By Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer
Over the past two decades we have experienced a sea change in the sites and the mechanics of power, authority, and influence in Jewish communal life. The mid-20th century centralized Jewish community – which concentrated power and authority in a limited set of Jewish communal institutions that were granted the right to speak and act on behalf of the community – has been destabilized and displaced – by a whole host of factors. These include the decentralization of Jewish philanthropy from central communal bodies and into the diffusion of private family foundations, growing ideological and political divisions in Jewish life in America consistent with broader ideological trends towards partisanship and polarization, the rise of a wide set of new institutions taking up important space on the Jewish communal map, and the transformation of public discourse in the public square through the advent of social media, which also operates with an accelerated speed that incentivizes quick response rather than the deliberative work of consensus politics.
Nevertheless, a strange myth persists in Jewish communal discourse about power, authority, and influence, with the commonplace belief that the 20th century narrative of Jewish institutional life still effectively describes the Jewish communal map. We see this often when people attempt to divide the field of Jewish organizations neatly between “The Establishment” envisioned as abundantly resourced, inherently powerful, and representative of a small group wielding disproportionate influence against its discontents, who are comparatively lacking in resources, struggling to be heard, but better representative of the public will. This is a common critique, especially now among those who criticize Jewish communal institutions for not playing a significant enough role in countering or criticizing the Trump (or Netanyahu) administrations’policies.
This critique is inherently a political act which seeks to mobilize against the organizations in question. Characterizing something the “establishment” ascribes it power, and invites a corresponding campaign of organizing to confront that power. But it is an increasingly odd claim coming at the same time that many of these organizations themselves regularly acknowledge and decry their loss of communal authority and convening power, and as we plainly witness their pronounced demise. The insistence by critics of these organizations that they are “establishment” is then both plainly inaccurate, as well as ironically self-fulfilling: the very accusation confers authority, reifying power to organizations that already know they had lost it.
A characteristic example of this phenomenon and its problems was on display in The Forward’s landmark and vitally important surveys of compensation for senior executives in the Jewish community. The Forward essentially used a lightly modified 20th century Jewish power map to establishment the parameters of its study, such as major federations, but not private family foundations, even though the bulk of Jewish philanthropy has been outside the federated system for three decades. It also excluded – mostly for technical reasons – data from other sites of immense power in the Jewish community, including the salaries of senior rabbis at America’s mega-congregations. As a result, the study painted a bleak picture of bloat meant to be characteristic of the Jewish communal system, but may have missed or misrepresented a tremendous amount of change that has long been underway, and the real story of how power operates in the Jewish community (and how it is compensated.)
None of this is to say that Jewish communal life is ‘flat.’ There are massive power imbalances, and corresponding misuses. Surely some of the lingering 20th century establishment organizations – some of the federations, JCRCs, umbrella and alphabet organizations, Israeli semi-governmental entities – are still very much establishment. They continue to wield power and authority in their large budgets, in their access to public officials, in the trust granted to them by other decision-makers, even in the ways they carry themselves. They probably even like the title! But not all such organizations, not by a long shot. Calling them “establishment” is a gift, and a shortcut through a transformed landscape that homogenizes organizations across very meaningful difference. And it also weakens the very effort of the critics trying to make change in Jewish communal priorities: without clarity on how power and authority really work in today’s Jewish community, we misunderstand where the levers are. What may be useful rhetorically – a singular focus on “the establishment” and prioritizing resource-based or historically-based power– can be politically counterproductive.
In this period of Jewish institutional and communal entropy, we are desperately in need of a new paradigm to understand the way in which power and authority are wielded in the contemporary Jewish community – in what I would prefer to call a dynamic Jewish communal “influence economy.” Influence, in general, should be understood as a transacted commodity more than an accumulated one: it is more often and more effectively granted, yielded, or negotiated, than it is assumed or otherwise forcibly acquired. An organization can have a huge budget, the legacy and holdover of a storied past, but little following; an organization can have a shoestring budget but can exercise a lot of power in guiding the communal conversation.
I want to propose that we study the influence economy of Jewish communal life differently and potentially much more effectively. This would entail three separates indexes that measure how authority and influence are transacted, as played out in three different sites that are too often conflated:
The first index would measure organizations and individuals who influence policy – be it local, domestic, or foreign – and would use as its instruments of measurement data sourced from these sites. An organization advocating for a particular policy is not powerful because it issues press releases; it is powerful if we can verify who in which positions of power responds to and is otherwise influenced by its advocacy.
A second index would measure organizations and individuals who influence internal Jewish communal behaviors and policy. Who sets and shapes the Jewish communal philanthropic agenda in formal and informal channels? Who are the people participating as stakeholders or consultants in strategic planning processes for major organizations, or even serving as gatekeepers or trusted confidants for organizations in executive leadership searches?
And a third index would measure organizations and individuals who influence the intellectual, ideological, and religious agenda of American Jews, whether through their written media, social media, formal curricula, or through educational and/or leadership development experiences. These second and third indexes could be studied through qualitative evaluation instruments; in both cases, I think the power and authority ecosystem – the influence economy – would wind up looking a lot different than the current binary approach leads us to believe.
In order to measure and chart power, authority, and influence along these three indexes we would need to juxtapose these forms of measurement alongside the traditional measures that still define the “establishment” discourse and have been used in other studies of the Jewish communal world, like the size of organizational budgets, membership rolls, the size or prominence of the board of directors, membership in larger authority structures, perhaps executive compensation. A serious study such as this would create a much more accurate map of how influence works in and through the Jewish community, and would also help us clarify which organizations with different types of authority should be engaged to use their influence appropriately.
And just as one example, to help us understand the changing nature of this whole field: JCRC New York, which describes itself as speaking on behalf of the New York Jewish community, has 2,700 Facebook followers; Jewish Funders Network, which galvanizes and organizes the field of Jewish philanthropy, has 1,500; T’ruah, which organizes and educates rabbis in progressive causes, has 11,500. Meantime, the journalist Yair Rosenberg has nearly 5,000, and then another 68,000 on Twitter. This is just one measure, but a new and instructive one. So now: who of these is most authoritative? Who wields the most influence? Which of these is “establishment,” and why? What do we gain, and what do we lose, in using this terminology? Who wields actual power, who imagined power, and who – neither? And how we are understanding the ways that power, authority, and influence operate in today’s Jewish community?
The persistence of an outdated narrative of Jewish communal life – and its use to litigate political battles – is inaccurate and ineffective. American Jewish communal life has changed faster than our categories, and in more exciting and entropic ways than our rhetoric understands. We absolutely should be interrogating how power, authority, and influence work in our community, and creating accountability. But to do so, we need a better map.
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.