By Dave Matkowsky
Recently I argued that the dominant conceptual framework, organizing principles and rallying cries of the past four decades or more of North American Jewish life are a product of the post-Holocaust fear of doing to ourselves that which Hitler failed to accomplish: making the Jewish people finally disappear. Words we now find cringe worthy and condescending when expressed by an Israeli politician have previously been articulated by American Jewish leaders over the decades as a call to arms, placing the Holocaust at the center of our Jewishness as both a memory to maintain and a fate to fend off with vigilance. I attributed this association between the Holocaust and assimilation to Emil Fackenheim’s “614th Commandment,” which essentially charged the post-Holocaust Jewish community with defeating Hitler’s aims by continuing to survive as Jews and not abandoning their Jewish distinctiveness. I asserted that physical threats to Jewish survival are fundamentally different from the lure of assimilation even if both effectively reduce our numbers, and that by casting the resistance to assimilation as an outgrowth of the imperative to defeat Hitler, Fackenheim’s “614th Commandment” helped propel us down a strategically misguided path. Here I will explain how the threats differ and why our strategic communal responses must be tailored to the nature of each threat. I will also note a logical flaw in the formulation of the “614th Commandment” and the various communal slogans and platforms that emerged from it, undercutting their potential effectiveness. Towards the end, I will propose a new categorization or taxonomy of Jewish life that can serve as an effective strategic framework for our communal institutions and leadership.
From a logical standpoint, the “614th Commandment” failed to recognize that its sway would only extend to those already committed in one form or another to the other 613, to the unique value of Jewish tradition, culture and community. Any proposition of the form “we must persevere” takes as a logical assumption that its intended audience already consider themselves part of the “we,” and presupposes at least a basic knowledge of the defining characteristics of the collective in question. For the Jewish in-group, then, Fackenheim’s formulation is (or at least was) indeed poignant, defiant and affirming. But for those not particularly invested in their Jewish present – let alone a communal past or future – one more commandment was never likely to grip their imagination where the others did not. It might induce a sense of guilt, wherein Jewishly unaffiliated parents would choose to enroll their children in Hebrew school lest they be the last link in the family chain. Indeed this was already occurring in the decade immediately following the second World War. With logic akin to the famous “Finish your dinner because children are starving in Europe/India/Africa,” Jewish children in the post-war years were force-fed a rudimentary Jewish education and sense of identity in response to the tragic fate of European Jewry. But guilt is a poor foundation on which to build a robust, lifelong commitment, let alone one that will span generations. By the time of Fackenheim’s pronouncement in 1967, he was largely preaching to the choir.
Nevertheless, the imperatives expressed by Jewish communal institutions have continued to echo Fackenheim to this day: Survival, Continuity, Identity and Peoplehood. In an important sense, Survival differs from the others because it clearly refers to efforts to identify and counter external threats, such as our people faced in WWII Europe, in the USSR, the Middle East, North Africa and Ethiopia, and in the Land and later the State of Israel, among other places, eras and regimes. It also includes vigilance towards emerging threats or attempts to curtail the rights of Jews individually or collectively. This is a wholly logical and appropriate strategic response to attempted genocide: where you were weak, become strong; where you lacked influence and allies, strive to attain and attract them. In contrast, Continuity, Identity and Peoplehood focus not on external threats but on internal ones, on the choices made by Jews as individuals and communities. As such, any effective strategies to address them must differ fundamentally from strategies of survival. Yet, as previously noted, “Continuity” is but a reformulation of “Survival” against a different threat, and Identity and Peoplehood have been cast in the same mold.
Continuity and Identity are particularly ill-suited grounding for communal agenda-setting because they are so unspecific. They are not plans of action so much as aspirational outcomes, the products (or by-products) of some other natural factors or strategic interventions. Of course we want the Jewish people to “continue,” and for Jews to “identify” as such, but these buzz words tell us nothing about how to go about pursuing those outcomes in the face of accelerating assimilation into surrounding cultures. What aspects of Jewish life do we strive to preserve? What constitutes a sufficiently authentic Jewish identity that will still attract the unaffiliated masses? Continuity and Identity offer no answers to these basic questions. Peoplehood, like the other two, articulates an aspiration – in this case global Jewish connectedness – but unlike the others, it suggests at least the basic contours of a strategic approach to pursuing the goal: namely, by developing programs that connect Jews across a range of boundaries and divides. Despite this advantage over its counterparts, Peoplehood has been the least understood among communal rallying cries, while like the others, the logic of the articulated goal is never explained, but is simply presumed. We must continue to identify Jewishly, individually and as a people, or Hitler wins. Or maybe “just because.” We are still preaching to the choir. Meanwhile, despite various innovative programs and heroic efforts by dedicated professional and philanthropic leadership, assimilation proceeds apace, while even strongly engaged Jews are increasingly distanced from one another across denominational, cultural, geographic, and now also partisan political divides.
Clearly, we need a new approach. This is my attempt to spur a conversation about what such an approach might look like, beginning with a taxonomy of Jewish communal and philanthropic priorities, designed to support the kind of robust Jewish life our communal and philanthropic leaders and institutions envision. As I see it, Jewish life can be divided into four basic categories. These categories are not mutually exclusive, and the overlap between them is both conceptual and strategic-programmatic. The categories are distinct enough to merit separate mention, and an understanding of the role each plays will enhance our ability to devise strategies that are more likely to succeed, while leveraging existing initiatives to expand the scope of their impact. The categories are: 1) Jewish Survival, 2) Jewish Meaning, 3) Jewish Belonging, and 4) Jewish Mission. Survival, as discussed, is the prerequisite for anything else we might do as Jews. It is a response to external threats and a platform on which Jewish life rests. It is fairly straightforward and does not require additional attention at this time.
My focus will be primarily on the other three: Meaning, Belonging and Mission, on how they define the parameters of Jewish life and content, how they complement one another, and where they may overlap, whether naturally or with strategic intention. By organizing our communal focus on these three pillars of Jewish life, I believe we will be able to leverage existing programs and platforms to achieve exponentially greater impact, while designing new initiatives that will better engage the younger generation upon whom the Jewish future relies. In upcoming articles I will elaborate on these three pillars, map them onto existing and potential programs and facets of Jewish life, and provide some examples of how current major initiatives would be substantially more impactful by strategically incorporating a consideration of two or more pillars within program design.
Dave Matkowsky is a Jewish communal professional and consultant who brings a strategic, analytical and creative approach to every organization and project. Previous roles have included UJA-Federation of New York, 92nd Street Y, The Shmitah Fund and JCC Chicago.