Strange Love of National Organizations (or how I learned to stop worrying and love my local community)
Do not separate yourself from community – Hillel (Avos 2:5)
All politics is local – Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill
Quite simply, the GA is a reminder of the gravitational force of national Jewish organizations and the important role they play in connecting us to one another. We often exhort one another to ‘ not recreate the wheel’ in our respective community efforts, but if it wasn’t for networked cadres of national leadership and large conferences like the GA there wouldn’t be opportunities for the mass in-person sharing of new ideas and lessons learned in order to avoid such redundant efforts. Certainly technology has given us all the ability to communicate more quickly (even instantly) and has removed geography as a barrier to the exchange of ideas. But nevertheless, there is no substitute for harnessing the collective power of diverse and distributed Jewish leadership so that together, under the umbrella of a national organizational endeavor, they can meet challenges and seize opportunities that are continental and even global in scope.
And having watched some of my friends ‘go national’ I also know the seductiveness (and impact) of being engaged in community discussions that transcend ones own local community. Whether it is the national young leadership cabinet of The Jewish Federations of North America in which many of my friends participate, or the boards of continental endeavors like Joshua Venture Group (in which I am involved), the involvement in initiatives that have a scope beyond one’s city limits are often perceived as a form of ‘graduated’ leadership. For others, however, ‘going national’ is a matter of necessity – to effect the level of transformative change they seek to achieve, local communities (especially small ones) may be too limiting. Whatever the reason one decides to expand his or her role in more national endeavors, there can be no question that it can be extremely educational and enriching.
But it can also be distracting.
There are a few reasons why involvement in national organizations and initiatives can present both challenges and opportunities related to the success of Jewish leaders. First – the challenges. “Going national” is a substantial commitment to individual resources and time commitments, and requires a high level of patience with long-distance communication, collaboration, and politics. While not always the case, the exhaustion from national involvement often limits activists from greater engagement in their own local communities. But there is another issue of greater significance (and often related to the first issue) – often national endeavors can feel a bit disconnected from local needs and issues. While solving issues on a national scale may involve a level of grand planning and implementation, it ultimately is often excellent local execution that make those solutions achieve their intended results. In sum, while passions may be national, needs are still local.
But on the other hand, the positive impacts of national involvement are clear. Engagement in national (or international) activities often give scale and scope to the imaginations of local activists. Connecting and sharing with peers is one of the best ways to meaningful exchange ideas and experiences, and the ability to connect with different people with different perspectives is a true benefit of national involvement. Also, as one of my friends reminded me at the GA, often in small communities the opportunity to become more engaged in the Jewish community is limited and becoming involved in national endeavors is the most meaningful way to provide engaged Jewish activists a way to make a Jewish impact. Lastly, understanding that there is a large community of which we all are a part (and that requires some of our attention and effort) is a key benefit of exposure to national initiatives – the more we feel a part of something bigger than ourselves, the more we are empowered to view ourselves as vital instruments of empowerment and change.
But with all that being said, I think that one can’t lose sight of the fact that community starts at home; first in our own home and then in our home communities. Sure, the lure of the faraway is great – its often feels more significant and less limited. But the ability to invest in our own communities is great as well, and there is no lack of need to impact the communities around us in the smallest and most significant ways. While we may worry about issues that transcend just our individual cities and towns, the love of our local communities – the communities that care for us – must remain great. Whether it is innovation, connection with Israel, Jewish arts and culture or otherwise – if there is a national need, that means there is a local need. And if there are local needs, we need local activists just as much as we need national ones.
So with that in mind, and the GA in our rear view window, lets make sure we all think communally, learn and interact nationally, but not forget to act locally. It makes a difference – a difference that can change a nation of Jews one community at a time.
Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, member of the board of Joshua Venture Group and First Vice President of Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta. Seth regularly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish community on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation, and is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy. Seth can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at] agg.com.