The Structuralist...the Experientialist...and the Activitst

Thank you to the many of you who participated in our “Ticket to a Better Life” crowdfunding campaign. In just 10 days we raised nearly $5,000 to purchase TriMet bus tickets so victims of domestic violence can travel safely to medical appointments, school, and jobs. On behalf of the Bradley Angle House, The Raphael House, and the Jewish Federation, thank you for your generous support.

On Wednesday, I read an intriguing article in eJewish Philanthropy written by a former colleague of mine in Philadelphia, Kathy Elias. Kathy is a creative and talented professional specializing in strategic planning and development who is currently the Chief Kehilla and Strategy Officer at United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ). Her article, Why Does Synagogue Change Miss the Mark? Think Structuralist vs Experientialist really resonated with me. It’s an insightful way to explain some of the challenges of change – not just for synagogues, but for the broader Jewish community, as well. 

Kathy’s article takes the viewpoints of four synagogue members. Each uses similar sounding words about what they want from their synagogue “To feel embraced and supported … Grounded, a place that feels like “home”…Stability – to know the synagogue community will be there if they need it.” For each of these individuals, to get there and make it happen requires change. But “change” for each individual means something different. What they found from two years of research from congregational members can be summed up into two divergent perspectives a gap between structuralists and experientialists. These findings, however, hold true for the overall organized Jewish community.

Structuralists understand and value Jewish organizations/institutions. They want to strengthen them. Their approach is to make changes to the existing structure – examples may include changing Shabbat service customs, hiring different professional leaders, tweaking membership models, or looking at different types of fundraising events. Structuralist leaders are often willing to risk their personal and familial time, peace of mind, and faith in the structures themselves, year after year, trying to find the “magic recipe” for success. In many ways, this is the classic case study of change in Jewish communal life.

Experientialists want to strengthen their Jewish lives. It is personal. They understand and value the myriad of options they have in and out of established Jewish organizations to accomplish this. Their approach to get what they need is to create it themselves, find solutions that work, and/or move through experiences until they get the right fit. Experientialists see the world built this way in real time all around them – a connected, “do it yourself” world where technology and social structures change almost as quickly as an app on your cell phone.

Structuralist leaders say things like, “Why don’t they want to join us?” and “If we only had better … (pick one) … marketing materials, programs, fitness equipment, cultural programs, relational strategies… it would bring in new people.”

Experientialists say, “I value being Jewish, but I don’t need to pay/join to feel Jewish,” and “Why should I work on a committee and wait for a group to decide what I can or can’t have? I can find it myself if I need to.”

If you think that this chasm falls along generational lines, you might be right. The generations of baby boomers and their parents built our Jewish institutions and synagogues, and, in many cases, still tend to be the majority in the leadership. Experientialists are often younger, and may or may not be involved or as invested in Jewish organizational life.

But, in reality, structuralists and experientialists cut across generational lines. It’s possible for a person to be both, depending on stage of life and where they spend their “Jewish time.”

These divergent perspectives affect every aspect of our Jewish institutions from our board of directors’ tables to the kiddush luncheon, to the museum exhibit and to the fitness center. When we look for where these perspectives converge, that place seems to be around the shared values of feeling embraced, supported, connected and grounded in our Jewish lives.

If change is going to happen, structuralists will need to see possibilities beyond their perspective, and experientialists will need to be given the tools to build what they envision for themselves.

I will suggest there is a third group – the activists. Gary Wexler, Adjunct Professor of Marketing at the University of Southern California, believes the non-profit sector should be renamed the “Activist Sector.” For him, he pushes people even further on the change continuum.

For our purposes, activists must be willing to put themselves out there to change the Jewish world (or to change the world based on Jewish values). This is not about “tinkering with how we always do things” or doing something Jewishly for yourself – this is about people who believe we are in a new era that requires whole new constructs and ways of thinking. These activists want to strengthen collaborations not just among Jewish organizations, but with businesses, government, other organizations, and the creative class.

At the end of the day, activists question everything – there are no sacred cows and data only tells part of the story. Excellence is required. Activists are doers. They shy away from lengthy strategic planning due to expected inaction. And, without assessment and idea creation, none of those strategies will ever come alive and make their intended impact.

“Join us!” is a structuralist. “Create your own path” is an experientialist. And “make it happen” is an activist. All three bring great value to enhancing Jewish life. Moreover, YOU are probably all three at different times…at different life stages…and based on different activities and interests. Understanding these differences and working together, will make our Jewish community stronger for each of us.

Shabbat shalom.



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