Articulating Our Vision, Defining Our Future

By Barry Shrage

Published November 12, 2004, issue of November 12, 2004.
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In order to explain the difference between the people of fate and the nation of destiny, it is worth taking note of the antithesis between camp (machaneh) and congregation (edah).

The camp is created as a result of the desire for self-defense and is nurtured by a sense of fear; the congregation is created as a result of the longing for the realization of an exalted ethical idea and is nurtured by the sentiment of love. Fate reigns in unbounded fashion in the camp; destiny reigns in the congregation …

The congregation is a group of individuals possessing a common past, a common future, common goals and desires, a common aspiration for a world which is wholly good and beautiful and a common unique and unified destiny.

— From “Fate and Destiny,” by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

The American Jewish community is the wealthiest and best-educated Jewish community in history. We can and must see to the defense, “the fate” of the “camp,” but we also have the opportunity to achieve the potential — the “destiny” — of the “congregation.” We are a people that is “longing for the realization of an exalted ethical idea.” We can and must be “nurtured by the sentiment of love.”

How do we achieve our destiny? In particular, how can we find the human and financial resources we need to achieve our visions? How do we transform ourselves from a camp defined by its fate to a community of destiny that defines its own future in response to its own dreams? Those questions are particularly relevant as we begin yet another General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities.

The American Jewish community needs visionary federations and creative national leadership to achieve its goals. The UJC is just emerging from a long transitional process and federations are struggling to define their role during this time of change. Over the last 10 years, as the federation movement struggled to redefine itself, the center of gravity of American Jewry has shifted for better and worse from federations to visionary philanthropists and from the General Assembly to a variety of newly emerging or newly energized special interest organizations. Examples include the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, Jewish Funders Network, Birthright, Hillel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and New Israel Fund. Each has contributed greatly to our American Jewish dream, but each is incomplete and less effective than it could be without a strong center and the overarching shared vision that federations can provide.

Great philanthropists can initiate programs that truly are world changing, but ultimately they require great communities to succeed. Day schools are important, but day schools are not Judaism. Israel trips for college students are transformational, but a trip to Israel is not a Jewish life. Great synagogues are the heart of community, but great synagogues alone cannot ensure our future. Social justice is the great goal of our 3,500-year-old journey as Jews, but a commitment to social justice cannot be transmitted to a new generation in the absence of communities of memory and of faith. Jewish camping and social work, outreach and Internet strategies are important, even essential, tools of renewal and renaissance, but they are only tools; they cannot succeed in the absence of a shared world view and a strategy that combines them all into a whole, multifaceted and fulfilling Jewish life.

Many federations across the country are seeking out new approaches. In Boston, Combined Jewish Philanthropies has tried to take a comprehensive strategic approach affecting every part of our work. We have committed ourselves to creating communities of Torah and Tzedek and Chesed learning and social justice and caring. At the heart of our approach is a new vision, involving new relationships with donors and a range of new partnerships with institutions. We have launched aggressive programs of outreach to interfaith families and gay and lesbian Jews and new initiatives for the elderly and handicapped. Thousands of literacy volunteers from dozens of synagogues are working in inner-city schools. Scores of people-to-people projects in Haifa and Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, are linking synagogues, schools and agencies directly to Jews around the world. We have doubled our day school population. Thousands of Jewishly literate adults are enrolled in our Hebrew College, synagogue-based adult learning programs, Me’ah and Ikkarim.

One of our adult learners started her own day school. Another was part of a history-making $45 million gift for day school education in Boston. Only Jewish adults who believe that Jewish education has value and meaning will care enough to produce Jewishly literate children or fund Jewish education.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, it was said that Jewish education never would be a priority for federations because you just could not raise money for it. Wars and emergencies raise money, they said. Funds could be raised only for machaneh — for self-defense, “nurtured by a sense of fear.”

The $45-million Boston gift for day school education is only the latest sign that the old era of so-called sacred survival is disappearing. We’ve all known this for quite some time, but old paradigms cannot collapse until a new paradigm has been clearly defined and proved successful.

In recent weeks, I’ve been asked how we “developed” and “stewarded” our $45-million day school mega-gift. In truth, the donors found us. They believe, as we do, in the power of day schools to ensure our future. The gift represented their initiative and their dreams. They came to us to help them bring their vision to reality because they believed we shared the same commitments to Jewish education and Jewish literacy, and because they believed that our network of connections and trust with congregations, schools, agencies and donors could enhance their chances of success. They joined with us because they believed that day schools could succeed only as part of a community of Torah and Tzedek and Chesed.

I believe the leadership of UJC understands the challenges of this new Jewish world and the opportunities of this new paradigm. I believe they are committed to serious change and to moving from alienation to engagement; from machaneh to Edah; from fate to destiny; from fear to hope. But this commitment must be articulated clearly in a very public way, and soon. American Jewry needs a public voice to articulate its visions and to create an overarching framework of meaning for all its dreams and innovations. We need to bring our largest donors back into our system, and our largest donors need us to connect them to the grass roots of the community and to the possibility of true renaissance and renewal.

Thirty years ago, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik articulated a vision of hope and meaning for the Jewish community. He believed against all odds that American Jewry could become a community of destiny — a community of justice and charity and prayer and learning that felt “the breath of eternity.” This new world is within our power to create.

Barry Shrage is president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

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