Jewish Organizations Should Spare the Change

Opinion

By Matthew Ackerman

Published July 15, 2009, issue of July 24, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Innovation, we are often told, is the great savior. It will remake Detroit, cleanse the atmosphere and educate every child.

Years of steady drops in the membership rolls and donor bases of many American Jewish institutions, from national advocacy organizations to community federations, have led many to conclude that innovation is also the key to solving the problem of participation in American Jewish life. Money and support should be given to young, creative Jews, who will manage new programs free of the institutional baggage that prevents the engagement of their peers.

The effect of this thinking is evident nearly everywhere one looks on the Jewish communal landscape. Avi Chai fellowships in the hundreds of thousands of dollars are directed to young “thought leaders” unconnected from established Jewish organizations. Natan grants $75,000 to “independent communities of young Jews” creating “new forms of Jewish religious and communal life.” And dozens of small Jewish organizations with a handful of staff and supporters have been founded in the past decade. According to a report recently produced by Jumpstart — a group that bills itself as “a thinkubator for sustainable Jewish innovation” — this “innovation ecosystem” has constituted, altogether, a $500 million investment.

Of course, the decline in traditional institutions is hardly a uniquely Jewish phenomenon. A decade ago, sociologist Robert Putnam demonstrated in his widely cited book, “Bowling Alone,” that Americans’ involvement in a variety of civic institutions — from mainline Protestant churches to Lions clubs — had been on the wane for decades. More recently, a March release from the General Social Survey reported that American confidence in nearly all social institutions has fallen since 1976. It is only natural that similar declines have been felt in American Jewish institutions.

The reasons for this trend were catalogued in two reports produced during the past few years by researcher Anna Greenberg. She wrote that for many young Americans “pursuing the American Dream simply means ‘doing whatever I want’” and that “institutional Jewish life appears virtually irrelevant” to them. The source of this sentiment is a feeling that institutions are unable to encompass young people’s “multiple identities,” which cannot be contained in a single way of thinking.

Like their non-Jewish peers, young Jews’ distaste for institutions grows from the demands institutions, by necessity, make on their allegiances — to one country, say, or to one identity. To Jumpstart, this means communal organizations must appeal to young Jews’ “highly individualistic” web of “non-exclusive relationships and connections,” many of which are only partially or even secondarily Jewish. The organizations that thrive will be those best able to accommodate this new way of thinking.

Now, it is certainly true that Jewish communal organizations must be flexible in order to meet new challenges and opportunities. There are many ways they can be made to work better. All, no matter how large or old, should feel a need to justify themselves to a changing world. To attract young people to work for them, they will also have to make themselves somewhat receptive to their wishes.

But in order for Jewish institutions to offer something more to young people than the kind of superficiality for sale at American Apparel, they must hold fast to their institutional identities. Rather than pretending that they can be all things to all people, they should emphasize their commitments to particular ideas and demonstrate the long histories of those commitments. Instead of revising their mission statements, institutions should articulate them more forcefully, embracing the demands they make of those who belong to them.

In the end, the best kinds of institutions are those that ask the most of us. This is true in terms of both the effort we put into them and the difficulties we face in aligning our ideas about the world to those embedded within them. Such is the trade-off. As David Brooks has put it, “Institutions do all the things that are supposed to be bad. They impede personal exploration. They enforce conformity. But they often save us from our weaknesses and give meaning to life.”

Jewish institutions are too important to adapt themselves to the whims of 20- and 30-somethings. For them and for all of us, the next great Jewish idea could be a very old one: Institutions are valuable.

Matthew Ackerman is a member of the Professional Leaders Project.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.