January 27, 2003
I spend much of my time thinking about and observing how the Jewish community
organizes and disorganizes itself. Through my own experiences as a Jewish Communal
Professional over the past 20 years and the unique access I have to organizational life
through the supervision of our graduate internship program and my own consulting, there
is much to be passionate about, much to diagnose, and much that can generate frustration
We are in a world of philanthropy that has raised more dollars than any other time
in history. Some 212 billion dollars were raised in 2001, and even when adjusted for
inflation due to the 9/11 “effect”, this is the second highest level of giving on record. We
are in a time where there are more non-profit agencies than any other time in history. We
are at an important juncture in the traditional roles of lay leadership, of the power of
national agencies, and the role of large, consensus driven organizations. The metaphor that
Bill used yesterday of steering a boat in the ocean is an apt one. And that makes it all the
more difficult to forecast the functioning of organizational life in the Jewish community,
but that shouldn’t stop us from trying!
So, some musings:
• The large consensus-based organizations which still represent the best ideals of the
democratic process are not able to maneuver quickly enough to remain entirely
• As those same organizations become increasingly professionally driven, the
traditional underpinnings of lay professional partnership are in question.
• These phenomena and more have proven to be fruitful ground for the development
of innovative, leaner organizations whose missions are issue specific, and generally
created by a visionary leader or small group of impassioned leaders.
• Family and individual foundations are increasingly directing the communal agenda
through their willingness to take on specific issues and act as a funding source with
fewer layers of process and overhead. Foundations and Venture philanthropists
have been interested and willing to fund the building of infrastructure and social
capital in smaller and start-up organizations.
• In a field which was predominately personed by either full time professional staff
or, parenthetically, staff who were paid part time but expected to work full time,
there is emerging what I have sometimes called “the third sector”—that is to say,
contract workers who are tied to a specific project that may also be time limited—
and who at any time may have contractual relationships with several organizations
at one time.
• We also have a “missing in action” National Jewish Population Study. And from
all accounts, the study confirms much of what we know—there are less of us; more
of us are aging than any other ethnic group; we are having too few babies too late;
and we are not significantly prepared for any of these realities.
• And we know that some of our backbone Jewish agencies are serving less of the
Jewish community as we are increasingly seeking services in the private/profit
I know I have thrown out a lot of disparate thoughts, but let me take a shot at
putting some of them together.
The way in which the Jewish community has traditionally dealt with challenges, be
those of stigma or other communal concerns, was that we created agencies, new
departments, planning inquiries, and much consensus building. Organizational missions
could be as broad as “Our mission is to serve the Jewish community”. To play in these
arenas meant power and resources. We might liken this to a notion in the corporate sector
of forming a conglomerate.
A conglomerate is anything composed of heterogeneous materials or elements; a
corporation consisting of a number of subsidiary companies or divisions; to collect or
What I think we are seeing now, is a model of consortium—smaller entrepreneurial
organizations and projects forming quickly, working in a project-oriented manner with
each other and with already established organizations. Consortium is defined as a group
of financial institutions or individuals brought together for carrying into effect some
financial operations requiring large amounts of capital; any partnership, or union; consent
to sound in harmony. Collaborate is defined as the act or process of working with one
with another to cooperate.
It is interesting to note that several of the large initiatives — Birthright, the STAR
program, Jewish Funders Network, etc., are models of this. In organizational management
circles, the model of a matrix organization mirrors this—in short, that work teams come
together on a project-oriented basis, develop goals and objectives and after having
completed their task, move onto different team formations. The advantage is that you can
bring the best resources to the goal at hand and achieve greater results.
The rapidly growing health and healing movement is an excellent microcosm, I
think, for watching some of these organizational phenomena. It is a movement that has
begun to leverage the well-established communal structures and build consortiums that
share in social capital resources and infrastructure.
Perhaps I have painted a bleak picture for the national scene. I don’t mean to
suggest that in 10 years, they will cease to exist, but I will say that to be relevant in the
decade to come, they will need to reinvent themselves significantly.
Now that the musings are done, let me suggest some questions:
• How do we hear the loud cry for meaning and connection that is spoken and
• Why limit our thinking in terms of possible entry points for healing to buildings,
meetings and services?
• How do we create sacred space for personal narratives?
• How do we harness passion, creativity and critical thinking beyond the format of
the committee or board meeting?
• How can we sustain consortiums and collaborative efforts without creating
duplicative structures or services?
• How can we help to make living a Jewish life an accessible and affordable
possibility for Jews in all economic situations?
• How do we use the possibilities of technology to create communities of meaning
and intimacy and healing?
• How do we begin to capture a notion of affiliation that goes beyond counting
synagogue membership, how many people come to a Pesach seder, or what foods
• How do we realize the potential of social capital in making organizational and
communal change such as the Kalsman Institute seeks to do?
• How can we use the language of healing we have so effectively used with
“patients” in our discourse with one another and between organizations?
I want to close sharing an experience I recently had with an alumna of the School
of Jewish Communal Service. She was diagnosed at age 34 with an aggressive form of
breast cancer—so aggressive that she was not given a lot of hope of survival. She created
an e-mail list of 60 some individuals and made us a part of her treatment options, dark
moments, absurd moments, profound insights and different types of tattooing available—
and of course much more. She created and sustained a community of healing. Many of us
didn’t know each other well prior to being part of this online group, but as you can
imagine, we developed our own intimate bonds. The good news is this young woman is
now a survivor of chemotherapy, radiation, mastectomies and reconstruction—but most
importantly, a survivor of breast cancer. I know this is not a unique story, but I share it
with you as a story of personal narrative creating community, healing, a profound
connection of one human being to another, a collective connection to God, a creation of
portable, virtual, sacred space.
© 2003 Marla Eglash Abraham. May not be used without permission of Ms. Abraham. firstname.lastname@example.org.