By Shai Franklin
I recently framed what I think are some fundamental questions we need to address as a community, if American Jewry is to be a community to speak of by the end of this century. I also proposed parameters and mechanisms that might get us started.
That essay joins many other posts pointing to the need for a Jewish Moonshot, in which American Jewry somehow comes together with renewed purpose, unity, and effectiveness. But our discussions remain constrained by the silos of our respective backgrounds, ambitions and visions, with effectively no collaboration across sectors, no pooling of intellectual and financial resources, and little thought to adopting each other’s ideas and initiatives – whether it’s dealing with the immediate crisis or charting a sustainable path beyond.
Had someone already launched the incubator for an organic, transcendent and comprehensive Jewish community strategy, then I wouldn’t be prevailing on eJewish Philanthropy to publish my own push for systemic transformation. No, I’d be clicking “like” and volunteering to help. But if the spark hasn’t yet been lit, then it’s time we did it – together.
We seem to have no catalyst to turn ideas into comprehensive actions. It certainly isn’t issuing from any of our institutions or even from the startups.
The immediate challenge is not in coming up with more ideas or perspectives, it’s transitioning this conversation from isolated articles and webinars to a larger collective incubator that generates action, that reaches and empowers real people as well as establishment names, that moves from talk to grassroots projects and to newer, smarter structures with a sense of greater coordination and shared destiny.
We don’t need every participant in Jewish life to become a leader or even a “young leader,” but we do need them to be active participants. Judaism is not a spectator sport or drive-thru Dunkin’ Donuts. Giving everyone a sense of belonging cannot only be something we pre-package for their consumption. They must be able to shape and interact in a candid, meaningful way, virtually as well as offline.
As practitioners and change agents, we also need to interact candidly with each other. Here are some thematic and practical recommendations for jumpstarting the initial planning and prototypes, along with an invitation to join a new online conversation with tangible goals. With apologies to Churchill, we are barely at the beginning of the beginning.
Other voices are making some of the same points as I am, and often more eloquently and expertly. For all that’s been written on this, we have yet to generate a community-wide strategy, let alone an ingathering, transformative dialogue.
For now, I’ve created a space on my personal website, with relevant resources and articles from eJewish Philanthropy and other outlets, and a single unified space for comment, discussion, and cross-fertilization – it is live now, and I encourage people to use it and contribute your ideas and initiative. As soon as there’s a more sophisticated and ‘neutral’ platform for this conversation, I will happily switch over – this could be one of our first-stage goals.
The main difference between a legacy organization or large family foundation and individuals like myself trying to envision the next phase of American Jewish life is (1) our lack of available funds, and (2) our willingness to engage NOW. Beginning this online largely erases the first distinction, and the second aspect gives us the license to take the leap.
I offer my own vision and action steps as a way of starting Phase Two of what’s been a well sourced and forward-looking conversation. And I offer a modest online starter home for this meta-conversation – the conversation about the conversations, and how to turn them into results.
As Coronavirus restrictions have painfully underscored, Judaism and Jewishness are inherently communal rather than solitary affairs. Forging an expansive and unifying online Jewish presence will be arduous but feasible.
Leadership, representativeness and legitimacy are not only about how many votes you get or dollars you raise. It’s also about who follows you, who shows up, whose needs you’re serving, whose goals advancing, and whose vision fulfilling. This is about more than fairness, it’s also about inspiring and retaining – and growing – the new generation of leaders and followers, doers and participants, recipients and attendees.
Those we call “emerging leaders” need not be young or even youngish. As much as we teach and train leaders, we also need to be tapping leaders. This means identifying people with demonstrable leadership attributes as well as track records. Beyond what they’ve said, what have they done and who do they bring in with them? Rather than imprinting our values and priorities, as most of our “leadership development” programs do, we need to draw in and accommodate real leaders with their own priorities and existing constituencies. We need to think and become bigger than our whole.
In the United States, the communal establishment of congregations and Federations and other organizations speaks for – or in some way speaks to – 2-3 million Jews at best. And no national organization has anything close to popularly elected or accountable leadership, not that any could or should. This poses a challenge beyond any test of democratic participation: Our crisis of representativeness and responsiveness limits the quality and volume of Jewish life in America, with the main question being by how much. The second question is whether and how to address it.
Part of the challenge will be framing a constructive conversation without reinforcing the entrenched system, and without remaking some of the same mistakes as before. Openness and transparency will be key, along with a clear and expert sense of certain realities going in.
I have pulled together some of my own ideas, which can be used or discarded, but will hopefully at least move the conversation closer to actions.
NUTS AND BOLTS
There are multiple steps toward whatever functionality potentially ties us all together. The first stage is getting enough thinkers, stakeholders and doers into the same space, with parallel conversations and working groups that also interconnect. Without bells and whistles, and with no financial outlay, I have set up a prototype where we can begin sharing ideas and identifying priorities and potential mechanisms. And we’ll see where these lead.
The second step would be developing a series of working papers and actionable proposals. We need to create an overall, integrated plan that maximizes reach while economizing the costs – especially important in the post-pandemic financial landscape.
In the third step, we need to find and harness sufficient resources – financial and organizational – to build an online platform that integrates existing sites and connects to programs on the ground, nationally as well as locally.
Beyond the programmatic, informational and affiliation aspects, this needs to accommodate an open forum for Jewish engagement – to facilitate real, spirited and respectful conversations about competing Jewish identities, practices, priorities, and pathways. And we need a way to inspire, grow and sustain engagement in mass numbers.
Realistically, there needs to be some incentive and tangible outcome for large numbers to sign up – and doubtless many other considerations that only a group effort can identify. “Impacting the Jewish future” is how establishment organizations vie for mostly the same small pool of young Jewish activists, and many unaffiliated/disaffected Jews are already skeptical they can have any impact or that they should even care about a Jewish future.
Offering to fund initiatives that get the most online support, and possibly to identify matching funds from foundations or individuals, can be one incentive. It may be worth instituting a nominal membership fee, which would also be matched by sponsors; outside funding can be commensurate to popular appeal and participation. Contests for public roles could include a weekly turn at curating a crowd-sourced Twitter feed, along the lines of the former @Sweden account.
Once on board, participants would have the opportunity to organize affinity groups, exchange views, and mobilize for their preferred initiatives. Sponsors can provide the platform and manage the online community, in addition to funding and facilitating grassroots initiatives as warranted.
The online interface should enable leaders and influencers to assert themselves and develop followings within the site – for themselves and for their opinions. And it should facilitate organic discussion about issues as well as modes of representation. Given the premise of promoting greater participation and responsiveness, any web platform should be especially interactive and conducive to building and attracting engaged micro-communities.
We need to recruit digital innovators and organizers, along with stakeholders – including those who don’t yet see themselves as stakeholders. If the ideal system architecture isn’t available and adaptable off the shelf, then we need to build it from scratch and customize it.
It will be important, and possibly difficult, to consider the eligibility criteria for membership, and the mechanism for applying these standards (possibly a crowd-selected committee in consultation with sponsoring groups). But avoiding this issue will only undermine the chance for success.
The homepage and various resources should be accessible to the general public, along with social media feeds. These could include blog posts and announcements, and links to events and program offerings, projects, petitions, survey results, metrics, and relevant news and analysis – and features yet to be conceived of. “Members” would have access to communal fora, chat groups and affinity clusters, with the ability to register their preferences by signing onto initiatives and voting for proposals and programs.
Possibly in cooperation with the community-based 70 Faces Media, the site could feature guest blog posts, weekly opinion surveys on current topics, live moderated chats with community leaders and thought leaders, peer-led initiatives, and funding and crowd-funding mechanisms. There should also be consideration of facilitating access for scholars to the platform’s meta-data and to publicizing analysis of trends, as appropriate.
Rather than replace any existing websites or channels of affiliation, the goal will be to augment, complement, springboard, and connect among the hundreds of local and national efforts. Either by design or by circumstance, too many campaigns, startups and organizations are keeping their membership to themselves, which limits their own reach and reinforces the walls between us.
We can incentivize the more innovative and ambitious groups to connect their constituencies to this new hybrid platform, with potential for increased funding, visibility, recruitment, partnerships, and vibrancy. And the platform should include portals to other sites with Jewish content and impact, making this the new virtual community homepage for Jews within and outside “the community”.
The recent online elections for the World Zionist Congress drew over 120,000 voters (each participant paying a nominal registration fee), more than double the 2015 turnout. With buy-in from established and startup groups, and with effective outreach and interactive, issue-based verticals – including Israel and Zionism – it’s feasible to far surpass that number. And, unlike the Zionist Congress, which meets only periodically and holds elections once in five years, this will be a continuous, accessible, interactive community.
Depending on the success of an online campaign, a cohesive movement could merit enhanced online resources and communications interface among a large number of people across multiple continents; in-person gatherings in several geographically accessible cities; events with, and presentations to, leadership of foundations and other potential partners; paid and earned media advocating the need for this initiative and showcasing its impact.
This cannot and should not substitute for in-person programs and interactions, for synagogue and JCC attendance. Ideally, it will empower and drive more Jews to our institutions and activities on the ground, and foster greater sustainability over the long run.
PARAMETERS FOR COMMUNITY
Here are a few of the questions worth considering for such an ambitious venture:
- Who – and where – are the young Jews, affiliated and unaffiliated?
- What must we do to reach, include and empower those who even now are being – or feeling – marginalized because of gender and orientation, race, heritage, disability, family and socio-economic status, geography, disaffection, partisan politics, religious “none”-ism, etc? What “value added” will we offer to those who already feel at home within the official community?
- What are the issues, decision points and activities that motivate these constituencies, and what are their channels for engagement and access?
- Beyond checkbooks and titles, what constitutes “leadership” – online and on the ground – and what level of influence is appropriate for those not able or willing to donate large sums?
- How much effort should be devoted to developing “leaders” vs. inspiring and responding directly to the concerns and interests of followers?
- What responsibility does the “organized” community have vis-à-vis young Jews who are or are not affiliated, and what if anything should it expect from them in return?
- What is still missing from the current Jewish landscape, and specifically from the programs and organizations geared to young Jews and the Jewish future?
- What communal strategies and existing programs have been successful in generating greater participation and/or representativeness, and why? Are they applicable and scalable?
- How can – and should – greater representativeness enhance the Israel-Diaspora relationship?
Israel is integral to modern Jewish identity, but American Jewry won’t survive in any recognizable form if the Israel-Diaspora bridge is our main premise for identity, participation, and meaning. Every ten years an Israeli politician, most recently Natan Sharansky, proposes a parliament of the Jewish people – his predecessors have included Yossi Beilin and disgraced former President Moshe Katsav. We have a World Jewish Congress and a World Zionist Congress, Israel has a Knesset, American Jews have the Conference of Presidents and other leadership bodies. The last thing we need is another Jewish or Zionist organization, or one more ultimate leadership training program.
What we do need is a Jewish public square, with 100 speakers’ corners and 1,000 program booths, and – now, especially – we need it online.
We need to be both realistic and pragmatic about making this work.
Many potential partners will emerge throughout the process. Foundations, Federations, organizations, religious streams, individuals – each will have their own reasons for participating and supporting this work. It will be important to weigh such interests and goals against the purpose of the project, and to balance the large tent of establishment support with the disruptive need to break the mold and reach the large mass of unreached and unheard Jews.
At their essence, Federations and community-focused enterprises generally aim to provide for the Jewish present and secure the Jewish future, each in their own way. But no existing organization dependent on status, ROI, audience share and funds can easily invest in a campaign that enfranchises and empowers others who will likely not join or support their organization.
Of course, increasing the number of Jews “doing Jewish” should mean more Jews showing up for everyone’s activities, but this requires a sense of collective and a leap of faith. Is there any existing entity, even among the viral startups, willing to fund or fundraise, staff and sustain a campaign to engage and onboard 100,000 or a million new participants into programs and deliberations that the sponsors will never truly own?
If organizations and funders have not seriously stepped up before, then we should not expect them to engage in this visioning with us during a global crisis – at least, not without a well-developed blueprint and proposed action plan for them to consider, and buy-in from validators. And who is this “we”? …another question worth pondering.
Whether it’s a donor-based Federation or self-funded family foundation, or even a laptop-based guerrilla campaign, would anyone with reach and resources ever be willing to spearhead a process whose goal is to transcend organizational agendas … including their own?
Would an entity like the Jewish Funders Network participate in, or even facilitate, such a working group? This is an opportunity to open up some of the barriers that typically insulate decision-makers from solicitations and distractions, but which may be limiting the opportunity for collaboration across sectors and between insiders and outsiders.
When the legacy institutions and the innovators are ready to either join or coopt the venture, then it will have reached the next phase. And our unique role in this will have succeeded.
For a generation now, we’ve been expecting and admonishing Federations to get outside their comfort zone and their need to own or control everything within the Jewish communal space, to stop worrying about who gets the credit and whether they’ll lose out if the community thrives beyond their walls and budget oversight. Are we all willing to do what we’ve demanded of our established institutions? Are we any more prepared to let go of our own formulas, exclusive solutions, and personalized visions?
Can we empower and appreciate, inform and support each other’s insights and dreams, for a common purpose as yet undetermined, which if successful will have all our fingerprints and none of our signatures? Can we model for “big box” organizations the same collective, collaborative, expansive, “can do” ethos we demand from them? I propose to find out, starting today.
Our goal at these initial stages should be to identify constituencies and frameworks to tap into, and to synthesize a working paper for consideration by formal and activist bodies alike. Just as we need this to “go viral,, I believe we also need it to be grounded and to earn some official imprimatur and momentum.
Our sages prioritized teachings that lead to actions. Those who want to try this out with me are welcome to visit the page and join the conversation – our conversation – in pursuit of results.
Shai Franklin, co-founder of YourGlobalStrategy and a partner with Gotham Government Relations, has served in executive capacities for several American and international Jewish organizations. (Twitter: @shaifranklin)