Vsaperstein, jeff
Vsaperstein, jeff

Scoping out a different model for a disparate Jewish community

The Bay Area is home to the third largest Jewish community in the United States — an estimated 450,000 Jews.

However, according to the conclusions of a 2004 demographic survey conducted by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, our community is so dispersed that there isn’t one large community, but rather several smaller, self-contained regional ones with limited interaction.

Jeff Saperstein

This lack of coordination among sub-regions is compounded by insufficient collaboration among Jewish organizations. We need a different model to serve our diverse communities.

The Bay Area Jewish community must innovate how it organizes, serves and communicates, particularly for young adults who do not identify with Jewish organizational affiliation.

Most Jewish organizations have failed to adapt to all of the digital, Web-based changes emerging as our economy and society transforms (don’t think just Web sites and communications; think about capabilities).

Frankly, many organizations are stuck in their ways, ways that no longer work for the benefit of the larger Jewish community. For far too long the vertical silos of separate organizations — protective of their turf and membership — have stymied innovation and effectiveness.

Simply, we must work differently. The challenges we all face are to welcome change rather than just react, and to increase our collective intelligence and collaboration for continuous improvement and innovation. This necessary transformation will affect the survival of individual organizations as well as the viability of our community.

It will require modified organizations, new processes, new role definitions and, most significantly, a different, new “covenant” to partner, serve, attract, retain and communicate.

So what would this change look like? Here are several major issues and ways we could address them:

• Attracting families with young children. Create a partnership program that transcends any one organization: synagogues, JCCs, camps and day schools. Combine organizational offerings and create a “Center for Raising your Jewish Child” that could work with parents and that tracks each family and customizes combinations of programs in a bundled multi-year offering.

Consider online forums where parents could communicate with each other and access experts in Jewish education, consciousness and identity. Imagine a site where parents rate available programs and offerings for one other — just as people are doing online for many other services (colleges, hospitals, restaurants, car repair, etc.).

Partnering, encouraging, responding and financially supplementing Jewish parents to provide a whole child Bay Area Jewish experience should be a Bust the Silos effort.

• Attracting young professionals: More parties, events and chances to socialize with their age group won’t work. They can do that for themselves far better than we can organize for them.

Many young people are struggling to understand how to make career moves, to start entrepreneurial businesses and to team with others for projects. They want to get guidance and support to help them succeed — professionally and personally. The Indian community in Silicon Valley has a mentoring program that benefits many of its young professionals — while maintaining their ethnic identity — better than any other and has scaled it to thousands. 

Older, successful professionals and businesspeople want to help, but need training, support and tools to scale it community-wide. Social media tools (such as Facebook and LinkedIn) can enable this process to be transactional so older mentors and younger professionals can find one another — like JDate has done for companionship. Technology can never substitute for authentic human engagement, but it can help to organize and facilitate that effort.

Create a system to mentor them, to extend their professional contacts and to help them along in their professional life, and many young adults will find a path back into the Jewish community (the federation’s Business Leadership Council is a good start, but serious mentoring/networking needs to be focused and community-wide — not organization-centric).

• We need to change an outmoded model in which each different organization collects annual dues. Imagine a “Jewish community pass” to partake from a selection of organizations and activities.

• Consolidate systems and coordination so Jews encounter a helpful, responsive community. Do we need three separate federations in the Bay Area? Do we need separate accounting systems, administrative support, membership, fundraising, Web sites, etc. for every Jewish organization?

Outsourcing, centralizing costly administration and streamlining can provide better, more efficient service to our community. This kind of effort is being demanded in health care, higher education and every major sector of our economy. Isn’t it time we try to do the same in the Jewish community?

The Bay Area Jewish community needs vision, focus, collaboration and innovation to create more responsive organizational structures to thrive. If not now, when?

Jeff Saperstein of Mill Valley is a Jewish community activist and former marketing director for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. He is a co-author of a book due out this month, “Bust the Silos: Opening Your Organization for Growth.”