Power and Influence Towards What?

Reviewing Power Dynamics Within the Broader Context of the Jewish Communal Enterprise

By Shlomi Ravid

Recently, a series of articles on eJP opened an important and intriguing exchange on the distribution of power and influence within the Jewish community. It opened with Yehuda Kurtzer’s article on The Establishment’ Has No Clothes: The New Jewish ‘Influence Economy,’ followed by a Andres Spokoiny’s Power, Influence, and the Limits of Maps: A Response to Yehuda Kurtzer, and then Gil Preuss response to both: Federation 2.0 and the New Power of the Collective. I don’t intend to argue on the details of these very thoughtful articles, but would like to offer a broader lens that can potentially help advance the conversation.

Power, authority and influence are social resources that facilitate the design, direction, changing and implementation of our Jewish collective enterprise. If we truly want to understand the nature of the change they are going through, we need to explore that change in the context of the changing of the overall enterprise. Power structures and dynamics are not independent variables, but depend greatly on the meaning, purpose, culture and role of the overall enterprise.

While the internal shifts in the Jewish community discussed in the above articles are influenced by a variety of sociological, cultural and generational factors, it is important to understand (and analyze accordingly), that the end game has changed as well. It is not the case where the communal/collective paradigm has remained the same and the norms of operations have changed. The Jewish community of the 20th century and the sense of peoplehood are different than those of the 21st, and not factoring in that difference will yield only a partial picture.

My claim is that the distribution of power and influence in the 20th century Jewish community was, among others, an expression of the overall Jewish communal spirit of the period, reflecting both the Jewish needs of the time and the community’s collective consciousness. In the 21st century, as both the needs and consciousness have changed considerably, the purpose and role of the Jewish enterprise are shifting, and with them the institutional power landscape, as pointed out in all three articles. Those institutional changes, it should be noted, set new dynamics in their turn, that will reflect on the communal vision and mission.

The challenge, than, goes beyond the need to map the sociological field and distribution of power. It calls for confronting the new reality and trying to understand what are those desired outcomes that the changes in the power structure are meant to enable. Assuming that form follows consciousness, what do the changes in the power structure and dynamics tell us about the emerging communal ethos, culture and aspirations. What vision and outcomes justify and even demand those changes.

Collective entities such as the Jewish community (also known as “imagined communities”) are fascinating social organisms. Their change process, which we are far from fully understanding, include a mixture of sociological and psycho-sociological variables which we have no control of, with political and philanthropic interventions that are meant to enable the desired outcome. The power and influence dynamics reside in the world of implementation and are meant to be both impactful and resonate with the spirit of the era. They need to be viewed, however, in the context of overall enterprise.

The “collective” institutions of the 20th century had a built-in aspiration in their DNA to address their community’s needs. It was an expression of their commitment to the collective ethos of their time. Many of the current players in the community are in the service of ideas they individually hold, and do not necessarily feel the need to receive a “communal certificate of approval.” And yet, we need to anchor those in a holistic updated ethos, as broad and pluralistic as it may be, if they are to represent a new phase in Jewish civilization rather than a passing episode in Jewish history.

In other words, we need more than new maps to understand our current reality. Behind the changing and shifting in Jewish communal dynamics and their power manifestations, stand the big questions of purpose and destiny. Is the Jewish communal enterprise still relevant for us and if so towards what ends? What feels as less relevant today and what will inspire Jewish civilization in a meaningful way going forward? Do we care to write the next Jewish chapter and what will it look like? As we address these questions that are part of a natural evolution in the life of intentional communities, some of the questions regarding the power dynamics will become clearer while new ones will for sure rise. The point however is to approach the issue using holistic lens. To make sure that form will indeed follow consciousness.

Dr. Shlomi Ravid is the Founding Executive Director of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.