What Does It Mean to Be Affiliated?
bridging the gap between the affiliated and the unaffiliated
by Jonathan Dickens

The best way to address the gap between a person who is affiliated and a person who is unaffiliated is to define what it means to be affiliated. Jeff Fladen, Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire (JFNH), defines “affiliated as, “a person who pays dues to a synagogue and/or supports Federation.” Fladen’s definition has been widely accepted for years in the national Jewish community. With this definition in mind, over the years, there has been a large push in the Jewish communal field to target programming that engages the unaffiliated. This can, and often does, lead to the neglect by professionals to program for the affiliated.

Whereas love makes the world go ‘round in the musical Carnival, in the Jewish world it is the lay-board. It is the boards who are the policy makers of organizations. Therefore, it is really the boards of the “trend-setting” organizations (Federation, JCC, etc.) that set the trends in the community. As a result of the mindsets of the boards, the focus of organizations like Federation and Jewish Community Centers has been on the “unaffiliated” and how to bridge the gap or get them to “affiliate.”

For larger communities, this is not as much of a constraint. Many of the major philanthropic people live in the larger communities and have a choice between giving to umbrella organizations (Federation), and giving to the individual organizations. The smaller communities depend more on the allocations by Federations and as a result are limited by the policies of Federation. Therefore, in order for any significant change to occur in the direction of programming or the philosophy of programming to occur, the lay-boards of the organizations such as Federation and the JCC, must be on board.

Based on my observations in Philadelphia, the programming that is geared towards the “unaffiliated” is attracting the same people, and few new people are showing up. Each organization has their core constituents. Although there are some people that participate across organizational boundaries, I have found that number to minimal. The problem lies with the fact that this can lead to narrow scoped programming. Therefore, it appears that we, as a community, are spending a lot of money that can be used elsewhere. An organization that claims to target the unaffiliated should have wide scoped programming so that they are reaching as many people as possible.

The solution to this problem is actually quite simple. We, the Jewish community, need to redefine what it means to be affiliated. I propose that the “new” definition of affiliated should be expanded to include all those that act upon their Jewish identity in any way. If a person’s only connection to the Jewish community is that they chose to join the JCC, they are affiliated. That person could have easily (probably would have saved a bit of money too) joined an LA Fitness or a Gold’s Gym. If a college student’s only connection is going to a Hillel High Holiday service on campus, they are affiliated.

By broadening the definition of affiliated, you then widen the scope of programming possibilities. An organization now can provide programming that will make Jews of all walks of life comfortable. This will also allow those who were traditionally defined as “unaffiliated” exposure to different types of Jews; thereby giving them the opportunity to explore for themselves how they want to (or don’t want to) live Jewishly.

Although this is still a nationwide problem in the Jewish community, steps are being done to address the problem. Some are trying to address the problem while maintaining the status quo. The status quo maintains that to be affiliated means to be a member of a synagogue or connected in some way to the Federation. Among the people that represent the status quo is Fladen; according to him, the Federation is addressing the issue in two ways.

First, rather than being associated with a specific city, the Federation is following a state model. By representing the entire state, the Federation is able to bring programming to all Jewish communities in New Hampshire. Prior to this, programming was centralized to the city that the Federation was located in, causing some people significant inconveniences to get to the programs.

The second way the JFNH is addressing the issue is by focusing on programming that any person regardless of affiliation or demographic can enjoy. For example, like many communities there is an Israeli film festival. This festival is held in a neutral location like a movie theater instead of a synagogue or the Federation building itself.

The tactics of JFNH may work in a small community like New Hampshire. However, in the major Jewish centers like New York or Philadelphia, it does not work quite like that. Throughout the nation, specifically in the larger communities, the trend in philanthropy is no longer to give to the Federations; rather, donors are more likely to give to specific organizations or causes. With this in mind, it is necessary to look towards organizations supported by Federation.

In Philadelphia, Tribe 12, an umbrella organization for various initiatives, represents the “New Guard,” or new leadership in the community. One of its initiatives, The Collaborative, as Executive Director Ross Berkowitz explains, is a “gateway to the Jewish community.” They put on programs such as: monthly happy hours, community Passover Seders (on the appropriate night), a Purim Spiel (not on Purim), and other “meet and greet” events.

The efforts of The Collaborative and the other Tribe 12 initiatives (Limmud Philly, Tribe 12 Social Entrepreneur Fellowship, LGBT group, etc.) provide a well-balanced array of programming. Although the “Orthodox” community is not targeted (events on Shabbat and non-Kosher food) if one were to look close enough, they could find a program that they would feel comfortable participating in.

On the surface, it may seem like the examples given do not reflect programming changes in the community. That observation is correct. However, it does reflect a change in attitude. This change in attitude is important; it allows the appearance of change that the members of the community want, while allowing the “Old Guard” (status quo) to maintain a “this is the way we have always done things” policy. This change in attitude or thinking, essentially eliminates the idea of the “unaffiliated.” By focusing on the niche groups, the way Tribe 12 does, it allows Federations like the JFNH to broaden their programming. This will result in a more effective use of funds.

Jonathan Dickens, a 2011 Tribe 12/PresenTense Fellow, is the founder of Welcome to Your Home.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense leadership issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.