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Perspective: The Prism of Jewish Community | Shabbat Shalom 10 Av 5783 שַׁבָּת שָׁלוֹם

By Doron Krakow

Perspective: The Prism of Jewish Community

Throughout my career in the Jewish community, I have had the good fortune to serve in a variety of roles—USY advisor and Young Judaea club leader. Young Judaea regional director and summer camp director. I served as Young Judaea’s national director and as a member of the senior staff of the Jewish Federations of North America. By then, I had gained both appreciation for and understanding of the distinctions among local, regional, and national roles and organizations. Across each of those sectors, the mission was largely the same, but there was an inevitable tension around the juxtaposition of local dynamics and the broader priorities of the larger enterprise. Alignment about the “why” but not always around the “how”—and in some instances, constructive tension regarding the “what,” at least insofar as its prioritization, depending on the particular point of view.

Having now spent many years on the national or continental scene, I have observed, up close, the evolving dynamics between venerable central agencies and the shifting landscapes of local Jewish life. Where at one time a top-down approach to the pursuit of particular goals across sectors or movements seemed most effective, the increasing diversity of local Jewish community life has had a profound impact on that dynamic. Perhaps this diversity has never been clearer to me than now—after six years of crisscrossing the continent and getting to know the North American Jewish community by way of its JCCs. Quite simply, no two are alike. Each is a unique reflection of local circumstance, dynamics, leadership, and resources.

We share the “why” and, in large measure, the “how,” but the “what” can vary considerably depending on point of view. There can be unease at the intersection of “how” and “what”—a feeling that a counterpart in another community or at the central agency doesn’t quite “get it.” Given the immense responsibilities in the hands of leaders and their often-competing priorities, it can seem counterintuitive to devote time, energy, and resources to matters beyond those directly in front of us. But without precisely that kind of investment, we work in increasing isolation.

Ostensibly, we’re working on the same things, but we see them through markedly different lenses. And so with time, in the absence of proper attention and a commitment to cultivate and maintain firm alignment around shared goals and collaborative initiatives, we can be subject to drift, to the risk of misalignment, and to losing sight of the value and significance of being part of something greater. Too many national and continental networks have weakened over time—on the altar of just such drift.

A friend recently sent me a lovely gift, a paperweight for my office. It is a glass prism with perhaps a hundred sides or faces. Depending on which one you look through, the light refracts a little differently and the visuals seem to change. Up close each one appears unique, different from all the others. But take a short step back and it is obvious that each face reflects the same thing—from a slightly different point of view. I admit I tend to lose myself in it from time to time. There is beauty and majesty in its clean lines and seeming simplicity. From the inside, the glass comprises a single, common center with a hundred unique windows to the wider world. Those windows reveal the great complexity of the world around them.

That prism seems a lot like us—the perfect metaphor for a diverse Jewish community. So much is shared, but the diverse ways we look out from our common center can sometimes accentuate the differences. A central agency can’t look across the landscape and see a single shape; it must take time to learn every face if it is to enable each one’s greater success. And each local face must embrace the opportunity to learn about others and contextualize its sense of self. Perhaps its greatest asset in that regard is a central agency geared toward both catalyzing such opportunities and providing a compelling reminder of the power and importance of leaning in to all that we hold in common.

One people. A greater community. And a hundred ways to look at it. To work with it. To engage it. No doubt the analogy holds at the local level as well—across organizations and institutions. The real beauty, perhaps, is in the ability to see the uniqueness in each face while never losing sight of their interconnectedness. The next logical step is to recognize that to truly appreciate the significance of what it is we’re looking at, we must find a way to see it through faces other than our own.

As we emerge from the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Av, with the High Holidays on the horizon, we are once again reminded of the extraordinary journey of the Jewish people across the millennia. All we have shared. All we have gained. All we have contributed. And all we have lost. Those of us privileged to serve in Jewish leadership bear responsibility for our link in this 4,000-year-old chain. And there is much to be done. But the doing is not simply a function of a commitment to a greater good; it requires perspective—the ability to discern how one’s unique place in the mix is part of a much larger whole.

Shabbat Shalom | שבת שלום

Doron Krakow
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America

July 28, 1948, witnessed the celebration in Jerusalem of Israel’s first Nation Day, marking the anniversary of the death of Theodor Herzl. Observed annually in the preceding 43 years, this year was the first time it was marked at a time of Jewish sovereignty in the historic Land of Israel. The ceremony was held at noon in the Herzl Room at the offices of the Jewish National Fund, which contains the library and furnishings transferred from Herzl’s study in Vienna following his death in 1904. Delegates to the first Zionist Congress in 1897 were on hand to pay tribute. The ceremony closed with the singing of “Hatikvah.”

And that’s the way it was…

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