Friday, November 20, 2009

Thou Shalt Organize

I have never been to the General Assembly, not to the organization of about one-hundred and fifty nation-states that is a key component of the United Nations, and not to the General Assembly that is the itinerant annual mega-conference for about one-hundred and fifty Jewish Federations. For a time in the 1960s, I was indirectly involved in the first of these GAs when I served on a voluntary basis as the representative of the American Civil Liberties Union which had non-governmental status at the UN in connection with efforts to promote the genocide and other human rights treaties.

Our GA is sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America which is the new name for what had been called United Jewish Communities, which in turn was the replacement name for the Council of Jewish Federations. As I wrote when UJC came into usage, religious Jews have the custom of changing the name of a gravely ill person in the hope that this will stave off the Angel of Death and what the Federations were doing seemed to be a similar exercise. Alas, our communal patient has continued to deteriorate and it is doubtful that meaningful benefits will result from the latest name change, except perhaps for the sign-makers.

What may make a difference is the arrival of Jerry Silverman as chief executive. He is talented and creative and did wonders at the Foundation for Jewish Camping as he convinced major donors that camping is a high philanthropic priority, this for an activity that with a straight face defines as “non-profit” camps that may charge $8,000 or more per child for the summer.

Irrespective of Mr. Silverman’s impact, a key question is whether we need an umbrella agency for the Federation network. A more basic question is whether we need the Federation system as it has developed over the past century. Of course, the most fundamental question of all is whether we need all of our organizations. We have, by far, far many more organizations than any American ethnic group, including those that are far larger than we are. If we cannot figure out how to commit organicide, can we at least figure out how to stop constantly adding to the number? Excluding schools, shuls and actual services, the aggregate cost of our organizational infrastructure is beyond enormous.

The short answer to these questions is that we need our organizations. They are our comforters, our security blankets. It is as if we have an Eleventh Commandment – and for some secular Jews it may be the First – declaring, “Thou Shalt Organize.” This is a fundamental tenet of our civil religion and, as a matter of faith, it is not to be questioned. In the 1950s, we commissioned Robert McIver, the eminent sociologist, to examine our communal life and in his report, now long forgotten, he said that we had too many organizations and recommended consolidation. Nowadays, even as our organizational ranks have swelled, we question no longer. We are true believers.

If there is any functionality to our fetish with organizations it is that the arrangement provides numerous connecting points to Jewish life, including Israel, for a great number of Jews who otherwise might be distant from our community. This is not an unimportant consideration, yet it can only carry us so far. One cost of the arrangement is that it elevates service to the organization as a form of voluntarism over service to individuals and the community.

There is much evidence that younger Jews, by which I mean persons below the age of forty, pay little attention to the organizations that have served as magnets for their grandparents and parents. The Federation concept is in its second century and it is not necessary to catalogue the communal, societal, technological, behavioral and attitudinal changes that have made for most of us, excluding the Orthodox, the world of our fathers not the world that we are part of.

If the Jewish Federations of North America is here to stay, the challenge facing Jerry Silverman is to bring about significant changes so that its General Assembly is not merely, in the trite formulation employed last week by Gary Rosenblatt, considered by many as “the premier Jewish communal event on the calendar” and “a kind of parliament of the organized Jewish community.” Attendance at the GA is primarily the outcome of the attendees overwhelmingly being on the communal dole.

To go forward, it is necessary to return to the past. At the recent GA, day school education was, at most, a secondary topic of concern. Forty years ago, as Gary Rosenblatt noted, Yitz Greenberg led a demonstration at the plenary session demanding greater funding for day school education. Day school education may no longer be controversial but that is because in the mindset of Jewish Federations of North America, it is too inconsequential an activity to merit controversy.

All told, our organizational life is saddled with too much complacency, too much of a willingness to reward the company men and women who toe the line, dutifully attending this or that meaningless event without daring to explore new territory or new ideas. That is why for more the relatively small number of American Jews who make a meaningful difference in Jewish life, our General Assembly is not a significant event on the communal calendar. For them, our General Assembly merits no more than scant attention. This attitude resembles in a way the attitude that many American Jews have about the other General Assembly that is located adjacent to the East River in Manhattan.