I was reading a new blog this morning called Boundless Drama of Creation, and one post caught my eye. It was about how traditional Jewish institutions, be they synagogues or Federations, are interested in having young Jewish leaders fix what’s wrong with these institutions, when the blogger thinks that these young leaders need to be building something new.
I suppose the above tension is an ancient one. Dor holech v’dor ba – generations pass, and it’s out with the old, in with the new. Certainly, based on traditional measures including affiliation, philanthropy, attendance, and ritual observance these institutions have been rejected by the new generation of Jewish adults. But in the past ten years, new Jewish organizations have sprung up and found great success.
My theory is that the Federation system as a whole dictates a particular relationship structure between funders, professionals, and recipients of service, and it is this relationship model that has been rejected. Federations are fundraising and grant-making organizations. A Jewish community has a variety of social needs, from elder care to political action to education to ritual worship. Rather than having every social organization raise money individually, a Federation raises money from the entire community and allocates money to service organizations.
Already, we can see that the relationships will focus around who has versus who needs. The constituents of a Federation are its top donors. Those who receive services from charitable organizations are basically disempowered – they’re the needy ones. Those who care about a problem, but are neither wealthy nor interested in becoming Jewish professionals largely have no place in the process. Since raising money is no longer about creating relationships and sharing a vision with the Jewish community at large, but rather with a select few people at a Federation or other mega-donor, the entire process is insular, politically charged, and dominated by back room dealing.
The new organizations have fundamentally changed this paradigm. Take Hazon, whose mission is “to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community — as a step towards a healthier and more sustainable world for all.” Hazon does not offer a service to the needy. It offers a new vision for a Jewish relationship to food. It is a hybrid organization that offers education like a school, a vision for living everyday life (and programs to support that vision) like a synagogue, and raises and grants money like a Federation. Meaningful participation in Hazon is a bike-ride away!
It is not just the democratization of activism and involvement that makes Hazon or its bretheren (eg Hadar, Mazon, Storahtelling, Reboot, etc.) successful. It’s the fundamental shift away from building organizations that are meant to meet a need – to group the world into those who have problems and those who solve problems – and towards building organizations around ideological communities. There is likely still a role for the older-style institutions. After all, community needs do exist, and those needs can’t all be met through the newer style of organization, but the future belongs not to the synagogues and Federations of the past, but to the new wave of Jewish organizations.