Challenge Underestimated: Pianko Responds

[eJP note: The following essay by Noam Pianko is in response to a grouping of essays by Barry Shrage, Jonah Pesner, Seth Cohen  and Aryeh Bernstein – originally published in Sh’ma – that appeared over the past month or so.]

by Noam Pianko

In responding to the questions I raised about the future of Jewish neighborhoods, Jonah Pesner, Barry Shrage, Seth Cohen, and Aryeh Bernstein all agree that the changing landscape of American Jewish life raises a set of new challenges and opportunities. We all agree on the significance of the shift toward virtual networks, physical mobility, and social fluidity. Moreover, our visions for neighborhoods share several goals: the desire to make an impact local and globally, to build networks, and to nourish Jewish ecosystems.

The key difference that emerges between us is the role that centralized institutions play in the future of Jewish neighborhoods. Is the best path for creating vibrant neighborhoods to “reframe” existing umbrella organizations or to promote independent, dynamic, and grassroots communities? I do not see these as mutually exclusive possibilities. Centralized institutions do matter, and, more importantly, have the potential to remain active players in supporting Jewish neighborhoods. However, I believe that Pesner and Shrage underestimate the fundamental challenges posed by radical social, demographic, and technological shifts to centralized institutions.

Pesner argues that national umbrella institutions can adjust to the demands of building meaningful networks in a digital age. Quoting the work of Beth Kanter and Allison Fine, Pesner argues that reframed legacy institutions can act as conveners and network weavers. But in my reading of the recent literature on networks and community organizations, the recommended changes require a radical shift from the foundational assumptions of centralized institutions.

For example, Fine and Kanter recommend that organizations “do what you do best and network the rest.” A networked organization reaches out to specific individuals, gets them involved, and then, once the free agent has contributed, the networked organization lets them go to work in other settings. The free agent model clashes with a membership model that supports lifetime loyalty to centralized institutions. This is precisely the wrong approach in an increasingly connected world where individuals have gained greater power relative to organizations.

Pesner and Shrage also overestimate the advantages that centralized institutions have over decentralized communities for galvanizing collective action. Pesner argues that centralized centralized movements have a far greater impact on society because they can mobilize quickly and powerfully. And while the power of such movements is formidable, the need to create a broad consensus often restricts diverse voices and hinders progress that might upset stakeholders. The political complexity of controlling a unified message constitutes a primary barrier to building dynamic networks.

While historical inertia will propel centralized institutions forward, these organizations face structural challenges that reframing can’t fully address. New decentralized models of neighborhood networks will be far better equipped to adapt to the changing realities of community and identity today. Successful American Jewish neighborhoods will emerge when centralized and decentralized institutions push one another to challenge long-standing norms, adjust to changing circumstances, and promote the exchange of ideas.

Noam Pianko is an associate professor and the Samuel N. Stroum Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Washington and the director of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies. He is currently writing a book on the changing meaning of “Jewish peoplehood” in American Jewish history.

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