Rigid Institutions in a Fluid Era

We’ve spent so much time building institutional Jewish life, and protecting it, and charging for it, that we’ve often lost track of why we needed these organizations in the first place.

by Allan Finkelstein

In June of 1969 I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis at the University of Minnesota on “duplication of services in the Twin Cities Jewish community.” I was concerned even then that the way Jewish communal services were organized made absolutely no sense. What bothered me wasn’t only duplication, but, the rigidity and hard boundaries in Jewish life that duplication symptomized. Even as an idealistic undergraduate, I was sure that we could be so much more effective in how we engage people – all kinds of people – and help them pursue their Jewish journeys. Sadly, more than 40 years later, little has changed. We’ve certainly added tremendous new services, built well-designed and attractive buildings, and arguably improved the quantity and quality of our staffing, but, we still lack a sufficient awareness of the public we aim to serve, engage, and energize, a public that is diverse and fluid and has even less patience than I did in my college years for highly bounded, ridiculously competitive, and needlessly petty Jewish institutions. I have had a lifelong interest in examining Jewish communal life and even though I concede that I may be part of the problem at times, I’m convinced that we can do much better.

Let’s take one issue: Money. For the past 40 years, I’ve heard us bemoan the high cost of being Jewish, yet collectively we’ve layered on so many costly demands that just the basics of “being Jewish” are prohibitive. The infrastructure that we built in the 1970s and 80s is largely responsible for the high fees that are required today. Ideally, we’d like every Jewish family to raise two or three children, join congregations and JCCs, send the kids to day camp, overnight camp, and Israel, support the campaign, and make lots of other Jewish purchases (films, books, recreational activities, etc.). It doesn’t add up. Well it does add up, but makes no sense for a population whose median income is about $60-70,000 annually.

Add to that our “silo-ization.” To take a glaring example, for approximately 14 years, we’ve made it possible for thousands of young adults to claim their “birthright” by accepting a free 10-day trip to Israel. The research bears out the success stories – the return to Israel on longer trips supported by Masa, the increased Jewish friends, the “birthright marriages,” and more. But the reality is that the vast majority of these alums – along with the vast majority of our young people – are still largely unconnected with Jewish life. We’ve done a terrible job of hand-offs and follow-up, to say nothing of availability of basic information. We have failed to make it possible for them to access Jewish life; we haven’t even made the offer, in most cases.

The PEW study has told us what we all knew: too few Jews are Jewishly engaged, even tangentially. It doesn’t take an outside study to tell us to change. We have everything at our fingertips – buildings, staff, and, yes, money. We have professional expertise, committed lay leaders, and years of experience. What we don’t have is the good sense to make a few hard choices that could, in a relatively short time, change the dynamics.

A few concrete suggestions:

Let’s attempt to change the institutionally protective discourse. Can we survive without “defending” our institution/organization/denomination at the expense of another? What positive messages can we send?

What about eliminating membership requirements from Jewish organizations? Most of society is selling service, pay as you go. Can we take the chance that people will want to be with us on their terms, rather than forced to join on ours? Are we confident enough in the quality of programs and services that we will let people in without a barrier? While we’re at it, can we please stop referring to fellow Jews as “non members?”

More broadly, we need to increase the interaction of Jews with Jews, and of different kinds of Jews (both locally and globally), and, of course between Jews and friends/family/spouses of Jews. Last week in Israel, I met a fascinating young man who is inviting Hasidic Jews to sit down and have coffee with secular Jews. We need to provide more spaces (real and metaphoric) where Jewish connection, community and journey can happen. I’ve had the joy, for many years, of watching these friendships build and sustain across the boundaries of age, social class, and yes, denomination.

How about trusting ourselves when it comes to the ongoing challenge of engaging alumni of Birthrightisrael? Imagine if we had called every participant immediately upon their return to welcome them and bring them in, rather than “waiting” for the right activity to attract them. It’s about the basics of engagement. There’s still a huge opportunity here.

Years ago Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote a song called “Make It Easy on Yourself.” Why don’t we do so? As I’ve already said in several ways, we’ve made it hard on ourselves – and on unengaged (or even moderately engaged) Jews to enter Jewish life. We’ve spent so much time building institutional Jewish life, and protecting it, and charging for it, that we’ve often lost track of why we needed these organizations in the first place. We’ve built more walls than we’ve torn down. We’ve labeled, criticized, categorized, while we’ve lost people.

We know the answers. Do we have the will to make the decisions we need to make and take some risks? Institutions that fear for their own survival have already missed the point. It’s about being loose enough, adaptive enough, and relational enough to engage individuals and broaden their involvement in Jewish life. Let’s keep our eyes on the ball!

Allan Finkelstein is president and CEO of JCC Association.