The basic ground rule for a two-hour roundtable discussion last Thursday sponsored by The Jewish Week and JInsider.com, a Jewish news Web site, on “Jewish Philanthropy in Crisis: Creative Strategies for Moving Forward,” was that the 18 participants could not use “the M word,” as in Madoff.
The facilitator, David Sable, a vice chairman and chief operating officer of a global marketing services network and volunteer activist in the Jewish community here, explained that our purpose was not to look backward, casting blame on how we had arrived at this calamitous stage, but rather to come up with some ideas for modeling our community in the future.
He suggested that we begin by listing the five top priorities facing the
Naturally, we had a variety of suggestions, given that our group of invitees consisted of community leaders, Jewish professionals, philanthropists, business experts, writers and a rabbi. We were of different ages, outlooks, specialties and interests. But we shared a deep concern for the Jewish future and an appreciation for fresh thinking.
Going around the table, we offered and heard a number of specific recommendations, like putting an emphasis on learning Hebrew, making quality Jewish education more affordable, democratizing our Jewish organizations and making our institutions more transparent in how they collect funds and do business.
There were also more abstract but equally passionate calls for redefining and reclaiming Jewish leadership, finding better ways to tell our Jewish story to the larger society, encouraging and preparing young people for careers in service to our community and the world, eradicating poverty and emphasizing efforts to connect diaspora and Israeli Jews.
In broad terms, we found different avenues of expressing a desire to get back to the core values of Judaism, and the need to improve and more widely disseminate Jewish teachings to our own children and to the world.
Then Sable challenged us, asking what’s the biggest barrier to accomplishing all of this?
Again, some of our complaints were specific: inflated and bureaucratic organizations led by people with inflated egos; an overdependence on wealthy donors; a rabbinate lacking initiative; fragmentation, intolerance and insularity within the community; and more.
“The wrong people are sitting around the table [of many organizations] and there is a lack of democracy,” one woman said as most of us nodded in agreement.
What we were saying, in various ways, was that the vacuum in leadership and lack of Jewish education reflected a loss of values. The community has lost its bearings, and it has taken the economic meltdown and philanthropic crisis to make us stop and reevaluate how we thought and operated. The optimists among our group felt that present circumstances, painful as they are, could prompt us to redirect our communal goals and strategies.
After we had narrowed down the problems that we felt were solvable and before our time together ran out, Sable asked us each to write down and hand in our brief thoughts on what the ideal American Jewish community would look like a decade from now.
These jottings left me hopeful, but with more than a tinge of skepticism. They share a common theme of democratization, openness, connectedness, accountability and thoughtfulness. They envision a community working together to hammer out priorities, and a higher purpose of enacting the Jewish people’s historic role of serving as “a light unto the nations,” starting with our own people.
But there is a Pollyanna-ish quality to these plans that fail to recognize the difficulty in achieving compromise and cooperation, and the powerful impulses of those who want to lead, either politically, financially or both.
It should be noted, for example, that exactly a century ago a kehillah experiment was attempted in New York City, an effort led by Judah Magnes, then a young Reform rabbi, to emulate the European model and coordinate the various Jewish organizations in one. But the kehillah model ended in 1922, a victim of the kind of uniquely American diversity and democracy that could not hold the community together.
Some critics worry that efforts like our roundtable place an overemphasis on coming up with a single silver-bullet idea designed to solve all the major problems of the day. Such thinking, they say, is harmful to the community. But our goal was to generate many ideas, and to then offer them up to schools or other groups to develop and expand, widening and deepening the conversation.
Indeed, we hope to amplify the whole process of visioning, asking as many people as possible to reflect on and share their thoughts on what it would take to create a more effective, stable and inspiring community with which larger numbers of Jews would want to be involved.
In that way, maybe the painful contractions we are going through now could lead to a better future tomorrow.