The New Colors of Clal: Organization Steps Forward to ‘Make Jewish a Public Good’

Innovation does not mean success, but rather pushing the envelope.

Inaugural program of LEAP, a partnership between Clal and the University of Pennsylvania's Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. Photo courtesy UPenn.
Inaugural program of LEAP, a partnership between Clal and the University of Pennsylvania’s Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. Photo courtesy UPenn.

By Maayan Jaffe
eJewish Philanthropy

The Pew Research Center statistics on Jewish identity and pride are regurgitated by Jewish organizations, fearing a collapse of the Jewish people in the States. Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership has a different take. These same statistics – more than nine-in-ten Jews (94%) agree they are “proud to be Jewish;” three-quarters (75%) say they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people, and about six-in-ten (63%) say they have a special responsibility to care for Jews in need around the world – are not problems.

“We don’t have a Jewish identity problem,” says Kula. “The problem is that the majority of Jews who are proud of their identities and feel connected to their religion are not using the products, services and delivery systems of the organized Jewish community.”

Kula, together with co-president Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, are recapturing the Clal mission of its founders Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg and Elie Wiesel.

“Now, we are 100 percent committed to making Jewish a public good,” says Kula.

What does it mean? Hirschfield, who coined the phrase, says it’s very simple: making all things Jewish more accessible, more meaningful, more useable and more impactful in more ways to more people.

“The shift is in the metric,” explains Kula. “It is not how to make people more Jewish, anymore. It is how can I use Jewish wisdom and practices to help human beings flourish and ensure the public good?”

Clal plans to implement four strategies over the next five to 10 years to help it achieve its goal. First, it will find new ways to invest in and nurture a cohort of up to 350 rabbis engaged in Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders (RWB) program. The rabbis in the RWB Network are committed to pushing the borders of what it means to be a rabbi today. Though the rabbis in the program span denominations, geography and experience, they collectively seek to share their Torah in pluralistic, innovative ways grounded by a sense of service to all.

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu, director of RWB, describes RWB rabbis as “the leadership class” and the most capable of helping Clal fulfill its mission through their amplified Jewish educations and knowledge. The question says Sirbu, “How do we as rabbis offer Judaism wisdom in a different way?”

Since launching RWB and adopting a “beyond borders” approach to their rabbinates, the rabbis report that 96 percent of fellows have ” strengthened and increased their comfort crossing denominational and institutional boundaries;” 91% have created new programs in their synagogue/organization; and 81% have seen an increase in participation in programs and use of services in their synagogue or organization.

Now, Clal will harness RWB rabbis who have completed the RWB fellowship to form the RWB Service Corps to reach Jews who do not have access to rabbinical services. Each of 150 rabbis has pledged to donate two to three days a year of their time, expertise and pastoral presence to serve as part of the corp. As RWB grows to 350 rabbis, this would amount to 600 days of service or two years of full-time placement.

Concurrently, Clal is gathering seven clergy/lay leader teams in a new program called Leaders Without Borders. The teams will incubate new programs on topics ranging from the sociology of religion in America today, how to foster innovation in a communal setting, how to engage with people in a pluralist environment, and the intersection of positive psychology and religion.

Research & Development

Another new program, Taamei Mitzvah, is being run by Ayalon Eliach to ask the question of whether or not Jewish wisdom works.

“Most rabbis don’t think of the role of a mitzvah as to get a job done, but they are very sophisticated tools and technologies that have reasons. We are taking 40 mitzvoth and asking the question: What is the job or utility, the taam or the purpose of this mitzvah?” explains Kula.

He continues: “Over the past two decades research in positive psychology has discovered the character strength and virtues that enable people to live flourishing lives. We will apply this research to Jewish practice to learn how, whether, and which Jewish practices lead to measurable increases in well-being and quality of life. Essentially, we will reconnect Jewish practices to the actual the virtues and character strengths they are designed to cultivate and then study whether these practices actually work to increase our baseline of these qualities.”

This will be the first study in America of the impact of religious practice, aside from meditation, on human flourishing and will contribute to Jewish life as well as the fields of positive psychology and religion.

Applications & Innovations

A new Clal Collaboratory, under the direction of Rabbi Elan Babchuck, will support rabbinic entrepreneurs on their path to building innovative projects that catalytically serve both extant and emergent communities. This innovation incubator provides the technical, managerial, philosophical and theological support the entrepreneurs need to create the greatest opportunity for success.

But Kula and Hirschfield understand that innovation does not mean success, but rather pushing the envelope.

“Innovation is not whether it always works or whether we like what emerges – sometimes we won’t. We want to create a genuine culture of Jewish experimentation. The measurement will be whether more people are using Judaism to become the people they want to be,” says Hirschfield.

“The goal is to launch 50 or 60 of these [innovative projects], says Kula. “If 20 make it that would be fantastic.”

Other new projects, such as LEAP, a partnership between Clal and the University of Pennsylvania’s Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, will work to leverage, expand and popularize Judaism by studying a shared topic that has the potential to shape the scholars’ chosen fields, but also humanities as a whole and contemporary Jewish culture and community.

“It’s about leveraging great ideas so that they reach and serve the widest possible audience,” says Hirschfield.

Media & Communications

Finally, through The Wisdom Daily, a new site for political, cultural and spiritual commentary and analysis, will try to help people address the biggest questions they face both as individuals and a society; lift people out of the mind-numbing polarization that typify most public debate and spiritual teaching; and offer people greater purpose and happiness in their daily lives.

Clal will also work to create rabbi communicators that can speak to the greater public about Jewish ideas and wisdom, through the media and other public outlets.

Clal is being funded through multiple sources, says Hirschfield, including a generous board, larger foundational grants and a generous individual donor base.

“It’s about serving the world as Jews – Jewishly,” says Hirschfield. “Our Jewish world is often driven by panic about the erosion of the Jewish people or concern with better marketing. … The opportunities are far greater than the things we need to fear.”