Identity and Structure: The Delicate Balance in the Jewish Agenda

by Robert Hyfler, PhD.

The identity advocate says: “Our goal is to promote 21st century options for Jewish living”.

The structuralist replies: “Our challenge is to create a Jewish community worth living in”.

Of course the two statements are not mutually exclusive and are indeed mutually reinforcing. A compelling vision of the joys of Jewish life must go hand in glove with a commitment to building those agencies and institutions that embody Jewish values and ensure an organizational framework for the future.

Yet our communal and philanthropic world is seldom good at nuance. From generation to generation, decade to decade, one strategy over the other has often held sway. For the past two decades the identity advocates have been ascendant.

The questions they ask and the solutions they propose speak to the dynamism of the moment and have served as the engine of most of today’s Jewish start-ups.

What is there in the wellsprings of our traditions that can give meaning to the day to day lives of individual Jews and their families?

How can we promote and encourage, through creative programming and direct entitlements, Jewish activities, behaviors and connections?

Identity advocates and their philanthropic sponsors endorse and embrace Jewish emersion programming and creating and delivering to the grass roots tools and resources to assist them in their Jewish journeys. Limmud, Taglit-birthright, Jewlicious, PJ Library are but a few exemplary examples of the strategy’s efficacy and impact.

Tapping in to the Jewish rootedness and universalism that exists side by side in so many of us, identity advocates approach chesed and tikkun olam by encouraging the interpersonal and direct service. They promote service learning and non-duplicable life changing experiences through programs like that provided by American Jewish World Service. The identity agenda has delivered a two decades long blessing of creativity and renewal.

However, the vision of the structuralists, those who built mighty synagogue movements and the UJA and Federation system with their networks of agencies providing core services, laid the groundwork and the start-up resources for a Jewish state, cannot be relegated to history. It is the structuralists, in Federations, foundations and national umbrella and support organizations, who are now actively asking the timeliest of questions, “what next”?

How do we create and sustain an architecture of nimble and flexible modern day agencies and institutions where the fullest range of those with Jewish connections find welcome and relevance?

How do we develop renewed, significant and seamless collaborations of responsibility, caring and support, collaborations that bridge the secular and the sacred, to which any of us can turn with certainty when setback, crisis and loneliness occur?

At a time when many “connect” but do not “join”, how is institutional and synagogue financial viability protected – not to mention finding the right homes and future for the best of the start-up endeavors? Who might combine and partner with whom and how will resources flow?

Who will inherit the yoke of communal responsibility and the mantle of communal stewardship to ensure that those who now know “why” they must live as Jews and perhaps even “how” they can be Jews also have institutional space “where” they can be Jewish?

Lastly, how will the “public” organizational stakeholders of Jewish life, membership organizations and Federations, partner with “private” philanthropic entities so that mutual accountability to our Jewish citizenry is assured?

It is to these questions we must turn and the time for the synthesis of the two strategies is now.

Bob Hyfler is a Jewish organizational consultant. He can be reached at