Organisations in the XXI Century

Communities create boundaries. Sometimes boundaries are necessary: to define who is member of an organisation, to define in a Community who is a Jew, who can make decisions, the fees, etc. But this leaves people out. Especially those that are different from the mainstream.

Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

[This text was presented at the JTalks during the JCC Global Conference held in November 2015.]

By Mario Izcovich

Twenty five years ago I came back to Europe (my grandparents escaped from the pogroms in Odessa), from Argentina, with my wife, and we settled down in Barcelona where we had two kids. In a way, I’m still a foreigner and due to my work for JDC, traveling across Europe, sometimes I have the opportunity to see certain situations through the eyes of a newcomer, in other words, through the eyes of a child.

Let me share with you four short stories.

  1. In Barcelona today there are around 5 to 6 thousands Jews. In 1991 when my wife and I went to the synagogue, there was only one place to celebrate Rosh Hashana. Today, 24 years later, there are 5 places. The reason is that once in a while a congregation had a crisis and many people would quit going and start a new organization. The good news is that today there is more Jewish life than 24 years ago. The bad news is, at least in Barcelona, Jews don’t know how to deal with crisis.
  2. A few years ago, through a research we were doing at the JDC, I met an 18 year old girl that explained to me that she had been invited to her very first party at the Jewish youth club. She attended with high expectations. She spent the whole night alone. Nobody came to say hello, to talk, to invite her to dance and then she said to me: “Never again will I attend a Jewish activity.”
  3. A Jewish community in Europe did research about their youth, to understand their interests, their needs on issues related to the Jewish community, programs, and so on. They only asked those youngsters that were involved actively in their youth movements. Actually, the information they gathered was information they already knew.
  4. Last but not least, I met the president of a 3,000 member community who was preparing for the board elections. He showed me the list of names proposed to the board and I asked him: “where are the young people represented here?” And he said: “they are not prepared to run this business.”

What can we learn from these stories?

We learn something very simple, that we are human beings, and as such we like to be in groups, and we like to be in groups where people have similar values, similar backgrounds, even similar age or life stage. And yes, groups segregate and yes, we do segregate. We segregate those that are different.

Most of the organisations we know in Europe, including JCCs, were created after WW2, with a few exceptions, under paradigms from the last century.

What we see is that they are institutions where there is no place for debate, there is no pluralism and it is rare to accept someone that is different.

Communities create boundaries. Sometimes boundaries are necessary: to define who is member of an organisation, to define in a Community who is a Jew, who can make decisions, the fees, etc. But this leaves people out. Especially those that are different from the mainstream.

Very few organisations create new and adapted programs considering the different realities of our people like children of mixed marriages, new family models, young adults, etc. Mostly, Jewish organisations keep the status quo, maintaining the same programs as usual and don’t pay much attention to diversity.

There is not a genuine policy of reaching out to more Jews. Even in small size communities, I find the philosophy is always the same, which puts the community at risk of disappearing instead of attracting new people open to change.

We often see many organisations becoming like fortresses, where the same people always meet to talk about same things. Actually, we see many empty buildings in Jewish life.

There is a French anthropologist Marc Auge who spoke about the concept of “no place.” Actually he refers to places like airports, malls, hotel rooms. In a way, some Jewish Community Centers are becoming such places. Yes, we can identify something Jewish, there´s always a menorah, old pictures from Israel, etc. But in general you don’t feel any personal connection with the place.

We see organisations becoming more closed, losing people, not attracting new members, and with diminishing resources. And it becomes a vicious circle. In general, solutions mean budget cuts in services and salaries, etc.

Often leaders say there is no other way to run the business. There is a sense of impossibility. The challenge is to recognize that sometimes it is not about impossibility but about impotence. Very few people recognize: “We don’t know how to do it; we don’t know how to ask for help, we are afraid of criticism, we are afraid to change.”

When we open up the game to a bigger and more diverse group we risk having people that criticize what we offer. We need to ask ourselves honestly: “Are we prepared for that? Are we prepared for complaints? Are we prepared to recognize that we could be doing something wrong and that we should change? Do we accept the failure?”

As sometimes we don’t ask these questions this is why many leaders keep the power of decisions in a closed system. The challenge is to recognize that things could be done in a different way. This would not affect our authority, quite the opposite.

The model of a JCC today is the consumer model, offering services to the person who consumes knowledge, culture, food, etc. with very little interaction with others; the typical program is a conference where you just see the back of the person. You come, you listen, and you go.

But friends, welcome to the XXI Century.

In the XXI century if we follow the sociologist Sygmunt Bauman, who speaks about the “liquid modernity,” communities are more needed than ever. In times that the institutions are in crisis, that the transmission of knowledge is in crisis, that the model of families, the church, the army, the school, the political parties and even the JCCs are in crisis.

Following Bauman the major trend today in our western society is the uncertainty. We don’t know anything about our future. We can change the family, the work, the faith, the sexuality.

So people are looking for safe places that offer protection. Not in the sense of physical security. Uncertainty provokes fear and there is a need of community but what type of community?

I propose to define communities as networks: Networks with hubs. So instead of thinking that JCCs are buildings reserved for Judaism, let’s think that JCCs are the places for Jews in town.

We have good news:

In Europe we see some interesting examples; people that don’t feel at home in the traditional institutions are creating their own organisations. There are people that want to do something creative, or different and find lots of obstacles. They only get a NO for an answer when they want to do something.

They are called very generally “grassroots organisations.” It is relatively new, and in many cases they are thriving.

What we can learn from these experiences as general trends?

Communities are not defined anymore by a place (like a building), the whole concept of trying to bring people to come to the place is problematic. You ask them to come to your place.

People meet by interests and like active interaction.

If we can define communities as networks, we see people that like to define themselves according to which network they belong.

Indeed, in our contemporary age the relationship between the individual and society is changing and in a way concepts like identity are becoming meaningless.

These grassroots organizations are open enough to include people who are not necessarily from the inner circle of Jewish life in the city, bringing fresh and creative ideas. These organisations don’t treat the adults as children and do promote meaningful debates. There is an emphasis on having fun.

These are transparent organizations with real democratic systems. The organisation belongs to everyone.

There is an interest to create a sense of belonging.

People are looking for exchange, discussion, meeting others: young parents with young parents, teenagers with teenagers, gay and lesbians with gay and lesbians. In this way Judaism is less about knowledge and more about an experience that includes the knowledge.

Another trend we see is that successful organisations or programs are the ones offering services to participants: For example helping migrants to connect to the Jewish life in the city, helping youngsters to get a job, etc. By the way, one of the more successful programs at some JCCs in the USA at the beginning of the XX Century was English lessons for all those Jews coming from Europe.

It is about welcoming people like at home, giving them a place to talk, to learn together, to exchange and to build meaningful relationships.

I would like to propose today that JCC’s should be about experiences. Judaism should be about experience. And experience is always with others. Doing things with others. This is the first C, Community.

I would like to finalize with an interesting story:

After the Hypercacher attacks we spent time in Paris helping the Jewish Community. We met a person in charge of the security programs and she explained to us that in some Jewish schools parents volunteer to help with the security and they started to provide parents with training. So the reason they started to meet was for security. But in some cases they realized that they had a good time and they decided to enlarge the mission of the group both becoming active in the life of the school and through the engagement having a good time, in other words building community.

This text was presented at the JTalks during the JCC Global Conference held in November 2015.

Mario Izcovich is Director of Leatid, the European Center for Jewish Leadership.

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