Loudly and Clearly

On Wednesday of this week, The Oregonian printed an editorial by David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, called, “Our Second Adolescence…My Dream Obama: What we need from the President.” In the editorial he shares his observations about President Obama’s second term and provides his thoughts on how the president should lead the country.

In the article he writes, “My dream Obama would abandon the big government versus small government argument. He’d point out that in a mature, aging society, government isn’t going anywhere. The issue is not size but sclerosis. The future has no lobby, so there are inexorable pressures favoring present consumption over future investment. The crucial point is not whether a dollar is spent publicly or privately, it’s whether it is spent on the present or future. The task today is to reform institutions and rearrange spending so we look like a young nation and not a comfort-seeking, declining one.”

I was inspired by Brooks’ comments as I thought about our Jewish communal system. As I often do, let me try to draw some comparisons.

*   Big government vs. small government – Forget the term “government.” I like to refer to this as Federation and the independent Jewish organizations. I know there are some in our community who question the role of Federation when people can contribute directly to their favorite Jewish organization. But those independent organizations are not charged with the Jewish community as a whole. Their focus, appropriately so, is to fulfill their specific mission. Our role is to think about the broad agenda of the Jewish community by convening partners and planning for the future. Each serves its purpose.

*   The future has no lobby. It is easy to favor the needs of today over future investment. A common problem for many non-profit organizations is they often survive hand-to-mouth, chasing the next donation or grant, focusing on day-to-day operations. These may be essential to keep an organization running, but to plug along without a strategic vision does not bode well for long-term survival.

Look at the challenges of people either saving for retirement, college or even home repairs. Our community does not save nor invest enough money into future opportunities and maintenance needs through endowments and multi-year giving. We can change this by having our community and institutions work in close partnership with the expertise at the Oregon Jewish Community Foundation.

*   A vibrant community and not a comfort-seeking, declining one. Some suggest Jewish life is in decline emphasizing stale institutions, lower rates of affiliation (especially among younger people) and larger numbers of interfaith families. Plus, how we spend communal dollars is very similar to what we have been doing for generations. I, however, do not believe these are the true measurements. What is most important is how people feel about their Jewish self, how they find Jewish meaning, and then act upon being Jewish.

This week, Yonah Schiller, Hillel Director at Tulane University, wrote about the transformation of Jewish life on campus. “Like many Jewish institutions, Tulane Hillel was built by Jewish professionals, and not by the people it wanted to reach. It wasn't Tulane students' thing because they did not create it. Hillel was run by students who had made being Jewish central to their identities at college. Naturally, they created Jewish programming based on their own interests. But this strongly identified group was a tiny Jewish minority on campus. Their social reach was limited because their circles extended only to students who already shared their passion for Judaism and their affinity for Hillel.”

Tulane Hillel revitalized itself by seeking out students who would have never been involved with organized Jewish life. The mantra was no longer to help better Hillel – it was how Hillel could best aid students in furthering their (Jewish) interests, passions and aspirations.

At the fundamental core, non-profits need more leaders and fewer managers on both the professional and volunteer sides. Those with the willingness to consider complex external factors, along with learning to live with ambiguity, taking risks, and moving out of one’s comfort zone are in short supply. Too often, non-profits are passive and unwilling to “jump in.” Moreover, many non-profit organizations maintain weak and broken structures in a delusional way that the for-profit marketplace would never allow. A former supervisor of mine used to confide in me and say, “We are stuck in our own quicksand of inertia.”

Earlier this month, 1,700 teens from around the world (including 5 from Portland) participated in the BBYO (AZA and BBG) International Convention (As an aside, for those of you who remember Moe Stein when he was in my position at the Jewish Federation in the late 1960s-70s, his grandson was just elected the International President of AZA) in Washington, DC. The United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice spoke at the convention and charged the teens to “get impatient with the way things are so you can dream of the ways things can be. Don’t just make a promise. Make it happen. Don’t just dream. Get it done.”

Our future leaders are hearing this message – so should we – loudly and clearly.


PS – Do not miss out on Good Deeds Day scheduled for Sunday, March 10. Portland is joining hundreds of thousands of volunteers from around the world participating in hands-on volunteer projects. This will be a wonderful day for you, your family and friends, to volunteer, connect and make a difference. Explore the various volunteer opportunities and register here.


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