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  • Writer's pictureReut Group

Where is the Herzl of American Jewry?

Gidi Grinstein

Israel’s election generated a massive earthquake across Israeli society and the Jewish world. The swearing in of Israel’s new government today sends an even more powerful aftershock that will inevitably disrupt American Jewry. One consequence will be unprecedented opportunities to stand up for, serve and offer leadership to one of the greatest Diasporas in Jewish history. Hence, any Jewish-American who is passionate about the future of their community-at-large, willing to brave a leadership endeavor, properly capitalized, have an a-partisan public persona and see themselves as a leader-in-waiting – hereinafter LIW – this article may even be actionable for you!

Your opportunity emanates from a confluence of crises. First, a critical mass of ministers in the incoming Government of Israel are not respectful toward American Jewry, rejecting its legitimacy and doubting its longevity. The government is pledged to repealing important reforms regarding pluralistic Judaism in Israel and to legislation such as amending the Law of Return without consultation. Key connection points between American Jewry, the Government of Israel and Israeli civil society – such as the responsibility for community centers, supplementary education, or nonprofits – will be managed by some of the most illiberal factions of the Knesset, which are hostile to minorities, LGBTQ, and to non-orthodox denominations. Needless to say that the reinstitution of the Kotel Compromise, which was canceled by the previous Netanyahu Government in 2017. Similarly irrelevant are the ‘peace process’ with the Palestinians along with the so-called Two-State Solution, making the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and the reinstitution of a full-fledged military administration over the Palestinians a likely event.

The second crisis emanates from rising antisemitism in America. It is an urgent and complex challenge that requires massive investments not only in ‘defense’, namely, in public education, preventive measures of security or coordination with law enforcement agencies, but also in ‘offense’, namely nurturing long-term good relationships with current and emerging leaders on the local, state, and federal levels across American society and political spectrum.

The third crisis we should be looking at is that of American society. Polarization, toxic political discourse and growing socioeconomic gaps affect every American. History teaches that such social tensions tend to disproportionately affect the security of Jews. As a leading American minority, the question is simple: what will be the significant and distinct contribution of American Jewry to the USA in addressing this crisis in the coming decades.

Finally, there is a crisis within American Jewry. Multiple key core institutions serving American Jews – federations, JCCs, schools and synagogues – are facing existential threats and the pipeline of leadership has been neglected. In fact, it is fair to say that there is no leadership pipeline for American Jewry and not even a single program for its emerging leaders, similar to the mechinot in Israel.

These seemingly distinct crises reveal that organized American Jewry doesn’t positively stand for anything of distinctness and significance within America. In recent weeks, I have asked many friends and leaders the same simple question: what is the unique collective contribution of American Jewry to American society in this decade and in the 2030s? What is the big bet that American Jewry is making in service of America through the billions of dollars that it raises and its thousands of institutions? Nobody could provide an answer. Leaders of American Jewry are so busy with Israel and with fighting antisemitism that they fall short of envisioning their own institutions or nurturing their own leadership as an American community. American Jews are asking American society – and particularly other minorities – to stand by them and by Israel in the fight against antisemitism and the anti-Israel movement. I am all for that. Beyond gratitude, how will they reciprocate, on scale? For a LIW, these crises are an opportunity!

Your vision must be inspiring and mobilizing. If you want to be a leader for American Jewry – including all its factions residing in the fifty states of the union – you must be able to stand up for its collective legacy and destiny as one of the greatest Diasporas in Jewish history, which is as important for the Jewish future as the State of Israel. You must wholeheartedly believe in these statements and articulate them in all circumstances.

Standing up with confidence for the greatness of American Jewry can go hand-in-hand with supporting the State of Israel. But it also means no longer accepting the domineering Zionist discourse that holds American Jewry to be second-class Judaism and subjects its interests to those of Israeli Jewry. A simple truth must guide you: a vibrant Diaspora and a secure and prosperous Israel are mutually imperative – both essential for the continued significant existence of the Jewish People. However, rationale, interests and values may differ. And that is okay.

Your vision must credibly bring together three missions. First, it must serve the long-term longevity and prosperity of American Jewry. After years of neglect, a monumental effort of institution and capacity building is urgently needed, along with nurturing a new generation of proud committed leaders. Second, your vision must serve the well-being of America, not just as a token of gratitude but also because American Jewry can rise only if America rises. Third, your vision must serve the prosperity and security of the Jewish People. Many, including the undersigned, have argued that American Jewry is in decline. But a course of society and community can be altered with foresight, dedication, and Herculean efforts.

Your challenge in effectuating your vision is both structure and process. American Jewry is structured as a flat network of communities and organizations, with no one in a position of authority at its helm. This means that leadership in American Jewry is not inherited, elected, or appointed but assumed. It also means influence that emanates from inspiration and perspiration is more important than power or money.

The ‘flat architecture’ of American Jewry also means that its collective stance is an amorphous concept, which emanates from the sum of all activities, outputs, and outcomes of hundreds of Jewish leaders and institutions. Nonetheless, a bird’s eye view does reveal evolving directions and priorities, and a sensitive ear can trace sounds through the noise. This means that you will need to engage with hundreds of institutions and thousands of leaders, with a mentality of a long-distance runner.

You may ask: why should I succeed in the shadow of many legacy organizations? The answer is that we are living in a pivotal moment that requires transformations. In such conditions, large organizations may be path-dependently stuck in their lanes; spending precious time fundraising, deliberating and internally communicating; and competing with like-structured entities. Meanwhile, a properly-capitalized, cohesive and mercurially agile and entrepreneurial team, led by you, can work dynamically across the ecosystem and above the fray, elevating the entire field as it focuses on effectuating its vision and generating a 3x, 5x and even 10x bigger bang for every buck. Yes, in the period to come, a small A-team may have a better chance to lead on American Jewry than most large organizations.

Your potential followership is large. Your primary audience are many thousands of committed Jewish leaders, professionals, activists and supporters who are proud Jews and proud Americans and love Israel but, at the same time, are frustrated by Israel’s politics and politicians and concerned by the direction that their other beloved country is taking. After years of being subjected to a domineering Zionist discourse and taken for granted, disregarded, dismissed, abused and humiliated, they are now open to a new vision. If you can offer vision and hope, their anger and frustration, as well as resources, can be the fuel of your movement.

Food for thought: I realize that simply calling for structural and procedural interventions, and outlining the requirements of a communal vision may be regarded as ‘cheap talk’. So, to legitimize and substantiate it, I would like to share one possible vision statement for American Jewry that you may want to consider.

I’d like to propose that the mission of American Jewry should be to strive for being a robust, resilient and prosperous diaspora that makes a most significant and distinct contribution to the security and wellbeing of the United States of America (compared to all other minorities), to the Jewish People and Israel (compared to all other Diasporas) and to humanity. Clearly, these goals are self-reinforcing: a robust and prosperous Jewish community, manifested by the density and quality of its institutions, can make such significant contributions, which enhance the robustness of our community. And when money is spent toward inspiring goals, more money can be raised, which then allows more inspiring goals to be served. You get the idea…

Each word in such a vision statement is meaningful. ‘Significant’ means big, needle-moving, fundamental and long-lasting. ‘Distinct’ means identifiably connected to the Jewish community through its unique attributes and superpowers. ‘Long-lasting’ refers to a horizon of 10-20 years, ‘fundamental’ refers to issues such as institutions, structures, discourse, priorities and leadership and the ‘superpower of American Jewry’ is its web of institutions and their layer of professional and lay leadership. No other minority in America has such a unique ‘asset’, not only reaching across American society and creating countless opportunities for engagement and contribution, but also global in its connection to Israel and to like-structured communities around the world.

What does a vision of a ‘robust, resilient, and prosperous American Jewry’ mean in the 2020s and 2030s? Internally, it requires re-envisioning and upgrading the institutions that are the backbone of our community: federations, schools, JCCs, camps, JCRCs, and synagogues. Each of these verticals must be reimagined and reinvigorated, with a special focus on those serving smaller communities. It also means a massive investment in both rabbinic and civic leadership development. The Wexner Heritage Foundation has nurtured thousands of midlife Jewish leaders, but the pipeline must begin in schools and then in gap years and universities. I find it disheartening that Jewish schools barely teach about American Jewry’s legacy and their graduates don’t have a single gap year option for a leadership program within the US similar to the mechinot in Israel.

And what about making a significant and distinct contribution to America and to humanity? I can suggest two areas where American Jewry can bring to bear its unique value proposition. First, enhancing civility among the ‘American center’. In this area, American Jewry offers the combination of thousands of rabbis and spiritual leaders and a tremendous legacy of civic intellectual discourse, which can help engage leaders of other communities in substantive discussions and civic action about the future of America. Second, helping vulnerable populations at the bottom of the economic ladder e.g. people living with disabilities, the elderly, and the poor. In this area, the combination of Israeli innovations, the continental web of Jewish communities, the power of technology and the values of Tikkun Olam create an explosive potential for outsized impact and society-crossing relationships and collaborations. Naturally, these ideas are just examples, but they demonstrate the vast potential that a LIW can seize.

Yourself: Societal leadership can be thrilling, uplifting, intellectually stimulating, invigorating, and socially fun, as you meet and hang out with some of the most entrepreneurial, committed, and smartest members of our community and society. That’s great. But it can also be demanding and exhausting. And when you succeed, you become a public persona and will be attacked. Primarily, they’ll call you ‘post-zionist’ and other names as well. At that moment, please remember that the early founders of Birthright were also accused of ‘post-zionism’…

To keep going, you will need inspiration. There are many figures in Jewish history to look up to. Mordechai took it upon himself to save the Jewish People, as did Dona Gracia in the 16th century for the Jews under Inquisition. Jacob Blaustein negotiated with David Ben-Gurion the guidelines for relations between Israel and American Jewry. The Lubavitcher Rebbe entrepreneurially developed the Jewish world’s most powerful movement. And Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l effectively, without declaration, turned himself into the Chief Rabbi of World Jewry. These historical figures have little in common, but for seeing an opportunity for service and having the courage, wisdom and stamina to seize it.

The story of Herzl offers the most relevant inspiration in two key aspects. First, his personal journey: In 1896 he saw the imminent crisis of European Jewry and a possible solution. Motivated by a tremendous sense of urgency, he then dedicated the rest of his life – eight years – to publishing visionary books; traveling across the Jewish world to mobilize and build the Zionist Movement; launching institutions, such as the Zionist Congress and Jewish National Fund; nurturing diplomatic relations with the most powerful institutions and figures of his time such as the Kaiser of Germany, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire or the Prime Minister of Britain, relentlessly making the fate of the Jewish People relevant to them. He also faced powerful resistance and suffered painful political defeats. On his deathbed, at 44, he asked for a modest funeral. 6,000 people showed up to pay their respects.

The second and bigger inspiration from Herzl is that a Jewish state was a means for ensuring the future of the Jewish People primarily by absorbing the ailing and at-risk European Jewry. Herzl could not have anticipated that within 125 years, an Israeli superpower will co-exist alongside a phenomenally successful American Diaspora. For a LIW the takeaway is simple: While your mission is identical to Herzl’s – serving the significant existence of the Jewish People – you are living in different times that require different measures.

Gidi Grinstein is the founder and president of the Reut Institute, an Israel-based strategy and action group focused on effectuating change in areas critical to Israel’s future. He is the author of Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability.

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