Jewish Communal Colonialism

By Rabbi David B. Starr, Ph.D.

The Federations created a monster, at least a tame defanged one. Synagogues now resemble millennials: man children that may be sophisticated about all sorts of things but find themselves in early adulthood still living in the equivalent of their parents’ basement, lacking the will or the means or even the awareness of the pitfalls of dependence that retards one’s growth.

Here’s how this pattern works. Many if not most programs minimally involve three if not four sets of stakeholders: A funder, a program provider (those two entities may be the same), a program host, and consumers. The financial model works as follows. The program provider donates the intellectual property/program contents/consulting time to the program host. The host creates a platform to deliver the program to the program users. The funder compensates the program provider for his or her product and time. The consumer pays some sort of fee that usually goes to back to the funder to help defray their costs.

What is missing from this model? The program host essentially plays no financial role in this interlocking set of relationships. It operates fiscally as a kind of pass-through, funneling value from funders/program creators to end users. It receives no funds typically and most importantly it allocates no funds. It has no skin in the game, it takes no responsibility for the program in the sense that businesses would recognize.

My work principally with the Boston Federation and synagogues illustrates this scenario. The CJP funded programs like Me’ah and now Tzion, sometimes fully re-program creation and management and operational costs like teaching, sometimes only partially. Synagogues host the program, providing classroom space and some marketing and back office support. The students pay a fee back to the Federation. The synagogues pay nothing. This model emerged in some ways from positive places. Executives like Barry Shrage committed huge quantities of energy and dollars to an ambitious agenda of trying to transform Jewish lives and institutions like synagogues, and he wanted financial resources not to pose an obstacle to high commitment high quality expensive programs like Me’ah. Consequently the model emerged to make programs essentially free to synagogues, lowering the bar of entry as low as it could possibly be. Yet nothing costs nothing.

That model proved problematic for several reasons. It taxes and stretches the resources of funders like the federations. In this age of increasingly restricted allocations that becomes increasingly important. It reduces the total amount of dollars in the pot for program creation and implementation. Most importantly it perpetuates a problematic dynamic between federations and synagogues. Financial commitment represents existential as well as material investment on the part of any institution. It hopefully carries with it a commitment to a thoughtful process about vision and practice that extends from the dreaming stage to planning to evaluation.

On a somewhat more political note, the lack of financial responsibility perpetuates a dependence on federations that infantilizes synagogues. That note can infect attitudes on both sides of this relationship, creating negative dynamics that prevent effective communication and productivity. Unfortunately current conditions will likely continue to encourage this mindset. The demographic challenges facing many if not most congregations, particularly Conservative ones, suggest that they will avoid taking on new financial obligations. That may be shortsighted. Only with communities more rigorous in thinking through their priorities and figuring out how to finance them will institutions become sounder and more dynamic. Taking greater responsibility for finances will in the long run prove beneficial.

David B. Starr, Ph.D., is Founder and Executive Director, Tzion, and Visiting Research Associate, Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry at Brandeis University.