Reconsidering Community Now:
Who, What, Where, Why, and How

By Shai Franklin

[Whether or not it “changes everything forever,” the Coronavirus does reveal and aggravate deep, longstanding challenges and contradictions facing the American Jewish community. This op-ed is based on a longer paper detailing these challenges and outlining a mechanism for sustainability in the digital era.]

How our community responds to this crisis, and how it returns to normal in the aftermath, will shape what the new “normal” looks like. But we cannot afford to lock in these changes as faits accomplis, absent a proactive and broad communal deliberation which transcends the immediate landscape of adaptation, triage, and tragedy. The wider and more intentional this conversation reaches now, the wider and more relevant our community will be for years to come.

While convening and connecting these conversations was always important, until recently it was still seen as ahead of the curve. Since March 2020, the curve has overtaken us.

While Zoom and its kin are here to stay, no virtual community can fully replace physical settings to worship, study, exercise, socialize, and mobilize. But those institutions and social entrepreneurs that thrive by harnessing this online-only season – not just as a temporary substitute for in-person activities, but in ways that reimagine Jewish engagement – will undoubtedly occupy a larger slice of the communal footprint going forward, even as that footprint may shrink in total size.

Startup initiatives with no budget are running circles around well-funded digital campaigns, especially this year, and mavericks with deep pockets easily leverage the online anarchy. Unless we try to accommodate and connect the countless online communities, this new digital culture will end up fragmenting and dividing us even more than before. Perhaps – true to Judaism’s roots as a portable religion – we can wean ourselves off the endemic and costly “edifice complex,” repurpose existing buildings and expand pop-up opportunities.

As in our Millennial-driven digital society, the conversations we facilitate will lead nowhere if the legacy institutions and the major funders try to pre-cook or otherwise control them. At the same time, these conversations won’t be impactful if we are not all equally engaged in them.

We need to reach out to various segments of our community, and to those who are outside or even unaware of “the community,” to best frame, inform and spin off these conversations. This includes the LGBTQ space, Jews of color, Jews by choice, Jews with disabilities, major funders and venture philanthropists, politically active Jews of all stripes, AIPAC and J Street, “cultural” Jews and “religious” Jews, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, U.S.-born and immigrants, Orthodox and Reform, Conservative and Lubavitch, Reconstructionist and Renewal, Federations and social entrepreneurs, grandparents, parents, and youth, singles and families, women and men.

We can no longer put off an expansive and well-managed conversation that articulates a conscious social compact: the meaning of “community”; the range of Jewish identities, motivations, and expectations; the many roles Israel plays for American Jewry; the viability and goals of our existing institutions, and the balance of authority, accountability and access; the empowerment of “customers” and “clients” as stakeholders.

We need to ask and listen to what Jews feel and want, and we need to empower them to stay involved. Do we even have a community to speak of? How will we reach and inspire Jewish students experientially if their interactions become more virtual than face-to-face? Can we offer young Jews something more than “be Jewish so there will be more Jews,” are we too dependent on extrinsic stimuli like fighting anti-Semitism and supporting Israel?

The major-donor culture has generated innovations like Birthright-Israel – but limited transparency and empowerment. Will we allow dissent and open discussion on sensitive issues without instinctively circling the wagons, and how? Would we give genuine authority to those who cannot write big checks? In the era of venture philanthropy, crowdfunding and small-dollar political campaigns, should we re-engineer our basic fundraising model?

There are also specific lessons from our pandemic existence. How do we better accommodate the family unit, office-less constituencies, and online participation? Can we integrate “blended” learning, distance learning and home-schooling into a more affordable and sustainable Jewish education? In our current political environment, can we find a way to accommodate liberals, conservatives, progressives and Trump supporters all under one community or even within a single synagogue?

To remain one community, we need to meet people where they are even as we seek to inspire them – across lines of religious and political outlook, heritage, race, gender, age, and socio-economic situation. How many Jews are looking to be “transformed” and innovated, and how many are just looking to get connected and to grow Jewishly on their own terms? Can we listen to and validate their narratives? Can we break through the silos of disciplines and localities in order to maximize collaboration and replicate success stories?

Which programs already exist or can be launched in order to meet these needs and aspirations? Would foundations and philanthropists be willing to fund, scale-up and replicate programs that are already successful, instead of challenging hard-strapped organizations to keep inventing new initiatives to fit into exclusive grant requirements? Grantees may include start-ups as well as Federations.

Can we get the data on who is being left out and feeling left out – are we even bothering to ask them? What percentage of each community is donating or being solicited – being empowered – to fund the local Federations? When most Jewish philanthropic dollars are landing outside the community, can we find out where it is being spent? Do we even have a comprehensive list of all our local and national organizations, institutions and startups, along with their programs and participation numbers?

These questions cannot be answered through opinion polls or focus groups alone; the discussion process must itself be inclusive, transformative, and empowering. We need to weave together online platforms, crowdsourcing and local clusters, with facilitators and scholars and funders. And, when appropriate, conferences and consultations with specific agendas and benchmarks.

Even with a hundred breakout sessions, however, a convention space with thousands of delegates would’t result in anything resembling a community-wide consensus or an actionable agenda for the digital era. A secure, accessible, open-source platform could become the online convention hall for the Jewish people. Not every Jew or every entity will show up, but we can do our best for those who do and for those who will follow.

If the Federations take up this challenge by convening a diverse array of startups, upstarts and innovators alongside more established institutions and experts, then they will reaffirm their role as the big tent for the Jewish future.

If Federations are not in a position to take this on, then a consortium of other organizations and funders might be able to step up. They would need to act and be accepted as honest brokers. Just as the establishment cannot own this, it also can’t be seen as an “Israeli” or “anti-Federation” initiative.

Whether we’re building an online portal or clarifying and reshaping our communal agenda, this can’t be accomplished by a ‘dream team’ sitting around a conference table or be seen as top-down. It must be responsive, inclusive, and rational. Otherwise, even the most state-of-the-art platform and all the smartest answers will do little to secure a Jewish future that’s also a future for Jews.

The more diversity and ingenuity and passion we can harness today, and the more we can recognize and reward them, the more compelling and the more worthwhile – and multi-faceted, adaptive, sustainable – our model can be going forward. The more Millennials and others we can engage and represent in their Jewish aspirations, the more relevant our communal enterprise will be to them and to the generations that follow.

A deep dive detailing these challenges and outlining a mechanism for sustainability in the digital era is here.

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)