By Daniel Chejfec
I have worked in Jewish organizations most of my life, both in my native Argentina and in my adopted USA; and in every one of them, the leadership always asked themselves the same questions: "Why don't people understand how important it is what we are doing"?, a questions that seems logical until you start trying to go into details: Every organization is established around different issues and programs, so the "what we are doing" takes many meanings. So it turns out that every Jew who is expected to participate in an organization is pulled in many directions at the same time, but most of these directions have one thing in common: they are defined by the leadership. In other words, the leadership of most Jewish organizations are saying: "This is who we are - come and help us", and the people are choosing which, if any, they want to support. What is then wrong with the picture?
Judaism cannot be defined in just one dimension - we cannot be just "supporters of Israel" or "observant Jews" (whatever that observance is) or "students of Jewish history" or...any of the other two thousands and one causes Jews support. Being Jewish is all of the above, and it can be best defined by the term "Peoplehood", defined by the Webster's dictionary as a sense of belonging to a certain People (YES, with capital "P"); that is the sense of ownership over a common history, heritage, and culture; and that sense of ownership generates the empowerment to act on the common values emerging from that identity. Sounds complicated but it is not: If I embrace my Jewish heritage in full, I will feel empowered to use Jewish values to guide my actions.
The paragraph above sounds like a disgression but it is not. Most organizations tend to define being Jewish in narrow terms, and it is like trying to capture water with a fishing net - a lot will get passed the net and left behind...So how can we define Jewish organizations in a way that will be meaningful to the people we are trying to reach? Easy...by not defining it from the top!
Once we accept that our identity as Jews is best defined as being part of the Jewish People, we need to accept the fact that we are a diverse bunch with multiple and sometimes contradictory expectations and preferences, and what binds us together is an elusive sense of familiarity and mutual responsibility.
That being the case, if we want to have an organization that truly reflects the expectations of a Jewish community, we need to allow the community in all its complexity to define the organization, rather than the organization defining the "party line". In other words, Jewish organizations must be constructed from the grassroots up, not from the leadership down. If we provide the appropriate environment for the members of the community to express the almost endless variations of "being Jewish" while preserving the sense of familiarity, we can create a microcosmos of what the Jewish People is all about and make room for all the Jewish people - Again, this is not a typographic error; the second "people" is in lower case because it refers to a collection of individuals: Only when we approach our heritage as individuals and discover that elusive sense of familiarity that my grandfather used to call "Yiddishkeit" can we truly say that we have embraced our identity; not by renouncing who or what we are, but by integrating it in that "common space" we share as Jews.
In other words, organizations need not to ask people why the don't come; organizations should be knocking on the door of every Jew and asking "Mr (or Mrs) Grassroots, what do YOU expect from your Jewish community?". We should harken to the Shma' Israel and expand it to listen ourselves to what the grassroots are saying and providing an institutional space where they can play out their similarities and their differences, their creativity and their enthusiasm. Because only as Jewish people we can become the Jewish People...