Incrementalism and the Need for a New Jewish Philanthropic Narrative

People need a sacred narrative. They must have a sense of larger purpose, in one form or another, however intellectualized.
E.O. Wilson, American biologist

Although the Jewish people are often described as a people of the book, perhaps the “people of the narrative” might be a more apt description. Yes, the Torah is a rich and inspiring statement on Jewish faith, law and identity, but for most Jews the Torah is accessible largely as a narrative. Equally, the post-biblical history of the Jewish people is a tapestry of narratives, spanning the ages, geographies, challenges and triumphs in a series of interconnected chapters and verses. Indeed, the endurance of the Jewish people is a testament to the narrative it has created for itself, and the complexity of that narrative is a testament to the endurance of the Jewish people.

If the narrative of our history is what helps sustain us, what about the narrative of the present? Perhaps it is impossible to ever establish a broader narrative of contemporary times when one is in the midst of its occurrence – that is the role of historians. However, the lack of a contemporary narrative that inspires faith and action can have catastrophic effects on the ability of a people to encounter the challenges of their present and the possibilities of the future. Without this broader narrative we have a tendency to rely on incrementalisim – the thought that small steps and accretive efforts will be enough to move people forward. We believe, often incorrectly, that small successes bide time for eventual transformative change; that in the world of 140 character communication, the story of our success in achieving our goals will slowly, but surely, tell itself.

Nowhere does this seem more prevalent than in the Jewish philanthropic world. The last century of Jewish life has been filled with the grand narratives of Jewish need – including the founding and development of the State of Israel, the initial waves of olim, the fight for Soviet Jewry, and the aliyah of Falush Mura. In the Diaspora our narratives have centered on the care of individuals, such as needs of survivors of the Holocaust, and the core of our communities, such as capital campaigns and endowments. But in 2010 those narratives have given way to incremental efforts observed from ever increasingly narrower vantages. In our desire to see ‘indicators of success’ and to achieve ‘outcomes,’ we have lost the majesty and motivation provided by larger, more inspiring narratives. Our efforts of strengthening the Jewish people seem to rely more and more on achieving quantitative measurements in the absence of a broader and contextualized effort.

Our communal organizations struggle and, candidly, have yet to succeed in meeting the challenge of defining a new philanthropic narrative. No doubt we have plenty of strategic visions, missions and plans, but they are generally organization-centric and inspiring only to a select base of activists. But developing five- and ten-point action plans and strategic initiatives is not a substitute for the development and communication of a bold story of our future – a future that is achievable if we all play our parts in our own unique way. As the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency, and other large institutions are realizing, the call for collective action will fall on deaf ears if those ears are not first awakened by a compelling rationale, an inspiring narrative, and an accessible plan of action that provides vision and motivation for involvement.

Yes, we are making incremental progress. Yes we are achieving outcomes. But to what end? To justify our requests for increased contributions? To achieve the goals of existing funders? At its core, is the purpose of our community effort to make incremental change in order to meet arbitrary benchmarks, or are our efforts part of a story bigger than ourselves? These questions are vital and require vital thinking.

Make no mistake, there is a role for incrementalism – it helps build consensus and hedges risk. But the greater truth of the matter is that in contemporary Jewish life, consensus is harder to find and risk is abundant. We are past the need for only small steps; we need the bold visions and narratives that will radically amaze the Jewish people of the possibilities of their future. The story of our future, while unpredictable, is not indescribable. So long as we find leaders that can craft the narrative we so desperately require, we can meet the challenges of today to realize the potential of tomorrow…

… a tomorrow that is more than just one incremental day away.

Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, member of the board of Joshua Venture Group and First Vice President of Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta. Seth regularly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish community on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation, and is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy. Seth can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at]