Infrastructure isn’t built overnight. The remarkable and unprecedented infrastructure of Jewish communal life has grown and evolved over generations. JCCs and synagogues, day schools and federations, legacy organizations and start-ups—each was built and evolved to meet both current and emerging needs. They grew in response to unfolding and anticipated trends in participation and engagement. Today’s institutional and organizational infrastructure reflect the realities of our past—a past in which participation rates were, quite simply, much higher than they are today. As a result, the infrastructure of Jewish communal life is, in many places, over-built and under-utilized.
In the face of declining participation, the natural impulse is to hunker down and safeguard what we’ve got, ahead of any hoped-for rebound. On a one-off basis, such an approach may make sense. But what happens when this strategy is adopted across wide swaths of the community? Provincialism and territoriality can end up pitting peer institutions against one another in a nobly motivated but practically counter-intuitive attempt to protect one’s turf, one’s donors, one’s lay leaders, or one’s members. For any single organization or institution, “keep away from my donor (or insert any other relevant noun here)” is a most familiar refrain.
Professionals and lay leaders engaged in the work of a particular organization or institution tend to measure success on the basis of their own, distinct achievements. And, frankly, from up close, it stands to reason that they should. But, in an environment defined by excessive infrastructure and declining participation, as often as not, the “hunker-down” strategy is tantamount to a determination to slow the pace at which one is circling the drain—a strategy that typically leads to a wholly undesirable outcome.
There is a far more appealing, more promising, more compelling alternative, but to see it, we need to pan back from time to time and look at our organizations and institutions through a wider lens.
My friend and colleague, Jeremy J. Fingerman, chief executive officer of Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), often uses the term “Jewish Inc.” to describe the overarching nature of our work—our devotion to strengthening Jewish peoplehood, Jewish community, and Jewish identity. Nearly every Jewish organization and institution was created to build, nurture, or strengthen Jewish life on the local, national, or global landscape. It follows, therefore, that rather than view one another as competitors, we should see ourselves as allies and partners in the work that lies ahead, each with something unique and worthy to contribute to the pursuit of greater collective success.
We have an obligation to those visionaries who established and grew these organizations and institutions in the first place. They certainly never imagined a time would come when what remained of their investment and sweat equity would wither until it literally faded away, the fate of far too many of our organizations and institutions over the years. Their faith in the leaders who inherited their extraordinary legacies can be renewed by those who serve in leadership positions today, by an allied redeployment in pursuit of something better.
We don’t have to look far to find illustrations of how—because here and there it’s already happening. In Cincinnati, for example, the Jewish Federation spearheaded the creation of Shared Business Services, a back-office enterprise that supports 22 local Jewish community agencies and institutions, including the Mayerson JCC. And, not long ago, the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati convened five of the largest community agencies for a collaborative professional development initiative using our own Talent Management platform. The Memphis JCC brought a struggling Jewish Family Services (JFS) under its auspices, where JFS has enjoyed a renaissance, enabling it to reach more than four times the number of beneficiaries than before.
Recently, JCC Association of North America and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) announced a groundbreaking partnership to address the paucity of qualified early childhood educators, the principal bottleneck along the path to doubling the number of Jewish families with young children clamoring to be part of such programs. Other national or continental examples of powerful collaborations include the Secure Communities Network (SCN), Leading Edge, and JPRO Network.
Fostering such partnerships and alliances isn’t always easy; and doing so obliges us to take some risks and, perhaps, to venture into unknown or uncomfortable territory. But not doing so risks even more. It is time for us to join hands and create plans and strategies that will build, evolve, and strengthen Jewish Inc. Identifying and capitalizing upon the unique contributions each organization and institution can make to the larger whole by working together is how we’ll get it done.
הִנֵּה מַה-טּוֹב, וּמַה-נָּעִים, שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם-יָחַד
Hinei matov umanayim, shevet achim gam yachad
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!
Shabbat shalom שַׁבָּת שָׁלוֹם