By Gil Preuss
Recently, two articles addressed changes in the American Jewish landscape.
In “’The Establishment’ Has No Clothes: The New Jewish ‘Influence Economy’,” Yehuda Kurtzer argues that power within the Jewish community has shifted. Rather than remain concentrated within the confines of the “Jewish establishment,” power or, rather, influence now rests with new organizations, private family foundations, and various social forces.
Andrés Spokoiny countered in “Power, Influence, and the Limits of Maps: A Response to Yehuda Kurtzer,” that these days power resides almost entirely among individuals and that charting a singular map would deny the fluidity with which influence flows in the community.
Differences aside, both Kurtzer and Spokoiny are exploring the redistribution of power and influence in the American Jewish landscape. The question I have is not where does power lie, but rather, how can we leverage a broader set of influencers to create more effective change in our community?
Many of us agree that the Jewish community’s transition from a centralized power structure to something much more decentralized is a good thing. Rather than be led by the few, we now have new and diverse voices shaping the direction of Jewish life.
There are, however, some dangers when it comes to fragmentation. As we are seeing in American politics, the more we splinter, the more likely we are to find ourselves in silos and echo chambers and the harder it becomes to step outside of our tight networks and join in collective action.
As we embrace the democratization of influence in the Jewish community, we must ask ourselves: How can we also strengthen the impulse to turn toward each other? How do we build the platforms, mechanisms, and broad networks that will help us build the necessary social capital and come together to create positive and lasting change?
At The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, we join others in considering the role central organizations can play in answering these questions. In particular, we find ourselves striving to be an ongoing champion for community even as we celebrate the evolution and expansion of influence. Dubbed “Federation 2.0”, we are experimenting, learning, and reimagining our role in building stronger community alongside our incredible partners across the region.
Already, we are learning that joint, effective action requires four key factors:
- Talented and connected leaders;
- Strong trusting relationships (among individuals and among organizations);
- A compelling, shared vision; and
- Sufficient resources to bring that vision to life.
Our goal in the immediate and long-term is to use our position within the community to contribute toward each of these factors and help grow our community’s capacity for action.
For instance, when we looked at the landscape of next-gen engagement efforts (those programs meant to engage young adults, young couples, and families with young children in Jewish life), we saw many innovative yet siloed efforts underway. Many organizations had similar goals of engaging young Jews. And yet, many saw themselves as serving a particular niche within the next-gen community rather than acting as part of a cohesive whole. We saw missed opportunities for organizations to benefit from each other’s strengths and work towards a larger collective outcome.
In response, we have set about laying the groundwork for a sense of shared purpose among individuals and organizations, greater leadership capacity and collaboration, stronger relationships and networks, and critical resources to support our common goals.
We began this process by listening to our constituencies and integrating shared hopes into a vision for the community – one that calls on us to be inclusive, creative, and bold in pursuing change. With this in mind, we have been focusing on expanding our partnerships and convening likeminded leaders to get to know one another, share insights and resources, and explore opportunities for strategic partnerships.
We are already seeing promising results. Organizations are collaborating with those who serve similar and related populations; spearheading efforts to tackle goals that no one institution could achieve alone; and coming together to leverage the collective impact of their work.
Of course, none of this work would be possible if we did not also shift our approach to fundraising and fund distribution. In addition to our general appeal, we asked for contributions to help us tackle three strategic, community-wide priority areas. We believed that by directing significant resources to a few key goals, we would be more effective at driving change. Jewish community members in Greater Washington agreed, helping us to raise close to $2 million in incremental funds towards these goals.
We believe, however, that our work in Greater Washington has to be about more than just the outcomes – given the landscape both Kurtzer and Spokoiny describe, we must also focus on community building as a way to strengthen Jewish life. In the face of many complex questions, we have made it a point to bring community members together for meaningful discussion. Our goal is to strengthen platforms that support diverse perspectives and are bolstered by the participation of everyone in our community.
For our part, Federation’s work to help create the context for community and the mechanisms for change has only just begun. We will continue to move forward with humility and curiosity. We are also eager to draw on the data and insights at our disposal to help inform our thinking and create a shared language and vision for our community in Greater Washington. After all, our goals go beyond the work of any one group or organization.
Indeed, the Jewish future will be determined by how well we work together and leverage our individual strengths to the benefit of all. We are at a point where we must actively choose to maintain our communal ties. Rather than forgo a sense of cohesion, I urge us all to tend to the forces that will help us reach out and collectively work toward a vibrant future.
At a time when fragmentation is changing our local, national, and global realities, the Jewish community can be a model for how to celebrate our diversity while also ensuring that our community remains bonded. We can nurture a sense of belonging and belief in our limitless possibility and bring to bear the full potential of the topography of influence.
Gil Preuss is CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.