Bronfman Big Idea Series: Hebrew Nation (Gary Kulwin)

HebrewNation BezeqParrot

Gary Kulwin’s entry in the Charles Bronfman Brandeis Contest for the next big idea in Jewish communal innovation is a request for recognition of a new denomination within American Jewish life– “Hebrew Americans,” who share a common attachment to the Hebrew language and Israeli culture regardless of where they currently reside.

This is the third post in the Bronfman Big Idea Series.

About the Author

Gary Kulwin is a computer programmer who lives in South Florida with his wife and 2 year old son. He worked in Jewish communal service for five years in the 1990s, and lived in Israel for two years in the 1980s. He has two degrees, a BA from Norwestern University and a MA from the University of Illinois in organizational behavior.

About This Post

This proposal contains a series of interlocking “big ideas”: ideas about how organizations operate, ideas about the current state of the Jewish community, and project ideas that could be implemented based on those theories.

The purpose of a book, based on this proposal, would be to introduce new terms (like “Hebrew American”) into the vocabulary of Jewish life as a starting point for structural change. This essay paraphrases and, to some extent, tries to explain and expand upon the actual proposal.

Recommended Reading: Original Proposal–
After reading the summary of core ideas in this post, please head to Gary’s website to read the full proposal here and to his blog, which further expands upon the ideas and project model.

The Big Organizational Ideas: Theories about Organizational Life

Organizational Survival–
While nonprofit organizations ostensibly exist to serve their formal mission, maintenance activities (i.e. membership recruitment, fundraising) become as least as important as the stated goals. Over the long term, veteran organizations tend to become increasingly conservative or narrowly focused as they refine and perfect their survival strategies.

In other words, groups that have adapted well to a given reality (by gaining support from clients, members, donors, and others) are unlikely to take great risks which challenge that perceived reality. While internally driven change is indeed possible, it usually involves a lengthy, resource consuming process.

Organizational Ecology–
Organizations are often best understood as part of an “ecosystem of organizations.”In other words, a biological metaphor can help us understand organizations better. Different kinds of organizations are like different species, and varying an organization’s activities is similar to biological mutation (where a successful mutation can lead to evolution).

Organizations frequently cooperate and compete with each other; most of all, they like to imitate each other (i.e. learning from each other’s best practices).

Thus, just as introducing a new kind of species can drastically alter an ecosystem, introducing new types of organizations into a structured society can lead to a dramatic ripple effect by generating external forces for organizational change.

Organizational Diversity–
The organized Diaspora Jewish community contains two broad categories of organizations: religious institutions (synagogues, seminaries, day schools) and philanthropic nonprofit organizations (including Federations and their satellite agencies, advocacy organizations, fraternal groups, museums).

Greater diversity in the kinds of organizations involved in Jewish life is essential for the future viability of the American Jewish community (just as a diverse ecosystem can best sustain a wide variety of species).

New types of organizations that could bolster Jewish life include businesses, including malls and media outlets; and government affiliated bodies, such as charter schools and cultural foundations.

Organizations Rely On Core Constituencies–
Organizations (in particular, those that focus on very specific niche goals) typically depend upon a block of customers whose members share common assumptions and rely on the same sources of information.

Rather than constituting a single homogeneous block, American Jewry contains a few different core constituencies that come together on occasion, thus preserving the semblance of a single, united community.

This means that, in order to establish viable new Jewish organizations, we usually need to first identify those sub-communities that can support their own organizations (and that, ideally, are relatively underserved by existing Jewish organizations).

    The Big Jewish Ideas: Assumptions and Predictions about Jewish Life

    Hebrew Americans as a Core Constituency-
    This sub-group of American Jewry includes Israeli emigres and their children, fluent Hebrew speakers, and other American Jews who are deeply involved (or interested) in Hebrew culture.

    Some of the most interesting new phenomena in Jewish life – including a national television network and a bilingual Hebrew/English charter school – were largely driven by the needs and interests of this block. This group can easily take advantage of the cultural resources that Israel has to offer.

    Indeed, the Hebrew Americans may wind up being, over the (multi-generational) long term, the most important sub-group within the Jewish population, in terms of fostering its long term capacity for survival.

    Zionist theory would seem to argue that, in a world made up of nation-states, the terms “Jew” and “Israeli” are gradually becoming synonymous (in the minds of Jews and non-Jews alike). Thus, being able to identify oneself as part of a larger Israeli Diaspora may be the most critical component of Jewish identity formation going forward.

    Normalization of the Diaspora–
    Just as Zionism has tried to make the Jewish People a “normal nation” whose majority resides in its own nation-state, its Diaspora should eventually begin to resemble the Diasporas of other ethnic-national groups.

    In other words, the organizational structures that other groups use to sustain their cultures should eventually be replicated with Jewish/Hebrew versions.

    To some extent, this is beginning to happen, as Hebrew language media outlets (television, radio, and on the Internet) begin to take root. The partnership model of Israel-Diaspora relations, so common throughout the decades since Israel’s re-birth, may give way to a more traditional “hub and spoke” model.

    New Self-Identification–
    When I write about Hebrew America becoming a new denomination in Jewish life, I don’t literally mean that a Hebrew cultural identity will replace one’s religious affiliation (i.e. “Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Hebrew”). Instead, I see label “Hebrew American” as a legitimate answer to the question, “What kind of Jew are you?”

    For many in this sub-community (especially the non-Orthodox), their involvement in Hebrew culture typifies their involvement in Jewish life more than their affiliation (or lack thereof) with a synagogue.

    Furthermore, the Hebrew American label is certainly different from that of “Zionist,” since Zionist activism in the US has become increasingly associated with pro-Israel advocacy rather than cultural activity.

    Indeed, “Hebrew American” is also somewhat different from “Israeli American” (even though Israeli expatriates probably form the bulk of this sub-community), as others with varying degrees of Hebrew fluency may be attracted to Hebrew language activities.

    A New Taxonomy–
    Forms of Jewish identity and behavior are commonly categorized based on religious belief and practice instead of on skill level (i.e. language fluency and cultural awareness). The rise of Hebrew America may force the broader Jewish community to think about identification, affiliation, and assimilation in new ways.

    Indeed, the lack of religiosity among many secular Israelis might get them classified as “non-engaged” or even “assimilated” Jews by American standards, using the traditional, religiously focused taxonomy for describing Jewish affiliation patterns.

    I would argue that this does not necessarily reflect a weakness in the Jewish commitment of the bulk of secular Israelis (although I would certainly admit that there is a clear need in Israel for more comprehensive Jewish education). Instead, I would assert that our language for describing patterns of involvement in Jewish life needs examination and refinement.

    New Communal Rifts–
    The emergence of Hebrew American institutions may not only challenge what we think the Jewish community should be, but also what we think America as a whole should be – for both ourselves and for other ethnicities.

    The anti-assimilation values of many Hebrew Americans (whose identity is based on close ties with a foreign culture) often differ from the traditional, “integrationist” approach to American life that has typified mainstream Jewish life for many decades.

    The broader Jewish community may find itself more engaged in debate regarding the way Jewish identity should be publicly expressed in a culturally diverse United States. While the divisions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewry are currently much more visible, those divisions are linked to the broader rift between religious conservatives and liberals in the US throughout all of the major religions.

    However, as the cultural divisions between “integrationists” and “multiculturalists” become even more prominent in the broader American landscape, probably eclipsing the attention devoted to the long established religious rifts, these new divisions will come more to the fore within the Jewish community as well.

      The Big Project Ideas: New Organizational Models

      Ethnic mini-malls–
      Ethnic mini-malls foster ethnic brand identities, especially the brands of major businesses based in the home country. The ethnic mall concept has been replicated by several ethnic groups, and these malls usually serve as powerful communal magnets.

      A mini-mall offers a familiar environment for expatriates and others who wish to recreate a slice of the familiar ethnic culture on foreign terrain. (To read more about the mini-mall model in my blog, click here.)

      Hebrew language institutes–
      A network of cultural institutions, affiliated with the State of Israel, which is formally charged with transmitting Hebrew and Israeli culture to the Diaspora.

      While the cultural attaches of the Israeli consulates do offer a range of programming (such as HaBayit HaIsraeli), their current scope of operations generally doesn’t match what many other nations’ institutions provide (i.e. the French Alliance Francaise, the German Goethe Institute, the Italian Dante Alligheri Society, the Japan Foundation).

      These cultural centers would not only emphasize Hebrew language and culture, but could also act as a direct extension of public institutions (i.e. the ulpan educational network) in Israel. (To read more about the language institute model in my blog, click here.)

      Hebrew television and media–
      Widely recognized, transnational media outlets (such as the Israeli Network and various Hebrew language web sites) are already helping build a transnational mass Hebrew culture.

      Truly universal Jewish media outlets would help provide a promotional vehicle for brands and concepts that, hopefully, would be recognized throughout Israel and the Diaspora.

      In the US, Hebrew television could go beyond offering familiar programs from the home county, to providing a means (via commercials or local programs) for expatriates to communicate among themselves. (To read more about the Hebrew media model in my blog, click here.)

      Bilingual charter schools–
      All forms of grade K-12 Hebrew language instruction should be encouraged, both within Jewish day school curricula as well as in public education (like the Ben Gamla Charter School in South Florida, which offers a dual-language Hebrew/English curriculum without any religious studies).

      However, schools whose curricula promote true Hebrew/English bilingualism (fluency in both cultures) should attract the most emphasis. (To read more about the bilingual school model in my blog, click here.)

        The Four Models: Ethinic Mini-Malls, Hebrew Language Institutes, Hebrew Television & Media, Bilingual Charter Schools

        Some thoughts on the four models listed above.

        The Lack of Originality (by design!)–
        As the author of this proposal, I readily admit that none of the structures that I propose here (ethnic malls, bi-lingual charter schools, governmental language institutes, or foreign language television stations) are original. All have been successfully adopted by many other ethnic groups in the United States.

        The truly intriguing issue here, as I see it, is American Jewry’s seeming avoidance of these tactics even as it draws closer to Israel in its efforts to combat assimilation. Particularly ironic is the Birthright Israel program, which provides short-term Israel travel opportunities to Jewish young adults.

        The organized community helps young American Jews discover the attractiveness of Hebrew culture, in the hope of strengthening its institutions back home where Modern Hebrew is rarely spoken!

        Sooner or later, I believe, this large investment in identification with Israel will force a re-examination of the role of Hebrew in American Jewish life.

        Active Learning From Others–
        We need to look beyond our own community for examples of organizational best practices. While this would seem obvious, it is a strategy that seems to be rarely followed.

        This may be due to the fact that institutions that serve other ethnic groups (or other religious communities) exist within different organizational ecosystems, and thus don’t compete directly with Jewish organizations for members, donors, and other resources.

        This may, in turn, limit their relevance in the eyes of Jewish leaders and planners.

        Defining an Ecosystem–
        While each of these four projects is valuable on its own terms, the real value is how they could interact to create a mini-ecology.

        The television station, for instance, could promote the mini-mall chain; the charter schools create a customer base for the media outlets and the malls; while the language institutes provide a venue for using the language, as well as cultural resources that can support the commercial and educational institutions.

        Ideas Precede Actions–
        I truly believe in the concept behind the Brandeis Contest, where a book is used as a vehicle to promote “big ideas” that could, in turn, lead to “big projects.”

        While the projects listed above are attractive in their own right, they ultimately depend on new interpretations of Jewish life. In other words, practical change is bound up with conceptual change, and drawing attention to big ideas is the essential first step.

          Bezeq Parrot (title image) sourced from Bezeq Communications via the Lizrael blog, with thanks.

          Your Contribution

          So what do you think of these ideas? Are they valuable? How could these plans be further developed to meet your needs more fully? What are your reactions and thoughts?

          We can’t wait to hear your comments.



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          8 Responses to Bronfman Big Idea Series: Hebrew Nation (Gary Kulwin)

          1. […] “Hebrew Nation: A Jewish Identity in the 21st Century” by Gary Kulwin– UPDATED! Read the post here […]

          2. I really enjoyed this proposal.

            Quick questions:

            Would you mind clarifying the difference between “Jewish American,” and “Hebrew American”?

            Would you consider “ethnic towns” (like China Town, or Greek Town) which can be found in many large cities to be similar to ethnic mini-malls? Would a hebrew-town work well to accomplish the same goals as a mini-mall?

            Would your proposal stress Hebrew values (similar to Shai’s proposal), or would it focus more on language, or both?

            Even if you don’t win, I hope you write the book!

            P.S. Thanks again Maya for another fantastic summary!

          3. Gary Kulwin says:

            Hi, ARB –

            Thanks for the support. I appreciate the warm comments. As Sally Field once said (while accepting an Oscar), “You like me! You really like me!!” 🙂

            In answer to your questions:

            1) I would use the term “Jewish American” (or “American Jew” – take your pick) to refer to those members of the Jewish People who currently reside in the United States. A “Hebrew American” would be a “Jewish American” whose “primary” Jewish identity is rooted in Hebrew language and Israeli culture. In other words, “Hebrew America” is, for the most part, a small (yet growing) sub-set of “Jewish America”. (Of course, there may be a few isolated cases – Hebrew speaking Israeli Arabs, now living in the U.S. – who might also consider themselves to be “Hebrew Americans”, but this would be on the fringe of the sub-community that I’m talking about.)

            Personally, “Hebrew American” is my answer to the question, “What *kind* of Jew are you?” When I was younger, I might have answered “Zionist”, but this label has become so ambiguous that it has lost its specific meaning.

            Other labels just don’t work as well for me (and, I think, for plenty of other people as well). My wife and I are not Orthodox; we used to belong to a local Reform temple, and we are considering joining a local Conservative synagogue. Calling myself a “Reform Jew” or a “Conservative Jew”, however, just doesn’t seem authentic. I don’t feel a strong attachment to any of the religious streams; my own beliefs about God or Torah are necessarily the same as the movements’ policy statements would suggest. What really seems distinguish my own form of Jewish identity from that of others is my deep attachment to Israel and my fairly high level of Hebrew fluency.

            What makes “Hebrew America” so interesting to me (aside from my own membership in it!) is its relative lack of infrastructure. The various segments of the Orthodox community seem to be well organized, and support a wide variety of religious and communal institutions. The non-Orthodox denominations have plenty of congregations as well as central institutions that guide their movements. For those interested in “tikkun olam” philanthropy or pro-Israel activism, there appear to be plenty of groups from which to choose. However, there are very few avenues (at least, until recently) to observe or engage in Hebrew culture while in the U.S.

            BTW, on a tangent: while I talk about “Hebrew America”, I think that this concept describes a wide segment of Jews in all diaspora states as well as in Israel, of course. (Virtually all Jews in Israel, while the possible exception of some of the chareidi Jews in Meah Shearim, are part of the Hebrew Nation.) I decided not to refer to “Hebrew Nationals” in my book because of the kosher food company with the same name. Not all of the members of Hebrew Nation are as kosher as Hebrew National hot dogs! 🙂

            2) Actually, I like the idea of a “Hebrew-Town” even more than the mini-mall concept (as a vehicle for transmitting culture), but I think that it would be much harder to implement in practice. There already are a couple of large Israeli neighborhoods in the U.S. (Queens, NY and Hollywood, FL come to mind first). However, while there are lots of small independent Israeli bookstores and restaurants in these places, there isn’t the strong feeling of a real community of the kind that you would find in a big city Chinatown or Greektown.

            The problem with trying to create a true ethnic neighborhood is that is would take significant urban planning. Perhaps the hardest challenge would be to coax lots of people to live in these neighborhoods. I did hear about one Jewish community – Montreal – that supposedly did have a program to encourage young Jews to migrate back into their historic Jewish community, on the premise that this would strengthen long-existing institutions. Has anybody else heard about programs like these?

            The mini-mall is basically an attempt to create that a neighborhood atmosphere “on the cheap”, within the setting of mono-cultural American suburbia. A mini-mall is a “big box” retail outlet (like a Wal-Mart or a Super-Target); in other words, the physical infrastructure is relatively inexpensive to build (much cheaper than constructing a real mall, for example). It typically contains a food court, a grocery store, and several small specialty stores or kiosks geared toward the needs and interests of the immigrant group. Perhaps the most important characteristic of an ethnic mini-mall is its support for the brands and franchises that are popular back in the host culture. The Mitsuwa mall chain, for Japanese expatriates, is perhaps the most interesting chain of ethnic mini-malls that I am aware of. Please take a look at my blog for an article about them, or go directly to one of the Mitsuwa websites.

            Of couse, there is one important connection between the “ethnic town” concept and the mini-mall concept. If I was actually able to get funding for this, I would certainly try to construct these mini-malls in the same areas (i.e. Queens, NY; Hollywood, FL; and Los Angeles) where lots of Israeli expatriates currently reside. You have to cater to your base, of course!

            3) My proposal isn’t really values oriented, like Shai’s. Without getting overly philospohical about it, I think what I want to deliver are “Hebrew language experiences”, as a way to strengthen the cultural foundations of Jewish peoplehood in the Diaspora. Obviously, there is a serious need in our community for more values-oriented educational experiences. The real question, in my mind, is whether the purely cultural foundations I want to create can also support new forms of spirituality and values development as well. When you bring a group of people with common interests together, it is hard to tell what sorts of networks and institutions will arise. For example: could the emergence of a “Hebrew America” led to new religious denominations or sub-streams like “Hebrew Reform”, where the services are completely in Hebrew yet occasionally deviate from the traditional siddur text? Would other non-Orthodox congregations want to imitate this, and start offering “Hebrew minyanim” in addition to their English/Hebrew mixed services? Only time will tell. My personal opinion, though, is that “Hebrew Reform” or “Hebrew Conservative” minyanim could only take root in the U.S. if and when the Reform and Conservative movements gain a stronger foothold within Israel itself. Until that happens, most secular Israelis (whether living at home or abroad) will continue to assert that “Orthodoxy is the denomination of Judaism that we have decided not to practice”.

            Regards, GK

          4. […] Norton graciously posted a summary of my Bronfman contest book proposal on her blog, The New Jew: Blogging Jewish Philanthropy.  The article on my proposal is part […]

          5. Shai says:

            Good work, Gary

            I’d add in addition to what I’ve said before the following comments:

            1) If I were to do an economics graph of the decision point to be part of your community, it assumes a certain cost that is low.

            This low cost is presumed in the sense that you believe Hebrew National Jews (who answer to a higher authority :))

            a) would not pay to belong to neighborhoods of Jews,
            b) that the mini-mall is a way to simulate the feeling of a neighborhood “on the cheap”, and
            c) that the price of making aliyah to achieve all the same things is considered too steep (the implicit assumption is this, anyway).

            You are dealing with the world as you’ve found it, Gary – nothing wrong with that. You recognize that most people would not invest enough of themselves, when their values are as they are, to achieve any of the grander visions in a or c. So, I simply ask, what hope is there that the efforts you propose would result in a sustainable identity, if already at the beginning you’ve assessed that people are unwilling to invest much?

            This by the way is a problem with all “community” in modern society – not unique to your idea. People today are willing to consume, not build, socieities and communities. As if they were services. I just question whether such a view is sustainable, or whether it’s simply admitting that’s how things are, and we have to deal with things that way.

            2) Having been a neighborhood planner once, I’m a bit of a megalomaniac at heart. Could you tell? 🙂

            Anyway, from the “make no small plans department”, I offer you the advice that you should expand your vision – don’t accept things as they are – aiming low has no power to change things. I think that it’s critical to an idea like yours to entertain some sort of communitarian model – there is no way to achieve it without putting Jews in each other’s face all the time. It’s got to be a “Chinatown” form of cultural immersion, not a series of periodic one-offs at the mini-mall. The successful sense of identity you saw at the mini-mall was similar to a Birthright experience – as if you were out of your element. But once it becomes familiar, it’s going to take more than a shopping experience to keep the centripetal force of Jewish identity greater than the centrifigal force of other identities. I would venture that no matter how many times we Jews go to Chinatown, as outsiders it seems exotic and stimulating. But does one feel that way the 50th time we’ve entered our own living rooms? I’m proposing that only the richness of fully functioning Jewish communities can offer the equivalent of what you saw in Chinatown. It’s not just the architecture, or the merchandise and its presentation – it’s the people behind the counter and all that makes them Chinese that gives Chinatown its flavor. Same with Heb-Nat-town.

            To me, it seems like the easiest way to do all that you stated is to encourage aliyah, but what can I say? Most people won’t do that. But it is my assertion that until (hence my project) we change the values of Jews such that they will WANT to be part of a Jewish immersive community, it’s not going to happen at a level that is self-sustaining, and our efforts in other spheres to enhance and save Jewish community will be for naught. I’m wondering where you describe that “tipping point” within your concept – what combination of things would have happened for you to believe your project succeeded, and what would successful Heb-nat communities, or Heb-nat persons, look like, act like, think like?

          6. thenewjew says:

            Dear ARB,

            Most welcome on bringing you another venue through which you can see this proposal, but the text is all Gary’s. 🙂


          7. kulwin says:

            Hi, Shai –

            Sorry for not responding more quickly. I started to write a reply, realized that I had spent a few hours on it (and was nowhere close to being done), and decided that I would be better off replying on my blog (look for a few separate articles on the questions you raise – I’ll try to remember to e-mail you whenever I post these).

            We are turning into the “Hillel and Shammai” of the Brandeis competition – we always seem to be arguing opposite ends of a continuum, but I don’t know what I would do if you weren’t there (you are definitely keeping me on my toes).

            On a different tangent (as you may have already seen, I love to go off on tangents in my writing)… wouldn’t it be great if, instead of trying just to select and publish a single “best proposal”, somebody decided to publish several of these (i.e. all of the proposals posted here, for example) in one volume, along with the critiques and responses that have already been published? I personally think that, more interesting than reading any one proposal (including my own, of course), would be to read a collection of these, coming at the “Jewish continuity issue” from several different angles. In addition, the critiques make the reading all that much more interesting.

            On the other hand, I’m not sure if this would work as well in paper form as it does on the Internet. On the “third hand”, however (I think that I’m starting to sound like Tevye), there are plenty of people out there who never read the blogs but who might be interested in studying a listing of all these proposals.

            Just an idea, for whoever is reading this (and has the resources to fund this…).
            Shavua Tov, Gary K.

          8. kulwin says:

            Well, gang (if anybody is still looking here), some disappointing news to report:


            Did anybody else receive the formal rejection letter? I’m assuming that at least one of Maya’s other profiled proposals did (it would be very cool, yet probably highly unlikely, if all five finalists were among the seven proposals profiled here).

            Where do we go from here with our ideas, guys? Should we all wait a couple of years and try again when this contest’s second round begins? Or is there anything practical we can do now with these ideas? I’m sure that our discussions aren’t over yet…

            Thanks again to Maya for giving me a platform to express what has been on my mind (and in my heart) for quite some time now.

            Regards, GK

            P.S. Sorry, Shai – I still intend to respond more deeply to your comments! I have about half a dozen more blog articles, in semi-finished state, waiting to see the light of day. Frankly, a lot of the “motivational wind” has been taken out of my sails, but as long as somebody keeps reading (and critiquing my ideas) I will probably keep writing…

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