By Robert Hyfler, PhD
The Jewish conversation in America is a spectator sport and most Jews cannot even find the stadium. The philanthropic community is increasingly atomized. Apathy reigns among large segments of the grass roots. Decision making on communal priorities is held hostage by private money and private agendas.
Once upon a time I commented whimsically at a conference that “a priority is a need with a paying customer.” That was a time when high end donors and their foundations were boldly shaking up the Jewish world with targeted and creative investments. However this gift of a mixed Jewish economy also created smaller and smaller communal rooms in which issues are debated and directions set. The public space for Jewish conversation and decision making is under threat. (see: https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-rise-of-the-mega-donor-and-the-privatization-of-organized-jewish-life/)
The dynamic has shut out younger voices and older voices alike; the less affluent and the less connected. In some quarters, controversial positions (read those of the powerless) are greeted with shunning and derision. In other quarters, on both the religious Jewish right and the alienated and frustrated young left, a new triumphalism now holds sway as they write off those not of their opinion or chosen community as dinosaurs doomed to extinction and the dustbin of Jewish history. Communities and generations are not in dialogue, no common language or reference points exist to bridge divides. Yeats’s famous poetic lines, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” rings truly prophetic and is indicative of the divides within our Jewish world.
The corrective to this destructive state of affairs must be one of both culture and process. While giving no sustenance to bigotry, hate and incivility, we should embrace and honor a no boundaries, open approach to the Jewish conversation. Scary and painful to some, but an absolute necessity if the status quo is to be repealed or at the very least reformed. If we truly believe the “one Jewish family” metaphor then we can discuss the future as such. I have been at shabbes tables (sometimes within my own family) with leftists and Trumpists, no religionists and haredim, Zionists and anti-Zionists; the tzimmes tasted just as sweet, the kugel just as savory. The Jewish community writ large is neither a political party with an ideological stance nor a single confessional community, with a prescribed dogma. No boundaries.
We must, at the same time, go beyond open dialogue to empowerment at the grass roots. And structurally the challenge is even more difficult. We should be seeking out a variety of creative ways to introduce greater democracy into our organizational structures and begin looking at issues from the bottom up and not the top down. I’m sorry – leaders don’t lead, they respond.
All what I have said begs the importance of taking seriously such questions as, who sits on foundations and Federation boards? How do our agencies incorporate client voices and their advocates? Are the grievances of those economically or ideologically shut out, our own minorities and invisible majorities, listened and responded to or do they end up in a communal dead letter office? Can we boldly revamp our decision making and deliberative processes to allow for both informed discussion and maximum participation without giving sway to either the tyranny of experts or the passions of blind populism? We need better processes, reflective of what is best in the wider culture of our new century. Process, for those who remember, was once something we were good at.
One interesting idea among many, tested in multiple arenas worldwide, is the “citizens assembly” or what I will later refer to here for our purposes as the ”communal assembly.” The approach has been utilized as an important influence lever when a collective is faced with a vexing issue. In Canada it was used to address electoral reform; in Ireland it was utilized to study the divisive issue of abortion and (no small feat) came up with a recommendation that led eventually to a national referendum that granted women the right to choose.
A Jewish communal assembly, convened regionally, locally or nationally, might address any number of issues that has defied a solution comfortable and acceptable to a wide swatch of the Jewish collective. Consider only four:
- How should Jewish communal priorities be set?
- Can we triage the many issues on the communal agenda?
- How might the collective define and address the myriad of issues under the heading of “Diaspora-Israel relations”?
- What is Jewish unity and communal inclusion and how can we effectuate it?
Here, very broadly speaking, is how a communal assembly might operate:
~ A. A community body convenes an assembly and provides or contracts for organizational resources and staffing. On the front end it is determined whether the work of the assembly will be determinative (binding) or advisory to other future processes.
~ B. Members of the assembly (for discussion sake 60-100) will be chosen from the larger Jewish universe through RANDOM SELECTION. They will commit to a fixed time period, a healthy workload and schedule over 6-12 months. The assembly will have leeway in defining or re-defining the assigned issue. Affirmative action mechanisms will ensure the representative nature of the assembly by gender, age and perhaps other factors such as affiliation versus nonaffiliation.
~ C. Experts, Rabbis, educators, communal functionaries and laity will not automatically be members of the assembly unless they appear through the random selection process. They will however be utilized throughout the process to help inform the assembly, give testimony, suggest useful readings, and clarify issues. They will be resources not advocates in an informed deliberation based process. (Going beyond my earlier stadium metaphor, think of co-centric circles and what is now and what might be: In the communal assembly model the members of amcha are in the inner circle and our usual decision makers and persons of influence and expertise are in the outer circle to be called on extensively as necessary.)
The above three characteristics are central to the citizens assembly model. There are variations, alternatives, strengths and drawbacks. A simple internet search will get the reader there.
In the wider world, and the seas in which we swim, there are loud righteous demands for greater participation in decision making and democratic reforms. We need to embrace them not fear them. We can, of course, take the populist route of guru’s and charismatic movements. We can also take the default path of threatened insiders confronted by passionate demonstrators with non-negotiable demands (shades of 1970). Or we can embark on a brave experiment, through multiple byways, in democratic problem solving. Bold, well considered solutions might then crowd out slogans, and informed deliberations has the chance to triumph over smugness, silos and apathy. Our choice.
Bob Hyfler has labored in the vineyards of the organized Jewish world for nearly four decades. He can be reached at email@example.com