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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Like what you are reading? Please subscribe by e-mail or feed reader by clicking the sidebar icons.