It Doesn’t Matter “Who is a Jew?” What Matters is “What is a Jew?”

by Yoram Samets

Over the past several decades, or actually the past several centuries, Jewish leadership has been in a constant push-pull struggle around the issue of “Who is a Jew.” I am in no position to define this for anyone but myself, but each day, as I study and learn, my answer to this ongoing question assumes different dimensions.

The context for this question is less important than the content, or “What is a Jew?” And, the content needs to be in passionate support of purpose.

For Jewish organizations, especially synagogues, ambivalence is the battle we are fighting, and in many cases losing. Congregational and organizational memberships have fluctuated dramatically, but in the end we have seen a continued decline in participation and membership.

Jewish organizations and synagogues have always had active membership outreach. We have seen them move from personal and social outreach efforts to organized marketing efforts. Synagogues and others have been forced to seek new members much like Proctor & Gamble searches for new customers.

Today, synagogues are still playing catch-up in the marketing game. And as synagogues and many other Jewish organizations put more and more effort into marketing, attempting to emulate successful products and services we see everyday, it is important to remember that most marketing efforts fail. Increasing membership outreach efforts is critical, but not necessarily a guarantor for success.

There are two examples of organizational growth that I believe explain or at least indicate what we need to be doing for greater success in our local and national efforts. In many ways, Chabad and AIPAC have duplicative outreach, retention and growth strategies (at least from the outside looking in.) And at the core of their successes are their purposes.

Each of these organizations has one very clear purpose, one that enables professional staffs and members to be aligned. Success for an organization starts with a clear purpose, one that needs to be reinforced everyday with defined and sustainable content, information, learning, and programming, and one that resonates in the hearts of all of its members.

Compare AIPAC to ADL, or Chabad to the Conservative movement. Clear, heartfelt purpose (AIPAC, Chabad) compared to heartfelt purpose confusion (ADL, Conservative movement.)

Imagine if these were retail stores and you were walking by their windows. It is as if one is the department store and one is the specialty store. If you were looking for that special item, which store would you enter?

What is your organization’s purpose? And is everything the organization does in alignment to reinforce that purpose? Until you have clarity of purpose from one end of your organization through the other, much of your membership outreach efforts will be wasteful.

“Who is a Jew” is an argument that will never end. But declare what your Jewish purpose is, and then lead and support your organization to success through it.

Yoram Samets is the Founder of Jvillage Network in Burlington, VT. He is a frequent writer and blogger on using digital technology to grow membership and engage and build Jewish community.