Value Before Branding

There wasn’t precisely an uproar in the blogosphere, but a couple of notable Jewish bloggers have taken a hatchet to Gary Rosenblatt’s piece in last week’s Jewish Week, “In Search Of The Next Big Jewish Idea.” In it, Rosenblatt reports on the theories some Jewish community leaders advanced at a recent Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE) symposium held in honor of outgoing director Eliot Spack.
Daniel Septimus of MyJewishLearning.com and Rabbi Eliyahu Stern of Beliefnet’s Virtual Talmud shared similar gripes, both, for example, regarding Rabbi Elliot Dorf’s recommendation of promoting “procreation at an earlier age” as an indicator of our leadership’s mistaken priorities. Stern quips, “Should we give an extra $100 U.S. Savings Bond to every bar-mitzvah boy who chooses a bride at his bar-mitzvah celebration?” Septimus, in turn, calls for Jewish leaders to pull their heads out of the gutter, stating, “Maybe if we stop thinking about procreative sex for just a minute and exercise our brains and prophetic vision, we might actually have an idea or two.”
The snark marches onward as both Septimus and Stern derail Dr. Bethamie Horowitz’s suggestion that “rather than ask ‘why be Jewish?’ the question should be ‘why not be Jewish?'” Septimus asks “Why not be a nudist?”
Stern, however, goes a bit deeper, calling attention to the elephant we keep tripping over every time this subject arises, yet one which we continually fail to confront:

Today there is no longer one story–such as God’s decree, Zionism, or refusing to give Hitler a posthumous victory–that provides a persuasive rationale for being Jewish. Instead of working toward developing a new cadre of intellectual and moral leadership, instead of trying to explain to young people why investing in Judaism is worthwhile, the Jewish community continues to promote programs and short-term gimmicks to bring more Jews into the fold.

This criticism has been repeatedly leveled at Jewish institutions by Douglas Rushkoff. In his most recent book, Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out, Rushkoff advises companies to return to their “core competencies” and focus on the things they’re good at. Improving your product, he argues, will ultimately do more for your sales than simply sticking a new logo on an existing, inferior product.
In chapter one of Get Back in the Box, Rushkoff writes:

Institutions tend to react to the destabilizing force of cultural change with panic and an impulsive need to make sudden, rash moves to one extreme or the other. Whether by being “reinvented” by an outside consultant or by putting up so many defensive barricades that all attention shifts to the periphery, these organizations end up losing sight of their core purpose and vision. In response to unfamiliar demographic patterns, a venerable institution like Judaism hires market researchers/pollsters to figure out how to make itself more appealing to the “MTV generation.” Instead of figuring out what Judaism might actually have to offer kids living in a world dominated by MTV, the experts advise aping the styles, language, and ethos of the music station.

(Septimus has also made this connection to Rushkoff’s theories, citing him in today’s offering on this subject.)
This sentiment was echoed by Rabbi Andy Bachman at the New Generations event at the UJC General Assembly last month, as recounted by the Jerusalem Post:

Looking over the schedule of events at this year’s GA meeting, Bachman balked at a session on “Israel the Brand,” which addressed the ways in which Israel is being presented in the media.
“How are you going to brand your way out of a war?” Bachman said. “It’s so absurd. There’s no branding that can cover over a terrible situation.”

Bachman was taking a cue from comments made by myself and others at a New Israel Fund panel he moderated the week prior to the GA (also referenced in the aforementioned JPost piece). Indeed, this is the shtick I’ve been pushing for years, whether it’s been criticizing policies laid out in studies like “Israel in the Age of Eminem” that promote hollow Jewish nationalism, or assailing the mistaken belief that “hip” Jewish culture can somehow serve as a “one-size fits all” solution to disaffiliation.
In brief, I believe that rather than attempting to foster a Judaism or, rather, Judaisms, which are relevant to, appealing to, and ideologically and/or morally consistent with the views of today’s youth, establishment institutions have instead focused on repackaging and rebranding a decidedly dead and alienating “edition” of Judaism, in the process squandering valuable resources that could be invested in more productive initiatives.

Understanding The “Market”

In her presentation before the National Foundation for Jewish Culture this September, researcher Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett did a remarkable job of applying the logic of “The Long Tail” to the Jewish community. In short, “The Long Tail” posits the theory that niche markets, as opposed to general markets, account for the bulk of consumer activity. In Jewish terms, this means that individual Jewish constructs, or individual expressions of Jewish identity and culture, have appeal to individual segments of the Jewish population, and these specialized segments combined constitute the greater, unaffiliated portion of the Jewish community. Thus again, as Stern says, “Today there is no longer one story–such as God’s decree, Zionism, or refusing to give Hitler a posthumous victory–that provides a persuasive rationale for being Jewish.” Rather, different elements of Judaism appeal to individual Jews and Jewish communities for different personal reasons. Some are drawn to social action, others Jewish art (music, literature, humor), others yet Zionism, and others yet still, Talmud Torah. There is no single “cure-all,” no “one size fits all” Judaism that works for everyone, nor, with a culture as vast and rich as Judaism, need there be one.
This has resulted in what former Executive Vice President of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation Richard Marker describes as “Self-directed, non-affiliational, and non-denominational Jewish identification.” As Marker told Jewschool in August 2005:

Individuals have a moving-target range of influences and associations – no longer can it be said that one is exclusively identified as a ‘Reform’ or ‘Conservative’ or ‘Orthodox’ or ‘Reconstructionist’ or ‘secular’ or…; and on the whole, those institutional identities do not describe the ideological beliefs of their affiliates. With some very real but statistically minimal exceptions, when those affiliations do exist they are coincidental, social, or convenient. Moreover, identifies are fluid – American Jews – function within a number of overlapping spheres. Some of these may be Jewish, others may be professional, some may be geographic, and others may be social. At any given moment, the balance of which governs one ’s self- understanding and connections may lead to one’s identity looking and being quite different. And over time, these may look very different, even within the same family and same individual. Thus by definition, institutional identification simply doesn’t describe enough American Jews to be meaningful.

Our own statistics have proven this to be the case. As Jewish population researcher Steven M. Cohen told the JTA in September 2005 (while in the midst of preparing a study that would eventually become the centerpiece of the NFJC conference at which Kirshenblatt-Gimblett offered her “Long Tail” analysis), “There’s indirect evidence that young Jews care about being Jewish, but they are expressing it in ways that are not institutional.”
“There’s this myth of the ‘great unaffiliated masses,'” said Cohen’s co-researcher Ari Kelman. “These people are not rejecting synagogue; some just haven’t found one where they feel comfortable.”
Thus we have indisputably entered an age marked by very individualized conceptions of, and relationships to, Judaism. This individuation, however, is considered by many Jewish leaders to be problematic at best, and threatening at worst.

The Problem of Peoplehood

“‘Jewish peoplehood’ is now the buzzword in the Jewish world,” Shlmo Ravid, director of Beit Hatfutzot’s International School for Jewish Peoplehood Studies, told Haaretz at their inauguration last week. “I discovered that non-Orthodox Jewry in the United States has succeeded in transforming Judaism into an enjoyable experience. Judaism is fun,” said Ravid. “But this approach, which has made the individual’s spirituality central, has very much weakened the collective and Jewish solidarity.”
And therein lies the threat: That we will become so isolated in our own expressions of Jewish identity and connection, that we will no longer be connected to one another.
However, the alleviation of this threat — the key to balancing Jewish individualism (the paradigm we are already in) with peoplehood (the element now missing from the equation) is lurking right beneath our noses.
Interestingly, Septimus and Stern overlooked the most valuable contribution to Rosenblatt’s editorial — the missing piece of the puzzle. This was the mention of “[Michael] Steinhardt’s idea to articulate and disseminate a Common Judaism, a distillation of core Jewish values that speak to the widest possible audience of Jews today.”
While there is a treasure trove of elements shared between all Jews from which we draw upon to forge our individual and communal Jewish identities, there is, nonetheless, no singularly identifiable connection between us as a people. Therefore, in order to overcome our differences and constitute a people, we must agree upon some common values that essentially bind us together.
Steinhardt articulates this concept in his 2003 essay “The State of the Diaspora,” and goes on to delineate what he believes those values to be. This includes “the pre-eminence of Jewish peoplehood as a unifying ideal; the centrality of the State of Israel to the Jewish soul; the imperative of Jewish education to maintain and reinforce Jewish life; tzedaka as the life spring of our community; and a keen respect for meritocracy.”
While I wholeheartedly agree with Steinhardt’s conclusions about forming a “Common Judaism” — that which I’ve been referring to as “Folk Judaism” for some time now — I disagree greatly with his selection of values. And that’s okay, because determining these values should be a communal venture.
For my two cents, I think that Steinhardt’s choices are even too specific (the centrality of Israel, for example, itself being way too contentious of an issue), and am much more inclined to agree with the thesis put forth by Ellis Rivkin, Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at HUC-JIR Cincinnati, in his book The Unity Principle: The Shaping of Jewish History. Rivkin demonstrates that, indeed, not only is there not one singular expression of Jewish identity or culture, but historically there has, in fact, never been one. Rather, that which has bound us together as a people — whether we view the world through a secular lens or even an ultra-Orthodox one — is a shared commitment to a spiritual conception of oneness and unity, in whatever form that manifests itself, be it Chabad or the ACLU.
This is a public discussion that is long overdue and one we should most certainly be invested in. Once this question is resolved, we will hopefully resolve the dangers posed to Jewish communitarianism by Jewish individualism, and find a means by which to promote our consensual values to the myriad corners of the Jewish community.
However, that still leaves the problem of affiliation and that dreaded word “continuity.”

Where Do We Go From Here

“The answer [to assimilation and intermarriage] is not numbers, but quality,” JTS chancellor-elect Arnold Eisen told The Jerusalem Post the week before last. I believe Eisen is correct, but the remainder of the analysis he offers in his interview completely misses the mark, as he proposes “top-down solutions” that are simply untenable in our current “anarchic” paradigm.
Rather than promoting any singular form of Jewish identity or expression — be it by supporting a specific denomination or specialized small-scale organizations — Jewish institutions should invest in initiatives that give support to the widest array of individual communities possible. In that respect, rather than funding specific communities or initiatives, Jewish organizations should be spotting trends in various communities and developing resources that can be shared by individuals, communities and initiatives with overlapping interests.
For example, rather than providing funding to any single independent minyan, an entity could be established which provides support for independent minyanim in general. Instead of giving grants to individual organizations to continually develop similar websites, Federations should invest in developing freely-available software that serves the needs of all their beneficiary agencies. This is already in practice, in some respects, with Jewish educational curriculum that is developed by an independent entity and then distributed to Jewish camps, day schools, and youth groups.
Likewise, we have seen an experimental smattering of this sort of “infrastructure for independents” in initiatives such as Bikkurim and the Joshua Venture. These efforts, however, do not go far enough. To be frank, we neither want nor need gatekeepers and bureaucratic selection processes. They impede progress and stifle passion. Rather, we need service organizations that do not discriminate and allow the forces of natural selection to unfold, for to be a meritocratic people, the merit of our initiatives must be determined by the whole of the community and not by gatekeepers with narrow agendas. We don’t need grants tied to inhibitions, so much as we need tools and resources that empower us to do whatever it is we do in our unique expressions of Jewish culture and identity.
You cannot force individuals to create vibrant Jewish communities to your liking. However, you can facilitate the circumstances in which vibrant communities have the potential to manifest in their own way. Such grassroots communities are, more often than not, the source of the quality Jewish experiences Eisen speaks of. They are the key to Jewish affiliation.
As such, only when individuals and communities are given resources, time and space to grow in accordance with their needs (rather than in accordance with grantor’s objectives) will we have vibrant, joyous, endearing and inspiring Jewish individuals and communities that can gain the respect and adoration of the disaffiliated, and draw them closer to Judaism and the Jewish people.
Help us to create the Judaism we want to be a part of, and you will accomplish your goal of reengaging the Jewish people.

***

The preceding text is essentially the underlying premise of Jew It Yourself, the online software solution for Jewish education and community organizing that I am presently developing. The first component of Jew It Yourself, Shul Shopper, will launch in February 2007. For more information, please contact me.