Nigel Savage, founder and President of Hazon, said something a number of years ago that has stuck with me ever since. The occasion was a planning meeting for what was, I believe, the first formal national conference on Jewish social entrepreneurship, held in September 2008 and co-sponsored by JESNA (where I worked) and what was then UJC, now JFNA. I don’t remember the exact prompt for Nigel’s comment – it may have had something to do with the perceived “gap” between relatively new start-up organizations and so-called “legacy” institutions. But, what I recall him saying (in paraphrase) was: “This isn’t about start-ups and established institutions; this is about the shape of the Jewish community in the 21st century.”
As I reflect on all that has transpired since in the Jewish organizational world, I believe Nigel was right. A new Jewish community is taking shape before our eyes, one that looks different and operates differently than the one many of us grew up with. Old institutions are transforming; some are fading, some revitalizing, some have already disappeared. New institutions have sprung up by the hundreds; some are flourishing, some are struggling, some of these too are already gone. Whole new sectors of Jewish organizational activity have emerged, like the one that has come to be known as JOFEE – Jewish Outdoor, Food, and Environmental Education – the sector where Nigel and Hazon have made their mark. It’s a messy process. No “master plan” guides it, and there are pushes and pulls that often make it difficult to discern a clear direction of change.
For a foundation like ours, this process of transformation presents both opportunities and challenges. We believe that institutions and infrastructures matter. Effective programs and innovative initiatives rarely emerge from weak institutions, and if they do, the survival of these programs demands that those institutions get stronger. This is a major reason why we have invested in organizations like Joshua Venture Group, Upstart, and PresenTense that build leadership and capacity among start-ups. It’s also why we are helping the United Synagogue in its efforts to revitalize Conservative congregations.
Recently, we have become especially interested in what may be a new stage in American Jewish communal development: efforts to consolidate and strengthen support systems and infrastructures across major sectors of Jewish activity. We see such processes underway today in the day school arena, with the imminent potential coming together of five major national intermediary and support organizations; in the innovation sector, where similar explorations of possible consolidation are taking place among four support organizations; in the JOFEE area, where four key organizations are working collaboratively to strengthen themselves and the field as a whole; and among alternative supplementary education programs and alternative spiritual communities, where new networks of pioneering institutions have been formed. Notably, many of these developments have been facilitated and even catalyzed by philanthropic champions who see forging greater cross-institutional collaboration and building more capable support infrastructures as important contributors to better outcomes as well as increased efficiency.
We too see these efforts as promising steps toward a more vibrant and capable 21st century Jewish community. We’ve been an early investor in the innovation support sector consolidation process. In parallel with the developments on the organizational side, we also see a growing readiness among funders to come together to discuss shared funding interests and strategies in relation to particular sectors of Jewish activity.
At the same time, we are mindful of the limits of organizational collaboration and consolidation on the one hand, and of the need for modesty and self-restraint on the part of funders eager to support such processes on the other. There’s a lot that we don’t know and much that we can’t, and perhaps shouldn’t try to control when it comes to the reshaping of the American Jewish community.
Nonetheless, a reshaping is underway, and the possibilities for what will emerge are exciting. We intend to stay engaged in this process and to contribute what we can to support the visionaries and the activists who are building the Jewish community of the 21st century.