When Jewish Organizations Thrive

by Simon Greer

For thousands of years, Jews were responsible for one another. So we created laws to govern ourselves and mechanisms to enforce those laws. Some laws concerned ritual, but many laws were civil in nature. Our civil laws, just like contemporary civil law, often addressed moral and ethical dilemmas bound up in everyday life: how employers should treat workers, and landlords their tenants; how we should provide care for the indigent sick; how we should coexist with the earth; how we should give tzedakah.

After generations of persecution, we developed empathy for others who also suffered oppression. We sought to create societies where minorities were protected and where people were treated equally. We became Zionists, seeking a homeland that would always welcome Jews fleeing violence and discrimination. We developed rituals that reminded us that we were once slaves, and strangers, and to never forget.

Our collective experiences over thousands of years, passed down from generation to generation, inform who we are today. But our contemporary identities as Jews are shaped by other forces as well. Multiple generations of Jews have grown up in relative comfort, even prosperity. Persecution is not a present concern for most, and many Jews live full lives free from any meaningful discrimination.

Without the need for community as protection, the question of what binds Jews to Judaism is pressing. Some see this as a crisis of continuity. However, our analysis of Slingshot, a guide of North America’s most innovative Jewish organizations, suggests that Jews today embrace Judaism when it addresses their desires to find purpose. For many Jews, that purpose is to repair a broken world and to live ethical, inclusive lives. Jewish organizations thrive when they provide ways for the Jewish community to connect with a deeper purpose.

Too often, social entrepreneurial endeavors and Jewish innovation are viewed as potential answers to the concern that the children of Jews will not be actively Jewish, known frequently as the “continuity crisis.” But a closer analysis reveals that the organizations on the following pages answer a more significant crisis – the purpose crisis – and in so doing, they offer deep and long-lasting engagement for future generations of Jews. Our exploration of Slingshot’s 64 organizations affirms this understanding.

Cynics argue that while this approach may be popular, what it provides is not really Judaism. Instead, they say, it is merely liberal social action with other Jews. They argue that real Judaism is Torah study, Hebrew, ritual observance and trips to Israel. This view of Judaism allows no place for intermarriage, universalism or “economic justice.”

This cramped vision of Judaism is only possible when we ignore our rich history, our sacred texts and our diverse traditions. Furthermore, if we believe that Judaism is unchanged and unchanging, then this generation has no say in how Judaism’s values should be expressed.

Of all the organizations in this year’s Slingshot, at least a dozen are animated by a desire to provide Jews with opportunities to work across lines of race and faith to challenge systemic racial and economic injustice. One is Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice group that stands with low-wage workers in their struggles to earn fair wages. Like Uri L’Tzedek, all the groups in this category argue that one purpose of Judaism is to bring to bear our resources, our wisdom, our traditions and our values to address the greatest challenges facing humanity. How do we live in harmony with the earth? How do we reduce mass social and economic inequality? How do we replace violent conflict with genuine peace?

At least another 14 Slingshot groups confront our shortcomings in living out our values inside the Jewish community. One is Keshet, which has influenced hundreds of Jewish organizations to become more welcoming to LGBT Jews. Like Keshet, the other groups in this category also focus on inclusivity, decency and fairness as ways to hold us accountable to our professed values. They attract people who find purpose in making sure that their fellow Jews walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

Taken together, almost half of this year’s Slingshot groups squarely focus on purpose. From Bend the Arc to Hazon, from Encounter to Urban Adamah, how each pursues that purpose looks different. But this is the crisis that has inspired these groups. This is the challenge our innovators rise to meet. The sooner we understand this, the sooner we can invest appropriately in a Judaism that speaks to the longings of today’s Jews.

Simon Greer is the President and CEO of The Nathan Cummings Foundation, which, since its inception 22 years ago, has invested nearly $50 million into building a Jewish community that lives its values.