Monday, February 26, 2007

On Institutions

Annie's out today and I have to admit that on top of still being in recovery from yesterday's memorial, I'm feeling uninspired in her absence. I don't think you can underestimate the pervasive toll that death takes, that absence takes. That being said, please excuse me for not writing something pithy about the Oscars or snarky about the Libby trial. I will, however, reflect on an experience I had today that was delightfully distracting, if not entirely self-actualizing (not everything can be).

Today, I met with two representatives of a well-known, hundred-year-old Organized Jewish Community organization. We discussed an initiative on which they are working with the "young people" to attract/cultivate/grow young Jewish leaders. We had a lengthy discussion about their purpose and their goals, their strengths and weaknesses. We discussed the goals of their programming and the motivation of young Jewish professionals to be involved with their organization. After much hemming and hawing on their part (and much tongue biting on mine), I had an epiphany.

Their problem is that they have convictions, but not the courage of their convictions. They simultaneously think they represent the Jewish communal voice and that they do not. They framed their organization as the sole access point for Jewish political engagement (not necessarily inaccurately, but certainly with a hint of self-aggrandizement).

The problem with this conceptualization is not that they shouldn't be the Jewish voice or the Jewish access to politics, but that they cannot admit that they are a particular Jewish voice, with a particular agenda in politics. They are not searching for the future Jewish leaders, they are searching for the future Jewish leaders through their organization, which by definition precludes certain viewpoints and certain approaches. So if they have a forum or a book that alienates people, but is representative of their organization's mission and policy, then so be it. That's institutional honesty: we are X, we represent X, and if you like and want to be a part of X, please join us. Part of being involved through the Organized Jewish Community is dealing with the repercussions of working through an institution with a history, a mission, and a stance.

I asked why young Jewish professionals would choose their organization over, say, a non-Jewish organization that would provide them with similar political opportunities and access. They responded that the multiplicity of Jewish concerns provided a unique opportunity to influence policy across a broad spectrum of issues. In addition, they argued that young Jews would want to join in the history of Jewish contributions to political landscapes, in the vein of our tradition of making a positive difference politically and socially. I, of course, thought of Heschel. Yet, Heschel didn't march on Washington with this particular group nor did his involvement with Jewish organizations necessarily make him a Jewish activist. He was a Jewish activist because he was simultaneously an active Jew and an engaged political agent. Does Jewish activism only count as Jewish if it's through the Organized Jewish Community? If I'm active and engaged in a non-Jewish organization, is that not Jewish activist by virtue of the fact that I am Jewish and active?

Really, this issue is a question of focus, of being involved in a particular Jewish voice. It's not about being involved politically, engaging with diplomats and ambassadors, making speeches and writing letters. It's about being involved through this organization, that, yes, may be the only institution with those connections, but also denotes a specific content. These organizations are not just vehicles to allow young Jews to access power, to give them voice. Being involved means being given a voice that already has content, that already has a statement. Is that wrong? Not if you agree with the content it's not. They don't want people who will be good leaders, they want people who will be good leaders who will take prescribed positions at these high-powered meetings.

So they should be clear about that in their discussion, they should be proud of their mission, instead of framing their work as access to power for all Jews. Either the purpose of the programming is to bolster their organization by creating leaders who will further their agenda (and maybe expand the agenda a little bit, even) or it's to allow the organization to be used as a tool to grow Jewish leaders, regardless of the content of their views, as an end in and of itself. And if their goal is, in fact, to grow future leaders specifically for their organization to further their organization's agenda, then so what? That's their right as an institution. But then they should not claim to be investing in "Jewish Leaders," but rather investing in Jewish leaders in the vein of their organization; that's the effect of working through an Organized Jewish Community organization, that's the cost. The benefit is infrastructure and access, but the cost is freedom of content.

The result of being part of an institution is that you're part of an institution.

So own it.

Be who you are; don't try to be everything to everyone; and own it.

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