maximize collaboration and replicate success stories?
Which programs already exist or can be launched in order to meet these needs and aspirations? Would foundations and venture philanthropists be willing to fund, scale-up and replicate programs that are already successful, instead of challenging hard-strapped organizations to keep inventing new initiatives just to meet exclusive grant requirements?
Can we get the data on who is being left out and feeling left out – are we even bothering to ask them? What percentage of each community is donating or being solicited – being empowered – to fund the local Federations? When most Jewish philanthropic dollars are landing outside the community, can we find out where it is being spent? Do we even have a comprehensive list of all our local and national organizations and institutions, along with their programs and participation numbers?
These questions cannot be answered through opinion polls or focus groups alone; the discussion process must itself be inclusive, transformative, and empowering. We need to weave together online platforms, crowdsourcing and local clusters, with facilitators and scholars and funders. And, when appropriate, conferences and consultations with specific agendas and benchmarks.
The new necessity and availability of online engagement present the potential to convene and empower every Jew, to balance the horizontal nature of online engagement with the hierarchical decision-making of bricks and mortar. Even with a hundred breakout sessions, a convention space with thousands of delegates wouldn’t result in anything resembling a community-wide consensus or an actionable agenda.
A secure, accessible, open-source platform could become the online convention hall for the Jewish people. Not every Jew or every entity will show up, but we can do our best for those who do and for those who will follow.
The first step is soliciting input and buy-in from a critical mass that is also representative of thinkers, doers, and organizations – young and old. If the Federation community takes up this challenge by convening a diverse array of startups, upstarts and innovators alongside more established institutions and experts, then Federation will reaffirm its role as the big tent for the Jewish future. Would enough Federation leaders be willing to share the spotlight – and the control – with “outsiders” and competitors, a prerequisite for success in the social-media age?
If Federations are not in a position to take this on, then a consortium of other organizations and funders might be able to step up. They would need to act and be accepted as honest brokers. Just as the establishment cannot own this, this also can’t be seen as an “Israeli” or “anti-Federation” initiative.
Whether we’re building an online portal or clarifying and reshaping our communal agenda, this can’t be accomplished by a ‘dream team’ sitting around a conference table or be seen as top-down. It must be responsive, inclusive, and rational. Otherwise, even the most state-of-the-art platform and all the smartest answers will do little to secure a Jewish future that’s also a future for Jews.
If boosting participation and representativeness – even ensuring continuity – become ends in themselves, then we end up with a self-perpetuating, self-defeating, value-less proposition. We cannot have a constructive conversation about our structure and definitions if the platform isn’t inherently inspiring and acting on the issues that drive us – welfare, Israel, Torah and faith, history, social justice, inclusion, art, music, food, sports, dating and family, and on and on.
The more diversity and ingenuity and passion we can harness today, and the more we can recognize and reward them, the more compelling and the more worthwhile – and multi-faceted, adaptive, sustainable – our model can be going forward. The more Millennials and others we can engage and represent in their Jewish aspirations, the more relevant our communal enterprise will be to them and to the generations that follow.
Shai Franklin, co-founder of YourGlobalStrategy and a partner with Gotham Government Relations, has served in executive capacities for several American and international Jewish organizations. (Twitter: @shaifranklin)