The “Pew study” (The 2013 Pew “Portrait of Jewish Americans) took American Jewish life by storm. We've done a great deal to strengthen Jewish life—a great deal. Federations are leading the charge to expand and deepen Jews' engagement with Judaism—look at Cleveland's jHub for interfaith families and the Federations involved in the Teen Funder Collaborative, and the Arkansas Jewish Food and Culture Festival, and Washington DC's Jewish Food Experience, and Boston's IACT initiative that leverages Birthright Israel and Onward Israel, and Portland's network of community engagement events, and Seattle's Story and Song for PJ families, and Denver's partnership with Sharsharet, and Minneapolis's Yachad, a collaborative teen Jewish educational program (“Hebrew high school” in a new form), and Tulsa's Jewish Film Festival, and these are just a handful representing many, many more (Not on this list? Email us and brag!).
At the same time, Pew demonstrated that we have much more to do. What got us here—to 2016, to what is still the beginning of the 21st century—won't get us there, to the end of the 21st century and a world that we can't yet envision. Jewish life, education and experience are in flux — Jews themselves are in flux—and many of the people we want and need to engage don’t experience the world the way we do. The Jewish community of our future will not look like the Jewish community of our present. We need to shift not what we do but how we do it in order to reach more Jews, more deeply, facilitating a true paradigm change where we don't perpetuate the system as it exists but instead build on our strengths to incubate a new Jewish educational landscape.
What does this landscape look like?
- It rebalances power in Jewish life from institutions to individuals, shifts Judaism out of the hands of institutional leaders and into the minds and hearts of Jews and focuses on Jewish journeys with institutions as influencers.
- It is Judaism-driven and is also market-driven: It researches the real-life needs of the Jews we hope to engage and builds projects in direct response to their needs and journeys.
- It seeks bold and genuinely different while also supporting the richness that already exists.
- It requires trusting relationships even across organizational boundaries: the sharing of ideas, data, and other creative and intellectual, even tangible resources. It assumes abundance, resources, and radical inclusivity—a place for all of us—rather than fear, scarcity, and elitism. It fights territorialism.
- It demands true openness, in which we deliberately seek out different ways of thinking and data that contradict our assumptions, where we express our instincts of “We've tried that before” and “That won't work here” and we then set those instincts aside to get work done.
- It elevates genuine excellence and promotes a continual refusal to accept good enough.
- Ultimately, it asks for a new institutions and partners—not brand-new, but shifted, different—and for new roles for Federations.
This work will not be easy. Still, we know it is possible because in some places, it is already happening. In the list of initiatives offered earlier, we see that new collaborations among synagogues are yielding rich environments for teen learning. New collaborations among community agencies are connecting newly to families, and to families in new ways, often outside of agency walls and even in partnership with vendors such as Whole Foods. Educators employed by organizations never set foot in their organizations, working instead where the people are and lowering barriers to Judaism for those who considered Jewish community lost from their lives. These projects are judged not only by the numbers of people who show up but also by the depth of the Jewish experience of those engaged. When we pool our creative capital, identify common goals, and push through our boundaries, our limits are only our imaginations, which grow even more powerful through true collaboration.
And in the fullness of time, or even just a few years from now, we'll know we've been successful because more Jews have been engaged, maybe dramatically more, from all communities and neighborhoods and corners of our lives, and because the quality of that engagement is deep and moving, because more Jews are thinking about what it means to them to be Jewish and feel a part of Jewish community. And when we say Jews we will also mean non-Jews, and the faces in our communities will reflect reality: They will be less white, less monolithic, and from less engaged and more diverse backgrounds. We will spend less time at our desks, and Judaism will be integrated into social networks, neighborhoods, businesses, professional spaces. Rabbis will see workspaces—investment banking firms, and real estate offices, and tech firms—as their congregations and they will be hired by platform organizations—like Federations. We will have new partnerships that cross traditional boundaries, even raising money together, assuming that a rising tide lifts all boats.
We know this change is possible because we hear a readiness—albeit a tentative readiness—but a readiness for change. As leaders of Federations' new Jewish education and engagement effort we have been on a listening tour, in conversation with Federation leaders to understand opportunities, challenges, wants, and dreams. We continually hear the themes of this piece: a commitment to risk, an interest in growth, a deliberate challenging of assumptions. Federations are exceptionally situated to catalyze this kind of work. Our leaders can stimulate and convene, connect philanthropists with practitioners with subject matter experts, create a shared language and agenda, build a network, and otherwise leverage a communal platform to create true collective impact.
Still, the role will be hard for us, too. We have a charge to honor multiple ideas and individuals, to be radically inclusive in a different way in order to do no harm. Our work in this next phase is to experiment and risk in order to find new paradigms while maintaining a foundation of inclusivity.
Our job in this arena is to help us do this work together, to find and bring new ideas to the conversation and help to strengthen relationships, helping our relationships to serve as the contexts, laboratories, and conduits for creativity and action. And, our job is to support you in your roles as catalysts and to help us all challenge assumptions, invent, and reinvent. We will be doing the same ourselves, that is, pushing ourselves and each other to avoid the same-old, same-old, trying to build spaces that can foster new conversations in new ways about the right things, things that can leverage true change. It will indeed be hard, and we'll have some wins, trip a little bit, and keep on trying. We'll enrich our present and invent our future, together.
- What, in our mind, will mark our future landscape as different from today's?
- How will the world—the Jewish world and the larger world—look different when we've succeeded? How will Jews' lives look different when we've succeeded?