Analysis: Two imperfect models of Jewish conferencing

Some conclusions from the UJC's General Assembly, in light of the KolDor Third Global Conference.

ujc leaders 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ujc leaders 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The UJC's General Assembly ended in the middle of last week, sending what must have been a record-breaking flood of Jews through Nashville's small airport as everyone rushed to get home to their scattered communities, whether in Los Angeles, Maine or Tel Aviv. The GA is a huge conference - held this year at the Gaylord Opryland Resort with a total price tag of $2.3 million and some 3,500 attendees - that marks the annual haj for American Jewish communal institutions. Two weeks ago, I attended a more intimate affair, the KolDor Third Global Conference on the shores of the Galilee. The scale was different - about 100 participants in an elegant but simple hostel - and the purpose was diametrically opposite. The GA was about self-reflection for the multi-billion-dollar Jewish federation system in America; KolDor was about reorganizing the structure of Jewish life, which is slowly shifting away from the old pillars of the community institutions, by embracing some newfangled ideas about flat networks and entrepreneurship. The average age at the KolDor conference, which organizers calculated at 29-33, might have been 20 years younger than at the GA. Some 550 American Jewish communities are united under the rubric of the UJC, wielding billions of dollars in the service of America's poor Jews and non-Jews and in support of Israel. KolDor, a network focused, not unlike high-tech companies such as Nokia, on "connecting people," has no clear membership roster or precisely defined hierarchy, and perhaps 400 individual members worldwide. Thus, a comparison between KolDor and the UJC is not meant to imply equal importance or similar purpose, only to bring into sharp relief what each - the restless information-age agitators of Jewish life and the gargantuan social welfare networks and institutions of American Jewish communities - brings to the table. Perhaps it is the strange vantage point of an English-speaking Israeli newspaper, an outsider to both American Jewish institutions and US-centered Jewish entrepreneurship on the dot-com model, but it was striking to me how solipsistic self-reflection seemed to dominate both events, and how neither organizational model has learned to use the critical resources offered by the other. While KolDor gushed breathlessly with innovation and the UJC offered obsessive discussion of its own structure, neither seemed to know quite what to do with the other. Networking creativity Bertrand Russell once complained that philosophy never gets credit for anything because whenever it invents something useful the new creation is given its own distinct name. When philosophers think clearly about numbers, it's soon called mathematics; about mind, cognitive science; about society, it becomes sociology, political science, or ethics. The net result is that philosophy is assumed to have produced nothing, even when the basic project, the rational uncovering of truth for its own sake, may be given much of the credit for producing the modern age in which we live. Russell's complaint comes to mind in the wake of KolDor's late-October conference. In itself, the conference was not especially remarkable. It mixed the feel of a youth group convention - singing at meals, multiple-bed hostel rooms - with the ambition of a think tank - sessions included discussion of worldwide Jewish education policy, models of Brazilian environmental education, and a mental exercise involving an autonomous Jewish region within Israel that would "redo" the institutions of a Jewish state modeled on what one participant called "Zionist peoplehood," rather than mere Zionism. The conference was heavily Anglo and conducted in English, since almost half the participants came from outside Israel and many did not speak Hebrew. Yet, unlike the confusion surrounding the star-studded Jewish People Policy Planning Institute conference in Jerusalem in June - an establishment get-together looking for new strategies for Jewish life that couldn't decide whether it was merely a "planning body," as institute president Yehezkel Dror insisted, or, as some bitter participants had expected, a mechanism for directing implementation - the KolDor conference was clear from the beginning. No policy paper emerged from the KolDor event, and no actionable reform plan for Jewish institutions was suggested. There wasn't even a mapping-out of the problems of the Jewish world - standard practice ahead of your average Jewish-survival discussion group. Yet when conference organizers said the event was a success, their reasoning wasn't as far-fetched as you might think. Since KolDor isn't about conferencing, but about "the power of the network," it was never the get-together that mattered, but rather the people - young, clever and eager - who are supposed to discover each other and develop relationships that will produce new ideas and initiatives that can rejuvenate Jewish life. Until the KolDor conference, I didn't know about Aharon Horwitz's MavenHaven, or Ahava Zarembski's Yesod. (If you're curious, take a page out of KolDor's tech-savvy way of doing business and Google them.) The expertise, ideas and criticisms of Horwitz, Zarembski, Mavoy Satum's Inbal Freund and many others - MK Ze'ev Elkin is a KolDorian, too - are the resource that KolDor brings to the table. As with philosophy, KolDor doesn't look like it's accomplishing much. It's even a step farther away from its achievements than philosophy - it does not seek to create new ideas, but rather to streamline the cross-pollination that can produce them. True to its origins in the business-think of the dot-com age, it is a minimalist mechanism for spreading around what turned out to be quite a lot of content. In my brief personal experience with it - I've already connected with and learned from many of the folks I met at the conference - it works. Building the dock but missing the boat As for the UJC, the General Assembly concluded last week with a quiet rush for the airport. There was little talk among the average participant of what they learned or gained from the event. Many representatives of visiting organizations complained that the 2.5-day schedule was too packed to allow participants to wander the exhibit hall, so dozens of organizations went to the expense of sending presentation booths to Nashville for little gain. For most, the time was too short even for networking. But the main complaint was more substantive - that the GA dealt with organization and structure and not with the educational message and content Jewish communities need in order to give direction to their Jewish programming. The GA focused on the UJC's internal structure because of a conscious decision taken by the UJC leadership. In a JTA opinion piece published ahead of the conference, UJC president Howard Rieger and chairman Joe Kanfer listed the issues they saw facing the federation system, and for solutions focused mostly on encouraging new forms of donating. "We face an aging, shrinking donor base," they write, since "young Jews are not being shaped by the same existential issues [such as the Holocaust, the Six Day War and the like] as their parents and grandparents." Also, "we live in an era of increased mobility" in which Jews "do not have the same long-term local communal ties as before." Young Jews are also less likely "to unflinchingly trust large institutions with their philanthropic dollars" than older donors. Thus, for example, "with the newly created Center for Jewish Philanthropy, we will take a new donor-centered approach, offering a menu of new philanthropic choices tailored to the varied interests of donors." These sorts of problems and solutions, UJC leaders feel, are the bread-and-butter of the GA. With all due respect to the opinionated young people of the KolDor variety, some UJC leaders told the Post in private, American Jewry will need billions in endowments if the welfare services (the second-largest network of services in the country) and community institutions will survive while the Jewish community ages at an abnormal speed as the younger end of the spectrum leaves. Keeping the multi-billion-dollar social safety net running and helping an ever-growing number of elderly and needy is a serious business, one worthy of serious and professional consideration, they believe. Thus, the hot-button questions at the GA included how to grow, manage and structure some $13 billion in federation-controlled endowments, how to measure success for federation programs, how to encourage larger donations from the super-rich and attract more targeted donations for specific causes, and how to run a centralized but effective community welfare net with shrinking donor funds. The problem with the focus on structure and fundraising is not that these are unimportant. The billions of dollars at stake aren't a luxury; they are the food, clothing and Jewish education for many hundreds of thousands of Jews across America and the world. The problem is that this focus seems to show that communal leaders have surrendered to demographic trends, to estimates by the likes of Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola that the American Jewish population is locked into a direction that will leave it elderly and half its current size in a few short decades. Though some UJC leaders, including Howard Rieger himself, deny that there is a race to secure sustainable funds - endowments and wills - before the worst of the demographic predictions come to pass, others in the UJC organization and in the federations themselves say this is a major part of the cause for the growing trend to endow and to encourage the giving of "legacies" through wills. This is all well and good. But there is a glaring omission from this agenda that is obvious - as we wrote going into the GA last Sunday, what is missing is any deep discussion of the question of peoplehood: "In America, 'peoplehood' is the growing realization that the American way of identifying [religiously] will not keep young Jews Jewish, even if the openness and creativity of the American cultural landscape brings Jewish themes to primetime comedy, Jewish self-help to Barnes & Noble and Jewish mysticism to Madonna. Rather, they must be shown the value of belonging communally to a Jewish people, no matter its location or the language it speaks. And 'peoplehood' is also a question of content. What is the meaning of that sense of belonging? Where do you find the common cultural ground for a Jewish world in which all Jews, even Russian atheists and Australian haredim, have a stake?" Currently, that cultural content is lacking, with Israelis and Americans - each some 40% of the Jewish people - growing farther apart as they define themselves in increasingly disparate ways. According to surveys, America's and Israel's young Jews already care much less about each other or about the broader Jewish people than in past years, and their knowledge of each other's community is declining steadily. Against this, the KolDor model can be used to develop the response to the cultural dissolution itself. It has an energy quite unlike anything at the GA. But the eclectic free-flow of the KolDor network can do nothing on the ground of any scale. Meanwhile, the GA has a fascination with its own structure but is not seriously engaged in crafting a message for American Jewish life. Some in the UJC system argue that the umbrella organization's mandate is limited, and does not include facilitating a Jewish cultural renaissance. But culture, not political lobbying or suave marketing, may be the most sustainable means of engagement with a new generation. Perhaps the back-to-back experience of KolDor's conference and the GA shows an American (and world) Jewry at a crossroads, with some young innovators offering the establishment a path that goes beyond survival or continuity to - one can dream - a resurgent transnational Jewish culture. Yet, to make the KolDor model relevant, the establishment will have to embrace its culture-creating capacity and give it the benchmarking, implementation abilities and professionalism of the larger institutions. If this isn't done, the American Jewish community may continue to raise lots of money, but it will become an old-age home. In Israel, we may find a Hebrew-speaking nation running a country that has little to do with the world Jewish community. At this GA, while some interesting things were said about endowments and programming benchmarks, the opportunity for a serious discussion about cultural renewal was missed.