Building a ‘Better Normal’ for the Jewish Community

Photo credit: Mika Larson

By Aaron Katler

As we collectively manage the third month of the pain and disruption caused by COVID-19, one thing is clear: we’re all struggling with questions about what it means to return to “normal,” or at least to a “new normal.” Yet the public health and financial crises are still in their early stages, and we know there are many decisions and choices before us. As the effects of this crisis reverberate throughout every aspect of Jewish community and the economy, we must shift our framework. The question is not how we return to normal or create a “new normal,” but rather how we co-create a “better normal,” a concept recently discussed in this interview with Marina Gorbis, the executive director of the Institute For The Future. Building a ‘better normal’ means asking tough, thoughtful questions about what the world should like and how we might get there, rather than doing everything we can simply to preserve what was, or worse, reversing the incredible strides we’ve made in Jewish communal life over the last two decades.

Twenty years ago, Jewish communal studies were setting off alarm bells for anyone concerned about the future of our community. People seemed to be disaffiliating in droves, with synagogue enrollment and other traditional indicators of affiliation plummeting. Twenty years ago is also when the “Jewish innovation sector,” as it came to be known, began to take off. Leaders – especially young people – who were eager to deeply engage with Judaism, began to create programs that they actually wanted to attend, and to find new, relevant ways of connecting with our tradition. Over the past two decades, we’ve seen the emergence and adoption of this innovation mindset take root deep within our community. Thousands of new initiatives and ventures, as well as cadres of intrapreneurs (leaders with the entrepreneurial drive to create institutional change) have opened their doors wider to meet the needs of underserved populations and those often excluded from Jewish life.

As UpStart has worked with others to build and support this sector, we’ve taken the opportunity in living rooms, board rooms, and large gatherings to continuously ask a simple but potent question: how might we create the Jewish community of the future? This “how might we” frame is a classic in design thinking; We use this phrasing to launch brainstorms, and to get closer to wildly imaginative solutions. We’ve asked this question – and many others – to a broad range of people, both engaged and not currently involved in Jewish life. And we’ve listened deeply and learned from their answers, which are particularly relevant now as we plan for a different future than we previously imagined.

What we’ve heard is clear and instructive. People want to be respected as co-authors of their Jewish experience. They want Jewish experiences to reflect the diversity of their communities – in the present moment and for generations to come. They want a spectrum of voices to be respected. They want resources that are both within and outside of traditional venues and settings. They want experiences that are accessible and don’t sacrifice depth in order to find meaning.

Over the past 20 years, people have voted with their feet and told Jewish leadership that programs designed in these ways will attract participation. We’ve learned that just as people don’t want centralized committees deciding what’s prioritized, they do want their voices heard and their diversity celebrated. It is cause for great celebration that the tactics and methods originally elevated by the innovation sector are so widely adopted across all segments of Jewish life today.

In order to design a ‘better normal’ post-pandemic, we must build on what entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, and those who fund them have learned over the last two decades and resist the urge to slip back into old habits. For everyone dedicated to building a thriving Jewish future, whether as a professional, lay leader, or funder, here’s what that means:

  1. Invest in innovation and adaptation. This doesn’t mean “innovation” for the sake of keeping existing structures and models viable. What’s called for here is game-changing, dynamic adaptation that responds creatively to the vast changes and constant upheaval in our society. We need to invest in radical new ideas, in the adaptation of existing initiatives to meet emerging needs, and in our capacity to evolve this process on an ongoing basis.
  1. Focus on the entire ecosystem, not the egosystem.” This means a commitment to expanding, adapting, and sustaining your mission, not just your organization. It means focusing on creating value over getting credit. And it means investing in cross-sector solutions that help every facet of Jewish life thrive.
  1. Commit to the values and operational execution of inclusion. The past ten years has shown a rise in Jewish communal awareness around the diversity of our community and the need for us to better reflect and serve that diversity. This has resulted in new ventures emerging to support marginalized communities directly, as well as existing organizations choosing to adopt more equitable and inclusive cultures and operations. This moment calls on us to deepen our investment in this work, and to continue expanding who is counted and who has a voice in Jewish communal life.
  1. Prioritize partnerships and deep collaboration. As organizations navigate a new financial reality, it will be critical for institutions and ventures to partner, offering initiatives that meet the community’s evolving needs. We will need to support organizations as they explore consolidations to increase efficiencies and improve delivery of their programs. And as some organizations close up shop, we must preserve their learning and most valuable contributions to Jewish life.

After two decades of using the “how might we” frame, we are now asking “how must we” – how must we create a “better normal,” one that is more vibrant, just, and inclusive. This is a crisis moment, but it must also be a moment of seizing opportunity. As leaders, we must ensure the Jewish future advances along the pre-COVID-19 trajectory of creativity, expansion, inclusion, and relevancy with even greater urgency and determination.

Aaron Katler is the CEO of UpStart, which partners with the Jewish community’s boldest leaders to expand the picture of how Jews find meaning and come together.