Toward Thriving: the future of Jewish life in St. Louis and beyond

The following article is a reduced version of a paper that Barry Rosenberg, Executive Vice President of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, wrote last year. Entitled “Toward Thriving,” the paper was presented to the Federation’s Board of Directors and Trustees, and select others within the Jewish community. The article, which has been edited with the author’s consent, discusses key issues associated with the future of the local and world Jewish communities.

The Jewish Light will solicit response to the ideas expressed herein from a variety of voices within the local Jewish community, and will provide those voices in coming issues of the Light and on our Web site, www.stljewishlight.com and via links on the Jewishinstlouis.org Web site.

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We also encourage letters on Toward Thriving for publication in the Jewish Light or join the discussion via blog at http://towardthriving.blogspot.com

BY BARRY ROSENBERG

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” –Lewis Carroll

What is our destination? What is our vision for the future of St. Louis and American Jewish life? What type of Jewish community will our children and grandchildren inherit?

These are questions which each of us, as Jews, should ask, and which community leaders have an ethical responsibility to consider. This article’s purpose is to stimulate community discussion around a proposed framework, in which to consider future Jewish organizational strategy, policy development and day-to-day operational decision-making. Its goal is to ensure the continued thriving of the global Jewish civilization and our local St. Louis Jewish community.

Provided below are significant trends and external conditions, followed by nine proposed broad strategies, which could hopefully shape the ongoing work of local Jewish institutions: Federation, funded agencies, congregations and non-funded organizations.

The information is presented very broadly, as the vision, trends and strategies outlined require greater elaboration to effectively guide action. Neither is there an intent to be encyclopedic – the absence of certain issues and material does not necessarily indicate dismissal of their importance.

While the formulation of this article is mine, it draws on nearly 35 years of professional work in the Jewish community, and the writings and thinking of numerous colleagues, lay leaders and scholars. In particular, it is influenced by the work of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute (JPPPI), a Jerusalem-based think tank charged with assessing the global condition of the Jewish people and putting forth strategic policy recommendations.

Toward Thriving

As a Jewish community, how do we measure success? By sheer numbers? Extent of Jewish literacy and practice? Jewish grandchildren?

I suggest that our destination – our measure of success – is the continued “thriving” of the Jewish civilization and our local St. Louis Jewish community.

JPPPI has put forth a model to consider alternative futures for the Jewish people, based on two major factors:

1. To what degree are external conditions either positive or negative for sustained Jewish life?

2. To what degree is there low or high internal momentum, within the Jewish community?

Weak internal momentum, combined with a negative environment results in decline. Strong internal momentum, within a positive environment, yields the conditions for thriving. Recognizing that the Jewish people has limited influence and no control over external factors, JPPPI asks us to focus strategy and policy development on strengthening the internal factors that either will enable us to defend against hostility or capitalize on opportunity.

Moreover, JPPPI’s perspective is future oriented. It recognizes these are relatively good times for the Jewish people. But what of our children’s future? Because strategies may take years to achieve results, JPPPI suggests leaders have a responsibility to shift resources toward assuring the future thriving of the Jewish civilization. What must we do today, to ensure we thrive in the future?

A Thriving Community

What might a thriving St. Louis Jewish community look like? What will it take to sustain positive internal momentum, whereby we retain and attract Jewish population and inspire an increasing proportion of the population to choose Jewish identity and engagement?

o A St. Louis region that offers high quality education, economic and recreational opportunities, and poses no barriers to our full participation in society. We cannot thrive unless St. Louis thrives.

o A critical population mass, sufficient to support a broad array of core institutions and services that meet Jewish needs, enrich Jewish life and offer extensive social opportunities.

o Physical security and deterrence of physical threat.

o Adequate food, housing and health services for all Jewish residents and mechanisms to identify, protect and care for those who cannot do so for themselves.

o High quality institutions and organizations that are warm, accessible and welcoming; and led by passionate, skilled and inspirational leaders and employees. They deliver a broad range of affordable religious, educational, cultural and recreational activities and services that help individuals find meaning, direction and joy in Jewish life.

o A high level of social cohesion across Jewish population groups, a relative absence of organizational conflict and a sustained capacity for collective decision-making and action.

o A climate that encourages and nurtures creativity, innovation, renewal and continuous improvement in Jewish life.

o Participation in a thriving national and international Jewish community.

Conditions and Trends

The American Jewish condition is one of full acceptance in American society, low birthrate, high mobility, dispersion, loss of Jewish neighborhoods, smaller Jewish social networks, resulting in high assimilation and a shrinking, but aging, population. At the same time we enjoy unprecedented influence and wealth and possess great talent.

Among young Jews we see two growing trends: individualized, idiosyncratic modes of Jewish identity and aversion to traditional institutions (the sovereign self), and declining allegiance to Jewish particularism, collective identity and Israel.

Our region, experiencing sluggish growth and economic vitality, offers limited attraction to young, single Jews – native or those who arrive for University.

Globally, there is near total Jewish freedom. Israel – soon to house the majority of Jews – enjoys a strong economy coupled with a growing local philanthropic and civil sector. Yet, there are severe geo-political threats to its security, rising global anti-Semitism, and consequent collateral threats to Jews worldwide. The intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and America’s war fatigue pose a risk to traditional American solidarity with Israel. America’s diminished global stature may mean that other nations (including the emerging superpowers of China and India) will assert greater influence on Middle East affairs.

Declining government funding, declining market share of Jewish philanthropy and shrinking memberships have left many local organizations weak or in crisis. This has worsened in the current economy.

There is an insufficient pool of talented volunteer and professional leaders.

A Framework for Policy Development

There are many factors that impact thriving. However, I have concluded that the following four areas require priority attention and significantly enhanced resources:

1) Ensuring Israeli and Jewish security.

2) Ensuring the Jewish identity and engagement of the next generation.

3) Creating a vibrant local Jewish community that will retain and attract young Jewish population to St. Louis.

4) Building and strengthening the community’s infrastructure to meet the present and future challenges.

A note about number 4: In the non-profit world, there is an understandable, but counter-productive, tendency to think about infrastructure costs as “overhead.” In the face of great need, we are motivated to cut overhead and put more dollars into direct service. But without an adequate infrastructure, our investments in service are likely to be less than fully effective or efficient.

Sophisticated financial management systems, modern information and communication technology, ongoing facility maintenance and repairs should contribute to greater impact in the long run. Likewise, investments in professional and volunteer training, because people are at the heart of everything we hope to achieve. Perhaps less apparent are needs for research and data analysis, effective volunteer governance systems and adequate support staff structures that enable professional staff to use their time to perform professional functions.

The four goals, defined above, encompass nine general strategies:

o Proactive protection of global and local Jewish security. As advocates for Israel and Jewish security, we should emphasize building relationships and mobilizing support among non-Jewish influentials and promote public policies such as energy independence. Locally, we should invest in meaningful deterrence and defensive security measures, including hardening facilities, intelligence gathering, crisis and emergency planning and management.

o Expansion and integration of Jewish identity and engagement efforts. Proven-effective programs and services should be expanded, strengthened and made more affordable. New signature programs like PJ Library should be developed and the options for entry into Jewish life expanded. Using a proactive, individualized ‘concierge’ model of outreach, individuals should be guided to those doorways most appropriate for them and then helped to build on each successive experience, to create a rich, progressive and fuller Jewish identity.

o Nurture deep connections and engagement with Israel and global Jewish peoplehood. Jewish schools should actively incorporate an understanding and appreciation of our place within a global Jewish people. Israel as the center of Jewish civilization should be promoted and celebrated. Israel travel, especially for young Jews, should be dramatically increased and made more affordable. Hebrew literacy, Israeli art and culture and sophisticated knowledge of the reality of Israel (not mythology) should be promoted. Projects, such as Jewish service corps, that engage young Jews with peers in Israel and around the world should be expanded.

o Retain and attract young Jews to St. Louis. New strategies, institutions and programs are required to develop a more vibrant and inviting community for young people. Professional internships and mentorships, early career support and professional networking, enhanced social and recreational opportunities, reduced membership fees, expanded social action and cultural programs, increased opportunities to take leadership roles and specialized concierge services should be employed to make St. Louis a preferred community for young Jews. The community must support new styles of informal, grass-roots engagement that many young people prefer.

o Heavy investment in human resources. The volunteer and professional leadership ranks of the community must be expanded, trained and developed. We need more people with strategic vision, planning, governance and management skills, and the personal influence to mobilize others. Jewish literacy and knowledge of contemporary Jewish life must be deepened. Leadership must be diversified along gender, age, economic and professional dimensions, with greater engagement of individuals from business, the arts and academia. Volunteer and professional succession planning is needed. We must improve the quality of professional employees, and nurture and train inspirational religious leaders, teachers and youth workers. Organizations should address policy and organizational culture to make Jewish organizations ‘great places to work.’

o Create open, accessible and welcoming Jewish institutions. Organizational change and training must occur to ensure that initial and subsequent engagements with Jewish organizations are positive and satisfying. A customer satisfaction culture should be cultivated. Language, social and cultural barriers should be eliminated. Those Jewish organizations that are restrictive for religious or ideological reasons should develop procedures to refer and gently move people to more welcoming and accessible organizations.

o Increase investment and use of technology, to connect, educate and manage. We must engage and communicate with younger generations on their terms. We need to use technology to reduce distance, create community and increase our sense of global peoplehood. We must capitalize on communication, education and management technologies to provide greater opportunity, improve service, facilitate participation in governance and reduce costs.

o Build the capacity for collective decision-making and action. A commitment to collective responsibility should be taught in Jewish schools and built into the culture of Jewish organizational life. Umbrella organizations that convene and coordinate other organizations should be supported and maintained. Research and policy analysis should be supported and widely disseminated.

o Undertake institutional & programmatic realignment. With reduced population, affiliation and demand for some services, we must reduce costly excess infrastructure. Consolidation should be pursued to increase efficiency or effectiveness. To meet new and expanded priorities, we must reduce or eliminate investments in institutions and activities which persist, based on tradition, loyalty or inertia, but do not make a significant impact on thriving. There must also be a willingness, when necessary, to create new institutions to achieve new goals.

Conclusion

In his recent history of American Judaism, Jonathan Sarna offers a bi-polar view of the state of American Jewry.

On one hand, we experience enormous success, vitality and creativity. On the other, we see evidence and threats of serious decline. Likewise, globally our unprecedented success is countered by dangerous and perhaps existential security threats.

Every day, we make countless decisions that will ultimately determine which way the pendulum swings.

A long-term vision is essential to provide the proper context for those decisions. I hope that this article contributes to the creation of that vision and the essential strategies necessary to achieve it, for the sake of the generations to come.