Centralized Institutions Matter

by Jonah Dov Pesner

My father’s sudden death ushered in the most important moment of my Jewish life. I was in high school, and our tiny synagogue played a critical role in the healing of my family. Through this neighborhood congregation, I experienced the embrace of a caring community – and, ultimately, I became a rabbi as a result of that experience with the sacred. Later, as an adult, I realized how much more there was to my own story than the neighborhood shul.

Weeks after my father’s death I was comforted at a NFTY – The Reform Jewish Youth Movement regional camp retreat, and then, over the years, I found mentors and friends among the rabbinic students studying at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. I came to realize how much the institutions and infrastructure of Judaism were critical to my own growth and development as a Jew, and as whole person.

Noam Pianko, in his essay, argues for the “disaggregation of national institutions.” He suggests that broad-based national institutions “will need to shift in three key ways: first, from outposts of centralized organizations to decentralized communities; second, from primarily physical connections to virtual, global, and local modes of interaction; and finally, from permanent institutions organized around fixed ideologies to dynamic pop-up organizations unified by specific interests.”

I disagree. While Pianko offers important insights into the changes already taking place as national organizations such as Hillel International or my own Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) reframe themselves into highly networked organizations driven by grass-roots engagement, he doesn’t seem to be aware of the transformation underway, and he certainly doesn’t understand the critical role central institutions play. Despite the shifting landscape of the American Jewish community, strong national and international organizations matter for three primary reasons:

  • They provide the power of a movement – organized people acting collectively.
  • They provide the network that connects individuals, local neighborhoods, and organizations.
  • They nurture the ecosystem that gives strength to individuals.

The Movement

When people act collectively, they exponentially grow their power and impact. We have no better example than AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or The Human Rights Campaign; both organizations successfully mobilize and leverage collective action to move their agendas. And the recent political successes of Women of the Wall were won to some degree by the well-organized support the group received from international Jewish organizations. Outside the Jewish community, we have the National Rifle Association, whose agenda I find abhorrent, but whose organizing strategy I find effective. And the Tea Party is a well-organized national party of highly autonomous and independent groups.

The Network

We know that legacy umbrella institutions such as the URJ must reframe themselves into networks, as Seth Cohen writes in his essay, and Allison Fine and Beth Kanter have argued in their book, Measuring the Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change.[1] Consistent with some of Noam’s analysis, they rightly point out that many legacy institutions operate like “fortresses,” assuming with some arrogance that local entities will continue to rely on their materials, content, and wisdom. In today’s emerging networked universe – made possible by social media, mobility, and the Internet – the role of an umbrella institution has shifted to a critical function as convener and network weaver. In real time – locally, regionally, and internationally – as well as virtually, umbrellas help leaders find one another, access experts and expertise, and inject aggregated wisdom into important conversations. Communities of practice, leadership training, and platforms for virtual communities are all strategies used by effective network and convening organizations that strengthen Jewish neighborhoods. Such networked organizations are becoming more open and less limited by ideology. More porous and strengthened by their partnerships, their constituents — regardless of old boundaries of ideology – are also strengthened. The evolving partnerships among NFTY, BBYO, and other Jewish youth movements is a good example.

The Ecosystem

No Jewish neighborhood thrives in isolation. As individuals and families move throughout their lifecycle and geographic journeys, their experiences become shaped by the collective impact of the various neighborhoods, communities, and institutions where they find meaning and connection. National organizations provide strength to the life-giving ecosystem in which all this thrives – for example, seminaries that infuse their entire ecosystem with professionals and youth movements that nurture new generations of leaders. When effective national institutions leverage collective resources (human and financial) to raise the bar for Jewish life, it strengthens the ecosystems that nurture neighborhoods and communities across the globe.

As we seek to nurture compelling Jewish communities that will thrive in the next era and give strength to the Jewish people, our national organizations and institutions matter more than ever. This much is sure: They must be committed to networking, they must partner with others to foster the greater ecosystem, and they must mobilize their stakeholders to act for sacred purpose.

[1] Alison Fine (among other thought leaders such as Lisa Colton and Amy Asin) serve on the URJ faculty as we transform our very institution.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner is senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism and founding director of the URJ’s Just Congregations initiative.

Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma June 2014, as part of a larger conversation about Jewish neighborhoods in flux.