Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Domestic Revolution

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“Whoa, this is like the Rabin Protest,” I overheard as I stood watching the mass protest here in front of Tel Aviv’s Art Museum, stretching down King Shaul Blvd. I was thinking the same thing exactly. The only time I can remember seeing so many people, so many posters, so many slogans and flags has been back then, the protests for (and against) the peace process in the 1990s. This time it’s different. This time the protests are, as the popular slogan here announces, “fighting for the home.” It was sparked by rent prices, but on stage at this rally a number of social causes are cheered on: the doctor’s call for reasonable wages, the social worker’s call for additional resources, the general economic call for reducing the influence of tycoons on the Israeli market. For strengthening the education system and blocking the government’s push for private schools. All domestic issues. All focused on standard of living, on every day issues. Could this be the awakening of a new age in Israeli politics–one where domestic issues trump foreign policies, where Israel decides to focus in and take on many of the challenges which were kept on the back burner in favor of foreign issues?

I sure hope so. Next to me, chanichim of the youth movement HaNoar HaOved are singing: “bread, apartments, and no to land sales” (deregulation of the land market). Such different cheers than protests past.

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17 b’Tammuz and Why You Shouldn’t Only be Fasting: Protest Instead

Tomorrow starting at dawn, traditional Jews from around the world will commemorate the fast of 17 b’Tammuz, a day marked by the Jewish tradition primarily for the breaching of the Second Temple’s gates by Roman forces. 

The main justifications for this fast, from the Rabbinic perspective, have to do with its instrumental value: by remembering the process leading to the downfall of the Second Temple, we Jews will remember our responsibility for the destruction, owing to the ‘baseless hatred’ and internecine warfare that divided the Jews and enabled the Romans to destroy the second Israelite commonwealth. 

This dovetails with the ways Jews have traditionally understood the circumstances of the destruction of the Second Temple: it was destroyed for internal, rather than external reasons. As Dovid Gottleib notes in Cross-Currents, some of the greatest sages of our generations (from Rabbi Yochana to the Maharal) held that it was due to ‘baseless hatred’ that the Temple was destroyed, and, therefore, it is upon us to counter that hatred with understanding and solidarity (known as “Ahavat Hinam”).  

The fast, therefore, has been traditionally justified in the texts as a way for Jews to take personal responsibility for the destruction of the Temple, reminding themselves of the circumstances of the destruction, and purifying their hearts and souls so that we will not see another calamity of that nature visit us again. 

Thing is, in our time, the biggest source of ‘baseless hatred,’ of Sinat Hinam, is the Rabbanut.

The Israeli official Rabbanite divides the Jewish People like never before. Millions of Jews across the world are held in suspect by the Rabbanut, forced to undergo shameful treatment to prove their Jewishness. Thousands of leaders of our people — Rabbis — are not even considered Jewish, let alone Rabbis, by these ‘keepers of the faith.’ And millions of secular or liberal Israelis are driven to hate our tradition by the foul way in which the Rabbanut manhandles them as they go through marriage, divorce and burial issues by State fiat under the Rabbanut’s jurisdiction. 

The ironic thing is that the people who are keeping the Rabbanut in power, those who have a respect for tradition, are fasting tomorrow on 17 b’Tammuz so that they may remember the effect of baseless hatred back then, when they are doing little to nothing to end the baseless hatred today in their midst. The silence of the traditional, of those who understand that Judaism is much grander and broader than what the Rabbanut would have it, is what is keeping the Rabbanut in place. The traditional are worse than bystanders: they are accomplices in the destructive, hateful actions of the Rabbanut; in the repealing of conversions, in the refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of various paths to the Torah, in their harsh refusal to protect the Aguna and Almana, in their calls for alienating the stranger in our midst. 

Instead of only fasting, all who care about Judaism and the wisdom of our tradition should use the three weeks between the 17 b’Tammuz and Tisha b’Av as weeks of protest. Instead of solely denying ourselves food and drink for horrors past, we should work to actively deny our support from horrors present. 

Join me in this quest to spread Ahavat Hinam amongst the Jewish People. Fast half a day for the past, or even the full day, but more importantly spend half the day calling for the fast dispersal of the Rabbanut, and the speedy liberation of our tradition from their corrupt hands. 

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May JDub be a Call to Action

During the General Assembly of 2005, I heard a revolutionary idea during a panel discussion: that Jewish institutions should invest 10% of their annual budgets in new programs that can engage the younger set in their communities. The speaker: Aaron Bisman, founder of JDub records, and one of the brightest stars of my generation of committed community activists.

Bisman's call made perfect sense to me: Jewish communal organizations are custodians of the Jewish People's organized interests. Along with short-term responsibilities of program provision, these organizations also needed to ensure their prospects for long-term viability, which means that they had to keep an eye on what in the general market would be called 'customer acquisition.' Since all the data I was privy to then and since pointed to the fact that the number of Jews who are affiliating and supporting these institutions is fading, it would seem to me that increasing investment in customer acquisition was the only viable option. And since these institutions have not proven able by historical fact to raise affiliation rates, it would be only logical that they search elsewhere to find talent, ideas and programs that enable them to bring new people into their reach.

In the years since, I have yet to see an Institution heed Bisman's call to clearly and unequivocally invest in its own future by making a set percentage of capital available each year to new, risky efforts to bring young adults into the communal framework. Through PresenTense I have been fortunate to meet some of the Federation and JCC leaders who are making this very same case, and pulling their communities towards this very commitment, but yet have I heard of an Institution that straight-out says: we have falling numbers so we're setting a target and come hell or high water we are investing 10% a year in developing new opportunities to stem the tide. (Just think what would happen if out of the on-average $32M annual budget of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), 10% ($3.2M) was spent on buying services from smaller social ventures that seek to address this core demographic?)

Buying services, here, is the key – as opposed to providing grants. Too often our institutions take a monopolist's view of the market. Since, historically, Federations and JCCs were the main actors in any given community, some have grown accustomed to doing everything themselves. As such, nearly every Federation has a Young Leadership Department of one name or another, and almost every one of those YLD efforts consists of similar programs: bar nights, concerts, and so on. This means that every local community with a YLD department needs to hire staff which has expertise in planning events, and then staff to execute the events, and then pay to plan, publicize and run the events locally.

But often buying from a specialist can raise quality and lower price. Taking JDub as an example, it probably would have been more efficient and effective for Federations to redirect their operations budgets to positions that have higher touch with the public, and let JDub specialize in the event planning, publicity and production. Recently, I heard of an intriguing business model wherein JDub offered just that: they would create a special community portal using Jewcy, and then leverage that portal to connect with the Federation's choice target demographic locally, survey demand for events, and then bring targeted events to the community to engage local young adults. Now that's a solid business model – for both parties — and might have resulted in an exciting pivot for JDub wherein they could reduce their dependency on Foundations and focus on providing the services they're good at and getting paid for it.

Or, alternatively, focus on some of JDub's other accomplishments, such as three gold albums. One of the main reasons Taglit-birthright israel is such a darling of the Jewish institutional world is the data, provided by Len Saxe and the team at the Cohen Center in Brandeis, that attending a Taglit-birthright trip can increase markers of affiliation by around 10%. If that 10% bump is the return on the community's investments of hundreds of millions of dollars in Taglit-birthright, would investing in JDub's ability to grow another dozen gold albums, an investment which would come out to approximately 30% of the equivalent investment in Taglit-birthright, lead to a bigger or smaller observable bump? I know Mattisyahu deeply affected me; would other artists and poets have increased the rates of Jews marrying other Jews–which is the most-often discussed measure in the Cohen study? If we are serious about long-term yield on our investments, we need to start thinking in terms of field-wide metrics that can enable us to compare and contrast between program outcomes in a serious way. And then we need to hold the organizations we support to those metrics, and compare them so that they can make the case for how they'll provide better ROI, instead of tugging on heartstrings and sacrifice efficiency for affect.

Unfortunately, it seems all of this will have come too late for JDub. Why exactly JDub's board chose to close at this particular time remains a mystery to me, and why they decided to close as opposed to cut back or sell assets or seek a merger or acquisition I hope will be clarified during their transparent spin-down cycle. But focusing on JDub alone is to miss the forest for the trees. This particular tree, JDub, may no longer grow, but I am fully confident that the people it touched, and the leaders it nurtured, will go on to bigger and better things. But the forest will forever remain stunted until our institutions rethink how they invest in the future, and encourage service providers to better themselves through competition to meet targets that will increase our viability as an organized community in the long-run.

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