Isn’t It Time?

isn't it time for changeCan people leave theirinstitutional hatsat the door in order to consider what is best in the larger communal picture?

By Allan Finkelstein

Forty-five years ago, as an undergraduate student, I wrote a thesis entitled “Duplication of Services in the Twin Cities Jewish Community.” I am to this day that same student, except that my lens for observation has a wider angle, as I have since served as a local professional in four cities, and as the chief executive for 21 years of a continental Jewish organization. It won’t surprise anyone to know that very little has changed!

Our local Jewish communities have held on for dear life – wanting to preserve “legacy institutions,” traditional campaigns, membership structures, and more – while at the same time, the society around us has moved on. So even when we read, for example, of moves by some congregations to eliminate or create voluntary dues as a strategy for easing access, it only seems meaningful as a short-term response. This does not address the core reasons that got us where we are.

The limitations and restrictions that led to the creation of many of our organizations have disappeared. Jews have full access, a desire for meaning and quality, and the resources to buy what they want for themselves and their families. Isn’t it time to let go and reinvent community that makes sense, that’s more easily accessed, and supported in the long run?

Let’s look at a few realities:

We’ve continually created new institutions, many of them doing similar things, but each claiming to have a better way to do it. Those institutions require professional leadership, from those delivering service directly, all the way up to executive leaders.

We have erected buildings – for synagogues, JCCs, Federations, Hillels, Jewish Family Service, and day schools, with each organization tapping its members for endless capital campaigns and the costs of maintaining those buildings. Each institution needs to support and promote itself, requiring additional infrastructure, which has come to include marketing people, social media experts, and fundraisers, along with the more traditional administrative support.

The Federation system was created to streamline fundraising – to ask for a single gift rather than multiple campaigns. This came along with a promise (or at least a sincere intent) to support programs, their scholarship needs and ongoing core expenses. Today’s reality often puts Federations at odds with the agencies they support, as they conduct their own fundraising to remain competitive and viable.

Along with this, many organizations developed sophisticated membership structures to create a sense of belonging, but that eventually resulted in barriers to affiliation. We went from “welcoming and belonging” to drawing sharp distinctions between “members” and “non-members.” And as infrastructure costs grew, so too, did the cost to enter.

For many years, we have bemoaned “the high cost of being Jewish,” yet we have continued to grow our institutional infrastructure and hang on to traditions. Many large foundations have expressed frustration with “the system” by creating and supporting their own programs And young families, who have numerous high-quality options for their children, measure us against these “non-Jewish” alternatives. This occurs at a time when we also speak of increasing intermarriage and concerns about engaging young people.

It’s time to step up boldly and admit that we cannot maintain what we have created. It does not make sense within any of today’s realities to focus on institutional survival rather than easing access and increasing engagement and connection. Hoping for some magical return to the way it was, or how it “should” be makes absolutely no sense based on everything we know.

Is there a community ready to come together to determine what is really important to Jewish life and make the changes necessary to adapt? Can people leave their “institutional hats” at the door in order to consider what is best in the larger communal picture? We’ve been to too many meetings where people go through the motions, express a desire to change, but simply can’t let go of long-held assumptions, personal connections to agencies, and established paradigms for doing “Jewish business.”

That bold community will be willing to go through a process, without preconceived conclusions, to ask some of the following questions, many of which will evolve as this unfolds:

What kind of Jewish lives to people want to lead, and how can we make it possible for them to do so?

What does true community look like? Is it as singular as that, or is it really about multiple communities – accessed by each individual as needs and opportunities arise?

Are we willing to risk long held assumptions about what institutions are necessary? We need to ask the hard questions and create the kind of structure and opportunities that will ease access and engagement for more people, matched with their life realities.

What if membership and affiliation as we know it disappeared? What if they were replaced by meaningful access points into services and engagements that people crave? Perhaps, like our fourth son at the seder, people don’t even know what to ask because we’ve put up so many barriers that they aren’t in a position to be able to do so. Jews should simply be invited in without having to pay multiple entry fees to multiple institutions before they can access services.

Just as we now live in a society of customized playlists, what options can we put in front of people that will invite them to access Jewish life in ways, and at a pace, that make sense to them – not as we prescribe it. Can we tip our very vertical communities, with institutional boundaries and barriers, on their sides, so that they become horizontal ones, allowing people to flow easily through, on the way to where they want to go?

Once we identify the kind of communities we want to create, are we ready to restructure them from top to bottom? Are we ready – just as an example – to invest in full time jobs with benefits for teachers and youth leaders comparable to what we have for those who sit in the executive suite?

This isn’t just about streamlining, or merging, or some of the many ideas that have been floated in the past decade or so. Those are simply rearranging the deck chairs. This is about reimagining a 21st century approach to Jewish engagement that capitalizes on the many assets that we have, while eliminating things that we’ve held onto for far too long. It’s a scary path for some, but more of an exciting one for those who want more of Jewish life but can’t access it for a variety of reasons. It will also assure that we have, in Jim Collins’ words, “the right people on the bus in the right seats,” in order to take that bus down roads that are certainly less traveled, with fewer speed bumps and roadblocks along the way.

Or – perhaps – is it time for a new bus?

Allan Finkelstein spent four decades in the JCC Movement, including the past two of them as CEO and president of JCC Association, from which he retired this year.