Leap of Faith

The president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, sent a memo to the RRC community last week with news of a major initiative planned for the coming fiscal year. Described as a “promising method” to “grow a larger base of supporters,” this “Digital Outreach Initiative” is said to be budgeted at half a million dollars a year. RRC’s total budget is estimated at around $5 million per year.

The rationale for the initiative is that “on-line avenues for enhancing Jewish life provide an opportunity” and “we need to become adept at using these modalities” to “bring the Jewish sensibilities and excitement that exists at RRC directly to the Jewish community.” In addition, “if we can place ourselves in the position of creators of new forms of Jewish organized life, there will be better opportunities for meaningful work for [RRC] graduates.” And through greater visibility, says Rabbi Ehrenkranz, “we become more attractive to prospective students.”

RRC produced a mission and vision statement in late 2007 that articulated three priorities: educating rabbis, advancing scholarship, and developing liturgical and educational materials. Its strategic plan for 2008-2013 identified seven key issues, of which the second was technology. That latter document declared, “we want to make sure that we do not allow technology to become an end in itself, diverting resources from efforts we know for certain are essential to helping us achieve our mission.”

According to last week’s memorandum, RRC’s web experience to date includes the website ritualwell.org, a YouTube site, and a Facebook page, as well as occasional e-newsletters and email solicitations. “In addition,” it reports, “we know that Twitter and blogging and who-knows-what-else have strategic advantages for us.” There are rumors at RRC that the people who ran the Obama campaign’s digital media operation will be tapped to bring those strategic advantages to the seminary.

The “Digital Outreach Initiative” is said to cost a third as much as the College’s instructional programs. That’s significantly more than is allocated to community programming or student services. The initiative is being implemented at a time when the College is cutting back drastically on expenses related to traditional instruction and student affairs, including dismissing a dean.

The College’s Board of Governors is expected to vote on this budget proposal at its June meeting. If I were on that board, I would ask questions like these:

  • What are the year-by-year projections for revenue increases to be produced from the “larger base of supporters”? How will the new expenditures on Web activities be covered in the meantime?
  • What is RRC’s specific strategy in the digital marketplace for attracting support? Given the low barriers to entry for launching websites, and the many other Jewish projects already proficient with Twitter, Facebook, and other digital media, what advantages does RRC have?
  • Has a vendor been chosen to provide the expertise for the digital initiative? If so, was the selection process transparent? What knowledge and experience does the vendor have with the target audience(s)? How has its cost-effectiveness been assessed?
  • Rabbi Ehrenkrantz writes that “synagogues aren’t growing.” How will the seminary’s mission of educating rabbis be affected by the large investment of resources in the digital initiative? How will the new focus on social media, as well as staff reductions, affect RRC’s ability to educate those rabbinical students?
  • In the process of seeking new ways for RRC to serve the Jewish community, what alternatives to the digital initiative were considered? Why were they rejected in favor of a Web strategy?
  • In today’s challenging fund-raising environment, can this initiative truly be launched without “diverting resources from efforts we know for certain are essential”?

It’s possible that the public statements of the RRC administration don’t give a full picture of their new media strategy and its mechanism for generating earned or donated revenue. And the leadership may well have a plan for sustaining the College’s functions as an institution of higher education while launching a Web initiative. It would build confidence within and beyond the Reconstructionist community to make these details public.

On the other hand, if the administration is hoping to revitalize its mission and its finances simply by spending half a million dollars a year on social media in unspecified ways, that proposal calls for the closest scrutiny. With the RRC budget for next year purportedly projecting a deficit almost as large as the expenditure on the Digitial Initiative, there is no apparent way to maintain it without large cuts elsewhere.

The underlying question is whether adopting the Web plan will effectively relegate the institution’s training of rabbis and advancement of scholarship to a secondary role. Such a sea change in the institution, which could well be irreversible, would also have far-reaching repercussions on the other institutions of Reconstructionism. In June the Board of Governors won’t merely be adopting a budget or launching a new program. It will be deciding the future of the institution, and perhaps the movement itself.

Bob Goldfarb, a Harvard MBA. is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem. He also blogs for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.