March 9, 1998 / 11 Adar, 5758

Downsizing Jewish Life

In America, Judaism is thriving. Yes, despite the internal woes we Jews seemingly enjoy anguishing over -- which are very real -- Jewish life here is a resounding success.

By Neil Rubin


It's all happening as Jewish America has entered a remarkable downsizing period. That's the business term for adjusting to market realities by jettisoning extra staff, farming out projects and generally trimming the fat.

Those who do not recognize such trends are finding their organizations struggling with an increasingly diminishing handful of emotional loyalists.

The groups who will thrive are dropping the importance of membership in favor of payment for services provided, are making money in non-traditional ways and are realizing that quick-hit programming is as important as sustained efforts. In short, they're acting more like businesses in a changing market economy.

I'm not advocating for Jewish agencies to become business, but they do need to be more business-like. Such thoughts deal more with philosophy than "bottom-line" attitudes.

Here's a few ways to go about it:

  • Understand the importance of R&D:

    Waste money. The business world calls it Research & Development, which is at the heart of successful, entrepreneurial thinking. It's about taking risks and recognizing that many of them won't pay off. But the ones that do? They change you forever. Jewish groups are afraid to take risk. That's why they often are boring, predictable and have difficulty attracting young people.

  • Don't hold retreats and seminars if you don't mean it: Jewish agencies love their retreats. They bring in dynamic speakers and set lofty goals, energizing the staff about the possibilities. A few months later, that same crew is again drowning in telephone calls, pending meetings and mounting "business-as-usual" projects. There are a few attempts to implement new ventures, but it's mostly discarded. If you're not committed to measuring your efforts over the long run, skip the pep rally.

  • Invest in the staff already there; ditch the dead weight: It's much more cost effective to keep and retrain staff familiar with your agency's philosophy, what the business world calls corporate culture. Figure out their interests and strengths and, where possible, make their job reflect that.

    And don't be afraid to get rid of those who can't change or simply won't. Nobody's job is safe in the business world. Why should half-effective people be at ease in Jewish agencies?

    It's painful, but just get on with it.

    Of course, such change is difficult for most community volunteers and professionals. Do they have the courage to gut sacred cows in programming and funding? Can they understand the need to tighten the standards of being a volunteer, getting rid of people not willing to devote skills and time to the group?

Strangely enough, many of the folks on the boards of our Jewish operations know that the above is solid business strategy. Following it is how they became a professional success. These individuals, overwhelmingly people who care deeply about Jewish life, must understand that the Jewish world, like the business one, will respond well to creative thinking, bold initiative and fearless leadership. Future historians could record the results as the Golden Age Of American Jewry.

JWR contributor Neil Rubin is the editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times.


2/10/98: Film, Lies And Jewish Mothers
2/1/98: The news according to Sid

© 1998, Neil Rubin