Shift Happens | The Confluence of COVID-19 & Black Lives Matter

Photo credit: Andrew Keene

By Andrew Keene

Since the first Shift Happens article was published on this site, I have spent over 100 hours on Zoom with Jewish professionals and lay-leaders on every continent (literally) talking about how platform-thinking is overdue in the Jewish communal landscape. The conversations have been inspiring to me, have challenged and expanded my own thinking, and have left me optimistic about the future of organized Jewish life. The takeaway from these Zoom conversations has been that COVID-19 has in fact prompted Jewish organizations of all types to think differently about their organization in a post-Coronavirus world. Many are ready to make hard decisions that have been delayed one too many times. Many are willing to made radical shifts in order to not just survive Coronavirus but thrive as a result of it.

And then the world changed, again. In the midst of a global pandemic, the senseless death of George Floyd at the hands of police re-energized a movement, a global call-to-conscience, Black Lives Matter. When I spoke about platforms a few weeks earlier, I had no idea the first praxis would come so quickly.

Just as quickly as Jewish organizations readied to embrace a new paradigm of operating after COVID-19 hit, I watched one organization after another fall back into the program-oriented thinking they had just sworn off. A dilemma emerged, one I heard from many Jewish organizations – move quickly to respond and risk getting “it” wrong or move more slowly in hopes of allowing for more clarity and intentionality. This is a dilemma that definitionally can only be faced by an organization steeped in a program-mindset.

First, three principles for platform thinking:

  1. Platforms are a means of engaging with a higher purpose or pursuit, not a way to engage with an organization.
  2. The purpose of a platform is to create connective tissue between PEOPLE.
  3. Jewish platforms should be focused on making that connective tissue Jew-ish.

This past weekend I relocated from Washington, D.C. to my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin for the summer. While notable for many things, Milwaukee has been generationally plagued by being one of the most segregated cities in the nation. By chance, a long Sunday walk ended at the beginning of a Black Lives Matter protest near the city’s Art Museum. The energy was palpable.

As someone who is anxious in large crowds, I found myself near the perimeter with a friend. A young black girl, probably no older than seven, was walking around the perimeter of the growing crowd with a child-size bullhorn chanting call-and-response “Black Lives Matter; No Justice, No Peace.” The young girl would shout, and a thunderous echo would respond. In the course of ten minutes, she was in the center, engaging not just those on the periphery, but the entire crowd. It was spontaneous, powerful, and the message was clear. This was not just a rally (think program- you attend to hear a lineup of speakers). This was a living, breathing demonstration (think platform- you are part of creating a dynamic experience) of what an anti-racist community looks like. The young girl was not on any agenda or seated on any dais. She showed up (with her mom) to share her message, and it was in turn amplified by the community.

Steps away, at the entrance of the Milwaukee Public Art Museum, which features art ranging from the Dutch Masters to Georgia O’Keefe, a living art installation was emerging. The letters spelling out Black Lives Matter had been stenciled down the sidewalk, with piles of chalk lining the space. In the span of a few hours, people representing every imaginable demographic of Milwaukee were adding their own artistic contribution – illustrations, quotes, symbols, calls to action. Against the backdrop of an art museum (think program- you pay to view art), a blank canvas (think platform- you show up to create art) had emerged with the purpose of awakening the city’s conscience as to the deep-rooted problem of racism.

What does this story have to do with Jewish organizations? Everything.

Similar to mid-March, Jewish organizations raced to remain relevant as the world moved digital. And now, as my friend called it “the most important social movement of our lives” emerged, Jewish organizations again raced to stake a claim of relevance. While many were thinking and intending to do so in a platform-oriented manner, program-thinking habits emerged.

Program-oriented organizations were quick to share infographics, resources, pull together webinars, in an attempt to provide answers. On social media, program-thinking meant pushing out content. Platform-oriented organizations were mobilizing to create safe spaces for dialogue, brave spaces for vulnerability, and open channels for curiosity. On social media, platform-thinkers were asking big questions to start a conversation.

In a platform world, the role of Jewish organizations shifts from being content-creators aimed at providing answers to space-creators aimed at bringing people together to engage with openness. In that pursuit of space-creation (either digitally or physically), the space should be rooted in Jewish values, teaching, wisdom, guidance, and music. This serves as the Jewish connective tissue that brings people together to engage in a much bigger purpose with a common value framework.

The Coronavirus crisis has created a seismic opportunity to connect Jewish people to other Jewish people after a long period of isolation. The Black Lives Matter Movement has created an urgent opportunity for networks of Jewish people to actualize their Jewish values in a way that creates a more just and equitable world.

The deep desire for community and the longing for connection as well as the quest for justice is far bigger than any one of our organizations. Platform thinking helps us achieve both at the same time – positioning our organizations as platforms of engagement, with both Judaism and society as a whole. Black Lives Matter is indeed the proving ground for boldly relevant Jewish organizations to take the first uncomfortable leap into the future. Guided by a clear and compelling sense of purpose, values, and heritage, Jewish platforms will provide the framework for Jews to communally engage in the Black Lives Matter movement, while creating the space to make mistakes, to learn, to grow, and to heal.

Shift Happens, again. It’s time to lead.

Andrew Keene is a member of the Management Committee of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Andrew works for a consulting firm specializing in digital business transformation. He holds a business degree with a focus on entrepreneurship from Drexel University.