Recreating the Jewish World

by Richard Pearlstone

Many in Jewish organizational leadership have followed a path suggesting that they have the answer to “how to recreate the Jewish world.” They assume that (1) there is such thing as THE Jewish World and (2) some group of people will be able to recreate it. I disagree with these assumptions and I believe that acting on these assumptions will actually keep us from meeting the challenges of this moment.

There is no single Jewish World that can be recreated – instead, there are many different Jewish worlds organized in a variety of institutional and organizational forms. There is the Government of Israel; there are NGO’s, social service organizations, Federations, social justice and advocacy organizations, synagogues, schools, JCCs and many others. There are philanthropic and political organizations as well as foundations with a diversity of missions. Each works for its own constituency and supporters or would not exist. In free societies it is the marketplace, the process of creative destruction, that decides when an organization succeeds or when it goes out of business.

While this may seem disorganized, confusing and often frustrating, this diversity and multiplicity of organizations may be one of the most important strengths of what we call the Jewish World. In other words there is no one person or group of people that can recreate THE Jewish World… creating the World was and is God’s job.

So I want to change the question from “should the Jewish world be recreated” to a question each of us can actually address: What do WE need to recreate in that part of the Jewish world we lead or in which are involved.

In this respect, I can speak about the area I know best which may be the largest most encompassing: Jewish, philanthropic, global, public organizations. There are the three in which I am involved: The Jewish Agency for Israel, the JDC and The Jewish Federations of North America. It is clear we need to recreate this part of our Jewish world.

There is one fundamental challenge at the heart of reorganizing our continental and global public organizations – the question of collective responsibility without which we will have no effective or ennobled continental or global organizations. Are we serious about collective responsibility? Do we believe kol Yisrael Areyvim zeh l’zeh – that each of us is responsible for every other? Can we agree on what our collective responsibilities are and are we prepared to hold ourselves accountable in meeting those responsibilities? If not, can we claim any engagement in the re-creation?

John Ruskay just celebrated a 10 year anniversary of his service as the Chief Executive Officer of the New York UJA-Federation. In an inspiring address at the event that honored, John not only summarized achievement and goals for the future, he held all of us to the highest standard when he said: “But above all, we will continue to hold high the banner of Jewish communal collective responsibility. In a culture too often defined by rampant individualism, including in philanthropy, we affirm that we are indeed a part of a people and community that promotes the axiomatic value of our responsibility for another, of the shared and mutual responsibility of each and every member of the House of Israel. We do this not only because it is the core foundation on which the work of federations rests. We do this because it is a core principle on which the entire enterprise of the Jewish People rests …”

Our non-profits have followed the business world into excess. In our case that excess was evidenced by everyone having their own particular causes – our version of the larger culture’s individualism. Organizations and individuals alike began to “bowl alone” without regard for the destructive impacts of individual decisions on our institutions and on the work to which we are dedicated. As collective responsibility has weakened our continental and global institutions have weakened. We need to ask ourselves seriously what do we, the leaders of these institutions, agree are our collective responsibilities? If we can neither agree upon nor make the case for collective responsibilities then our institutions will continue to weaken to the ultimate point of irrelevancy.

We know what collective responsibility feels like. When we needed to rescue literally millions of Jews we recognized this was a collective responsibility. When Israel has found herself at war and people are endangered, we realize there is a need for collective responsibility. When Jews have faced hunger, we have fed them. These are classic cases of pikuach nefesh – saving a life. Over the years our global institutions have been magnificent at meeting these challenges. But if these are the only needs we really see as our collective responsibilities, then we do not need the type of global institutions we now have.

  • Do we believe that Jews are at risk globally such as the 200,000 elderly Jews that are hungry around the world?
  • Are the 30,000 youth at risk around the world and the 420,000 at risk youth in Israel our collective responsibility?
  • Do we believe that the 40,000 young people brought to Israel on an Israel experience is a collective responsibility?
  • Do we believe that aliyah of choice is a collective responsibility?

Once we agree on our collective responsibilities then we need to decide how to raise money and to execute in the most effective and efficient ways.

However, we have not had this debate honestly since 1939 and 1948 and 1967 and 1990.

To engage in this debate we will need to ask ourselves hard questions. Among them:

  • Can our existing institutions address these collective responsibilities?
  • Do we need new institutions? New mandates? New institutional arrangements?
  • How do we change our cultures to respond to these collective responsibilities we have agreed upon and will we hold ourselves accountable?

We will need to honestly ask each other:

  • Where do each of our institutions have strategic as well as competitve advantage in meeting these collective responsibilities?
  • Where do each of our institutions bring added value?
  • How will each of our global institutions effectively engage donors and their lay leaders?
  • And are we willing to live with the answers to these questions no matter what those answers mean about the power, size and scale of our institutions?

To truthfully ask these questions and to seriously discipline ourselves to live with the answers will require us all to remember what one of the greatest global Jewish leaders, our beloved Max Fisher, z’l, said in a speech in 1980. To paraphrase Max’s words:

Let the Jewish world understand that when a man or woman is called to serve a global Jewish institution at any level he or she is taking up a post of honor for their people. I have been so called and been so honored and I know only one way to repay for that great distinction – and this is to leave for others global institutions that are stronger better equipped to serve our people in the days ahead.

Let us begin again the process of recreation for klal Yisrael and the generations to come.

Richard Pearlstone is Chairman of the Board, The Jewish Agency for Israel.

He delivered these remarks at the 2009 Israeli Presidential Conference and were updated following the recent dinner in honor of John Ruskay.