Let’s Start the New Year Off Right!

by Aharon N. Harris

How about this year we … Forget the funky buzzwords (that no one wants to admit they truly do not understand)! Forget the “innovation/networks” speak (some of the articles I read make my head spin)! Drop the acronyms! And get out of our “Jewish bubble” that is centered in New York City, large-sized Jewish organizations, and projects funded by mega-philanthropists.

The Jewish community is basically organized in two ways:

  1. Longstanding Jewish communal institutions (Federation, synagogues, JCCs, etc.), and
  2. New “start up” organizations impacting Jewish life.

I have a sad “not so secret” secret – the vast majority of Jews in America are staying away from both!

The problem with the first group is they are still doing and funding much of the same things as they did 10, 25, 50 years ago even though Jewish people are able to find most of those programs/services at a lower cost and higher quality in the general community. Or, they are just plain disinterested.

The second group is trying to meet the needs of the larger Jewish community (or perhaps just the needs of the organization’s founders), yet in reality is only touching small micro-communities. Are they truly a success if relatively few people participate? Or that it is so geographically isolated the program/service/organization does not mean a thing anywhere else?

Let me give you an example. Every year I wait with anticipation for the Slingshot 50 list of the “cutting edge” Jewish community programs. Many seem to have been on the list for many years, so I wonder just how cutting edge they must be. How many of those, including Slingshot itself, are funded by mega-philanthropists, who like to tout their own efforts? If we get outside of ourselves and our own VERY small “Jewish communal insider bubble,” we would realize that probably 95% of the American Jewish community would not know 90% of those organizations on the list. Some impact.

Now, there have been some recent successes. Birthright Israel and PJ Library are two fantastic examples. Let’s not forget, however, these programs are free. If there was a cost what would happen to participation?

My grandfather used to say, “Talk is cheap. And talking to oneself costs even less.” We (those of us reading this) need to get out into the real “mainstream” Jewish community … learn where Jewish individuals/families are in their Jewish journey … and understand their needs and wants in Jewish life. Stop creating a supply of “funding-challenged” programs for a relatively small handful of people and, instead, start developing and funding “big product” that meets an overwhelming demand in Jewish life.

How about this for the new year:

  1. Stop outsmarting ourselves and the Jewish people at-large. The vast majority are not reading these publications (including this essay), understanding our “insider jargon,” nor sitting within our institutional walls. We must realize that people are immersed in their own lives and daily happenings and “the Jewish” is not always front and center.
  2. Instead of counting the number of Jews for population studies, let’s focus our efforts on market surveys of Jewish interests and needs (think Nike or Disney). Unfortunately, we may learn there are less interests/needs under Jewish auspices than we anticipate.
  3. Jews live all over America. Just because 1,000 people in New York City or Los Angeles participate in an activity does not make it a successful venture. Guess what, the Jews in Kansas City, Charlotte, and Sacramento may never even hear about it – and they matter too.

I am an optimist for our Jewish future. I truly believe we can be a more effective and involved Jewish community if we spent money where demand dictates and not where clever people with “group think” believe it ought to go.

Happy new year!

Aharon N. Harris is CEO of a Jewish organization [outside of New York City] and Jewish communal observer.