Confronting Issues in Large and Small Jewish Communities

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a week working with a group of community leaders from Jewish communities around the world. It was especially exciting and invigorating to learn about the issues communities are confronting in their daily work – particularly because these challenges are often very similar, no matter the size of the community.

We often think that the challenges faced by communities are directly relation to their size. In discussions involving people from larger and smaller communities there is frequently the tendency to say things like, “Those are problems faced by larger communities” or “We confront unique problems because we are a small community.” These sentiments are almost always based on the assumption that that challenges facing the Krakow Jewish community, for example, are vastly different than those experienced by the larger Warsaw community. The same can be said about the situation in El Paso, Texas, as compared to Houston or for that matter, any comparison made in different countries and states between large and small communities.

During my discussions with a number of the professional and volunteer leaders from a variety of communities it became apparent that despite the size difference, Jewish communities have more that unites than separates them from each other. I would like to identify a few of these issues that connect the communities to each other. Through identifying and discussing the challenges faced by all the communities we can understand both how they are connected to each other and also what Jewish peoplehood means today.

One of the most important challenges facing Jewish communities across the board is the recruitment and involvement of volunteer leadership. There continues to be a shrinking number of people who are prepared to volunteer on behalf of the community. The process of identifying people who have the potential to be involved in the community and who are willing to give of their time is essential to the continuity of our communities.

The dynamics of the process of bringing new people into the leadership circle are focused both on the present generation as well as the next generation. The sustainability of the community is both an issue for the present and the future. There has to be a group of committed people who are involved and taking responsibility for the community’s activities today, as well as tomorrow.

While focusing on the next generation is crucial for the future, what both large and small communities grapple with is identifying and involving appropriate people from year to year. When people are identified then the challenge is how to encourage them to become involved in the community. This is felt by both large and small communities and during my work with the group they shared successful approaches with each other.

For example, in one community the president and professional staff person holds a luncheon every month or two months where they invite people from the community whom they would like to recruit to become more involved. In this particular instance it is a small community with 1,200 Jewish people. During the discussion one of the professionals from a large community in a major city said that she thought she could adapt the idea in her community. She speculated that instead of reaching out to individuals they would invite a small group of 5 – 10 people each month to introduce them to the organized Jewish community and the opportunities for them to become involved in the community.

A second challenge for both large and small communities is how to retain the involvement of those people who become active in the community and its organization. In the course of the group’s meeting and discussion it became quite clear that many Jewish communities and their affiliated organizations did not have meaningful leadership development programs. The programs would not only be focused on the newly recruited people but also a kind of continuing education program for the veteran volunteer leaders.

In a larger community it would target individual organizations and provide development programs for the boards of directors of specific organizations in the community, for example, the community center, the day school, etc. An alternative is to sponsor a community wide program for continuing education for volunteer leaders in all of the agencies, targeting groups of about 15 – 20 people. Once a culture of continuing leadership development is integrated into the community then it reinvigorates the volunteer leaders on an ongoing basis and strengthens the community.

The active leadership from the small communities said they thought this approach was a perfect model for strengthening their volunteer leaders. Given their smaller numbers it would be something they would implement on a community-wide basis. They felt that it would instill a different culture of leadership by showing people that you just do not become a leader overnight and that cultivating leadership involves clarity and set skills. The content of the discussions and exchanges between the large and small communities was reflective of what it means to build a community and strengthen its organizations.

The most fascinating aspect was the way the present focus on Jewish peoplehood is a common thread in all discussions. The sharing of the accomplishments and barriers to connecting the Jewish communities around the world to each other and to Israel underscored that the size is sometimes irrelevant. In fact, many of the participants felt that in this area it was not uncommon for the smaller communities to be able initiate and sustain the process in an easier way.

It behooves us not to view communities based on their size, but rather on the commonalities in community life shared by small and large populations alike. In the same way that this specific group of professional and volunteer leaders was able to share their experiences and ideas with each other, so, too, can other communities regardless of their size. If these groups can meet regularly and if the focus can be the community building process then the larger and smaller Jewish communities will recognize that they have more in common than they think. Only then will they be able to deal with their shared issues and strengthen each other.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.