17 November 2009

Free Advice

If I were a "consultant" this post would cost you $100,000.

But I'm not, so it's free.

When Richard Joel set to putting Hillel on different footing, with the single greatest investment in American Jewish youth until birthright came along, the working thesis was that you needed to invest in talented local leadership, you needed to hire a new generation of rabbis and executive directors to run Hillels, manage their budgets and raise money, and and you needed two annual meetings--the Staff Conference and Leaders' Assembly--to energize and galvanize the movement. I was part of the movement from 1998 until 2004 and while it wasn't perfect and had its own bureaucratic cholesterol, it certainly was a highly organized and effective attempt to focus on those young Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 and bring them into Jewish life in all new ways. It worked by valuing their desire for the content of Torah and by professionalizing the experience of engaging the Jewish community and by repeating a mantra over and over again: meeting people where they're at.

Looking back on it all twenty years later, I'd have to say that those who were deeply effected by a re-prioritized Hillel are among the most important leaders today in the North American Jewish community. It's not for nothing that the concerted effort worked. But what made it work was the combination of visionary leadership nationally and an equally strong and committed local partnership that actually had the connections to the base, as it were, and could reach the so-called Jewish youth in both meaningful and innovative ways.

This model comes to mind when I look at birthright next and its attempts to go it alone without either investing in a local talent base on the same scale that Hillel chose to or, for far less money but a willingness to share information, partnering with local "service providers" (their language, not mine) who are actually succeeding to reach Jews where they are at.

Since my consultancy is free, I have no need to worry about conflict of interest, so I'll be self-serving and say: If birthright participants in the New York area focusing on Brooklyn alone (I hear it's cool to live here) were matched with CBE and Altshul and Brooklyn Jews and JDub Records on a regular basis as true partners in reaching Jews where they are at, one would see a far greater content-based communal program, rooted in classical Jewish values and deeply committed to bottom-up, demand based initiatives. Let me say that Limmud programs in Brooklyn now. And so does Hazon. And CBE regularly partners with J Street, and the New Israel Fund, and the American Jewish World Service, and Avodah (arts and service!) So I don't understand, at all, actually, the reticence (or better, refusal) to engage in a partnership.

Honestly, at this point it's irrational.

One immediately thinks of Esau. Sitting at a table, coveting a bowl of lentils. Counting each little bean and thinking, "Mine, mine, mine!"

I mean, really. Whose birthright is it, anyway?

This was Jacob's confidence game that lured the real blessing to his side of the table. I understand Jacob's genius in all new ways, watching, sadly, as money gets spent to figure out what's "next." Jacob: the Dweller in Tents. Jacob: Who studied while Esau went hunting for scraps of meat.

The Tent: Synagogues that work.
The Study: Pursuit of meaning.

It's actually not about the number of beans in a bowl. Get it?

That's why Jacob won the birthright.

1 comment:

Mobius1ski said...

From what I've gleaned from my conversations with Birthright Next and the various reports in the Forward and the Jewish Week, Steinhardt has Next's back up against a wall.

One of his requirements as the funder of Next is that the Jewish Enrichment Center be given an exclusive contract for all NYC-based Next activities. This was done at the behest of Rebecca Sugar, who is a childhood friend of Steinhardt's son.

So you're up against nepotism and the funder's prerogative.

It's also worth noting that Steinhardt recently went off on a self-congratulatory rant in which he bemoaned the activities of the non-Orthodox Jewish community as ineffective compared to his own. With that sort of unshakable belief in his own hype, it's going to be a hard sell convincing him that he's made the wrong decision about Next NY.