Thinking Out Of the (Blue) Box

How might a 21st-century Jewish Agency refresh the blue box? How might it harness the agency of Jews globally to refresh the Jewish people and the world at large?

by Sarah Kass

The final decades of the 19th century saw the birth of three enduring institutions. In 1881, in Washington, D.C., teacher and government clerk Clara Barton established the American Red Cross. Eight years later, in New Bern, North Carolina, pharmacist Caleb Bradham introduced “Brad’s Drink,” the syrupy soda that became Pepsi-Cola. And in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, journalist Theodor Herzl chaired the First Zionist Congress, which spawned the Jewish National Fund (in 1901), which subsequently established the Jewish Agency for Palestine (in 1929), known since 1948 as the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Like the American Red Cross, the Jewish Agency was created to respond to disaster. The Red Cross rescued millions of American victims of hurricanes, fires, tornadoes and blizzards and provided them with medical care, food and shelter. The Agency rescued millions of Jewish victims of pogroms and persecution, labor camps and death camps, famine and disenfranchisement, and enabled their immigration to Palestine and later Israel.

Pepsi came in six- and then 12-ounce bottles, and eventually cans. The Jewish National Fund had blue boxes made of paper, then cardboard, and eventually tin. In 1937, 500 million bottles of Pepsi were consumed; by that same year, one million blue boxes sat in Jewish homes worldwide. Bottles and then cans of Pepsi were emptied and emptied – offering millions a “delicious and healthful” beverage that “hits the spot.” JNF blue boxes were filled and filled – collecting millions of precious pennies to purchase parcels of the Promised Land.

Fast forward to 2010. Today, the American Red Cross and Pepsi have evolved from late-19th century pioneers to early 21st-century innovators. Within days of the Haiti earthquake, the Red Cross raised more than $35 million in $5 and $10 text-messaged donations. The Red Cross could make this happen because it had changed its understanding of its own agency, attending the vexing truth about natural disasters – that they are at once both completely predictable and utterly unpredictable. The Red Cross had decided to augment the centralized power of its own agency with the diffuse power of everybody’s agency. Since the next disaster is unknown, the Red Cross began to treat everywhere as a potential disaster site, everyone as a potential victim, and most important, everyone as a potential Red Crosser. Every day, the Red Cross enlists more citizens to download from its website what was once proprietary material, to upload to the same site localized information about disaster prevention, identification or relief, and thereby to extend the reach of both the Red Cross and fellow-Red Crossers.

Pepsi, too, has turned its relationship to its customers inside out. Through its “Refresh” challenge, the company invites Americans to make Pepsi cans their billboard for “refreshing ideas that change the world.” Anyone can nominate a favorite cause – a national service program, a local tutoring project, a soup kitchen – and the causes garnering the most online votes receive Pepsi’s promotional imprimatur and financial support. Pepsi’s consumers have become its producers, their causes have become as “refreshing” as Pepsi, and their agency is Pepsi.

The Red Cross and Pepsi are both blurring the old institutional boundaries between insider and outsider, between rescuer and rescued, between donor and recipient, between producer and consumer, between institutional agency and personal agency. Each has ceased being solely an institution powered by the few for the many, and has also become a movement powered by the many for the many.

What of the Jewish Agency? Once the proto-government of the Jewish people, which helped bring Jews from exile to their homeland, today the Agency enlists Diaspora Jews to help the poor Jews of Israel. But in asking Diaspora Jews for aid and providing Israeli Jews relief, the Agency ignores the vast agency of Jews in both places. Long before Pepsi Refresh turned the Pepsi can into a valuable little billboard, JNF’s blue box served not merely as a pushke, but as the Jewish family’s connection to their nation’s dream.

How might a 21st-century Jewish Agency refresh the blue box? How might it harness the agency of Jews globally to refresh the Jewish people and the world at large? What if the Agency asked the Jewish people, “What’s your dream?” and held a contest enabling individual Jews to pitch refreshing dreams to the Jewish people around the world? What new dreams might the collective agency of the Jewish people wish to realize? A post-oil Israel? A cure for cancer? A globe dotted with 21st-century kibbutzim, where deserts bloom and no one goes hungry? A world where a Jewish education is a right and not a privilege? A Jerusalem that is the world’s model of piety and modernity co-existing? The shlichim (envoys) who now represent the Jewish Agency in far-flung communities around the world, could be replaced by halutzim (pioneers) who would inspire Jews around the world to bring their own personal agency to realizing audacious dreams.

“If you will it, it is no dream,” said Herzl, and many many Jews exerted their own personal agency to make it happen. How might Herzl’s Jewish Agency meet up with Barton’s Red Cross and Bradham’s Pepsi-Cola in the 21st century? As the JAFI board of governors convenes in Jerusalem this week, they would do well to consider how the Agency might once again unleash the pioneering spirit of the Jewish people, so that our collective agency might bring new light unto the nations.

Sarah Kass is director of strategy and evaluation at The Avi Chai Foundation.

You can find the proposed new strategic plan of the Jewish Agency here: Securing the Future: The Jewish Agency’s New Plan.