The Time for Radical Change is Now: Will We Help Bring it On?

by Martin Levine

“There is a time for everything… A time to plant and a time to uproot…
A time to keep and a time to throw away.” Ecclesiastes
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens

There are times for gradual and adaptive change and times when radical, disruptive changes are demanded.

Imagine its 1995 and you are the owner-publisher of the leading newspaper in your city. CNN is 5 years old on the evolving cable TV landscape and reaches just a small number of homes. Something called the internet is being talked about and experimented with. Evolutionary changes or signs of disruption? Just fads that will quickly fade or early indicators of fundamental changes in the way information is created, communicated, given authenticity and sold?

So what kind of time is 2012 for the American Jewish Community? 10 years from now, when we look back at this moment, we will recognize that we have lived through a period of dramatic change that drastically reshaped the way we live as individuals and as communities. Will we also see that we were able to leap ahead and make the changes that were necessary or will we be looking back and wondering how we didn’t see what was happening around us?

The signs are all around us. Technology has compressed the world, enabled a global economy, made huge amounts of information easily accessible, redefined how we communicate and given new definitions to the meaning of community. Global warming is altering how we build our homes, what we drive and where we live and work. A new economy is confronting us with different career possibilities, different home ownership realities and a very different belief that our standard of living will be ever increasing. Political systems and power balances are shifting. Generational leadership is changing.

The signs of drastic change can be seen very particularly within the American Jewish Community. To note just a few: Shrinking membership in Synagogues and other Jewish Organizations, declining enrollment in non-Orthodox day schools, increasing numbers of children being raised in households with a parent/care giver who is not Jewish, many Jews seeing their Judaism as a matter of individual choice and not of communal obligation. And, Israel is no longer a dream and a vision but a reality with real world problems and challenges.

All indicators of disruptive change and of the challenges we face today and tomorrow. Individuals, nations, communities and organizations are affected by these disruptions and are all challenged to respond or fade.

Periods of disruption require us to question the validity of our assumptions, the assumptions upon which we have built organizations, formed communities and live our Jewish life. Those of us who lead must recognize that our strategies and tactics are now questionable and, perhaps, already invalid. We must recognize that what will emerge will be a new definition of normal, one that will be as fundamentally different as Wikipedia is from Britannica.

Within much of the Jewish community it seems these signs are not seen as much more than just the normal variation in an otherwise stable world rather than as the flags alerting us to serious disruptions already underway. This makes it difficult to mobilize Jewish leadership to directly confront the looming impact of a new social, economic and political environment.

So why not keep on doing the things that have proved effective? Why risk radical changes? Our Congregations, Federations, Community Centers, Social Service Agencies, Fraternal organizations stand as symbols of how well we have adapted Jewish life to the realities of 20th Century America. We can measure our success in the social and political standing we have achieved. The American Jewish Community has been so successful that to make drastic changes is to risk so much.

It is our very success that prevents us from seeing the nature of the present challenge clearly. The stability of the past 50 years has given us a paradigm through which we see the world. We have the score cards to measure how we are doing compared to our past and we can make straight line projections of how our past will lead to our future. In a stable world, these are the right ways to respond. Making radical changes will result in worse outcomes rather than the improvement as we desire. Difficulties and bad results, from this perspective, are a product of bad practice and performance which are best addressed by minor improvements. This view makes us resist making radical change. But in times like these this is a most dangerous option.

Our prior knowledge and experience makes it easy for us to fit information into patterns that are “comfortable” with what has come before. We view our world through a lens of stability and see signs of change as just the normal variation expected in any stable system. From this perspective, the ups and downs we experience are just minor fluctuations in an otherwise solid world. Rather than question flaws in our basic model we see flaws in individuals and organizations. We conclude that over the long haul our successful strategies will remain valid and no radical course corrections are needed. The ups and downs will balance out and our general path will continue forward. From this perspective, we lead by keeping our organizations focused on making small improvements, by holding onto the systems and structures that have been successful in the past. From the perspective of the “establishment” it is easy to ignore the voices of those who see the emerging world as needing radical change.

It is always easy to see disruptive periods after they have occurred. No editor of a paper today is unaware of how drastically different their environment is now than it was just a decade earlier. Only those who were brave enough to invent new models for accomplishing their core purpose had any chance of successfully leaping into the new reality. Making the wrong call about the kind of challenge faced can be fatal.

The questions facing us are daunting. Is it possible for existing organizations to make the kinds of changes that are called for in the face of disruptive change? Is it only from the outside and the fringe that the necessary innovations are possible? Must we see what we have built crumble and become irrelevant? Can new ways and structures only be built from the outside? At times of significant change must the existing order totally crumble away to be replaced by new forms and models of Jewish life which can flourish in these new conditions?

“In times of disruptive change your expected future is no longer valid.” (Doug Berger). In a period of disruption, we need to see beyond the paradigm of our past success. Unless we can do this we will not see the impending crisis. As individuals and as leaders we need to know when it is a “… time to keep or a time to throw away …” For each of us with the responsibility of leadership, the critical challenge is to use what we know about today to help us find a path forward toward our vision of the world we want to live in, even when that path requires us to make drastic changes.

It is that risk of not seeing our world clearly and of losing what we have invested so heavily that should be motivating us to engage in the difficult work of building for the 21st Century. We are living at a disruptive moment, one that requires us to challenge of all of the tried and true approaches we have taken because they are the result of a world that will no longer be the same.

Rather than focus on what we have done, we need to look at the world we live in as if we have just seen it for the first time. The question we need to ask is: “If we were starting anew, what would we create?”

This is not a new question for Jews to face. It was asked and answered as European Jewry chose to leave behind hundreds of years of precedent create a new era of Jewish life in the United States at the end of the 20th Century. It was asked and answered in 70 CE following the destruction of the Temple. Every component of the Jewish Community of the 20th needs, with urgency, to see the 21st Century as it is emerging and ask what would they create if they were starting anew? Our challenge is to allow our Judaism to authentically interact with these forces and help our community find where its value emerges as they confront this emerging new era.

We need to gather together with these questions as the framework for a new dialogue. We need to put aside everything we have done and built and start together with our knowledge of the changes that are underway. We need to, together, recreate a new, 21st Century American Jewish community. Our challenge is to rebuild our organizations in the service of this encounter. Our challenge is to be willing to make the changes necessary to allow them to be relevant under different conditions. Our challenge is to let go of much of what we have built in order to create what we need for the future. Our challenge is adapt what is valuable so that it can flourish in a new environment.

Judaism has much of value to say about how we can confront and respond to the world we live. These times require us to reinvent ourselves and to do so in a way that fulfills our values or we risk being cast aside and trampled by the changes that will come. This is a time where we need to rethink and retool. We need to leap forward bravely and find new ways. We need to believe that Judaism is valuable and that the value lies not in its form but in its very core. The forms we utilize to live our Judaism need to be forms of the present and future, not solely those of the past.

Martin Levine is General Director, JCC Chicago.