Ways, means, and meaning

This is, as Jeremy Fingerman notes on these pages, “the time of our convening,” when our Jewish organizations gather and bring us together. In this issue, we bring you our report from the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which met in Washington this week, and JTA’s report from the Biennial of the Union of Reform Judaism, which met in Orlando last week.

Last month, of course, was the season of our festivals — when the month of Tishrei brought us the bittersweet joy of another season gone around, a time of regrets and renewal, a feeling perhaps by the end that wasn’t this whole holiday thing just a little too much? And, for those of us who put out your newspaper each week, that funny question: What can we say that’s new and fresh about a 3,000-year-old Jewish holiday?

Our Jewish organizations aren’t 3,000 years old, but they’re older than we are, and from some perspectives that’s the same thing. (Last week, one of my children referred to a book published the year before I was born as from “a million years ago.”) Like our holidays, our organizations need to be kept new and fresh for a new generation.

When you read our reporting from those events, you’ll see that’s something the organizers are well aware of, with their respective calls to “think forward” and offer “audacious hospitality.”

Along those lines, we’d like to pass on a thought from one of the younger generation of Jewish organizational leaders, Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

It is a thought about the nature of organizations; specifically, “membership-based and other representational organizations.”

He says that such groups can really serve three functions.

First, they can provide for their members.

Second, they can work on behalf of their members.

Finally, they can operate in the name of their members.

Providing for the members means offering them services, tools, and resources.

Working on behalf of their members means advocating for their immediate interests.

Acting in the name of their members means taking political stances that reflect their members’ beliefs but do not benefit them directly.

And he notes: “These are obviously totally different activities, requiring different skill sets and resources, and providing totally different returns. They invariably will serve different populations within the organization and alienate others. Those who want to be provided for but do not want to be spoken for will suffer when the various goals are conflated.”

He warns: “In the current climate — with an open marketplace, the decline of ‘belonging’ in general as an inherent inevitability, the rise of idiosyncratic identity — this mission-confusion seems to be the core challenge for all membership-based institutions (be they rabbinic guilds, federations, or the like). I suppose it is possible for an organization to provide for all three functions, though with limited resources it will be difficult to be really good at all of them; moreover, success in one domain could limit success in another, or at least implicate the work in another with all sorts of limitations and liabilities. And yet I think many of these organizations are panicking around their need to compete by blurring between these goals, to the detriment of their value.”

As an example of that conflict between competing goals, Dr. Kurtzer points to the Rabbinical Council of America’s resolution against ordaining women that we reported on last week and Rabbi Shmuel Goldin discusses this week. In reiterating its policy, the RCA may have clarified a position in the name of its members — but it did not necessarily directly benefit its member rabbis and in fact might have hurt them by directing attention toward an issue they’d just as soon have lie dormant.

Of course, what is true for one organization is true for the Jewish community as a whole. To what extent should we fight for clarity of purpose at the expense of civility or hospitality? How much should we advocate for our own direct benefit rather than the broader goals in which we believe?

How each convention of Jews addresses these general questions is what will keep Jewish organizational life worth paying attention to for a million years to come.

About the Author
Larry Yudelson is associate editor of the Jewish Standard.
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