The weekend I wrote this column, I was reading a book my mom of blessed memory gave me called Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean. The book is about how a generation of swashbuckling Jews carved out an empire in the New World in their quest for treasure, religious freedom, and revenge.
It was quite the read of an untold tale of Jewish valor and seafaring adventure during the Spanish Inquisition. The 17th century began with Jews outlawed in the New World and most of Europe, and it ended with our freedom.
Fast forward to today, I’m infused with a daring and adventurous buccaneering spirit to address the challenges in our New World. We are at a momentous time for our Jewish community. Our ability to plan our future will test both leadership and community in 2024. Sinai and Temple are discussing their respective futures—and in the coming weeks, I’m hopeful their conversation to discuss options and opportunities will expand to include the Federation.
In our efforts to plan for our future—what story will we tell our children? I hope to say that we ushered in the most significant transformation in our Jewish communal history. And that this achievement was possible by coming together around our shared values and goals.
Those who know me and read my OCN articles know my passion for community-building. I have not kept it a secret; the key to building a thriving ecosystem is to connect our community across all its social and religious boundaries. That is the UNITY in CommUNITY.
A common sentiment I frequently hear is that as Sinai and Temple go, so goes the Federation. Given that approximately 90% of Fed funding comes from the generous giving of Sinai and Temple members, I understand the basis of this thinking.
This highly concentrated source of donor funding makes the compelling economic case that the Federation needs the support of Sinai and Temple to survive. And by extension, some say Sinai and Temple need one another to survive.
Our three organizations are interconnected—at least from a donor-giving perspective. Organizationally intertwined, Sinai, Temple, and the Federation are mindful of this moment’s importance in exploring how best to balance the risks and priorities in shaping our future.
The idea of the Federation and its congregational partners embracing a once-in-a-generation community-building opportunity has sparked my imagination. Over the last year, several tools were developed, from town halls, FED Talks, and a campus vision board, to stimulate needed community conversations.
Since we have the innate power to change things, we owe it to ourselves and our children to comprehensively explore all the options. In this article, I’ll highlight three areas of innovation relative to developing a sustainable future characterized by unity, not uniformity.
The first innovation requires breaking old organizational models. New approaches are foundational to our ability to thrive and survive. This article briefly explores an alternative organizing framework for our Jewish community. I’ll use the working project title, the Center for Jewish Life - South Bend, to illustrate this new model.
This new collaborative model aims to create new scale and efficiency. In essence, the Center for Jewish Life would be the “Collective,” a Jewish consortium with a community-serving focus. The Center model may offer the optimal platform to become a “resource powerhouse” for our diverse Jewish community. A decision on where to locate this Center needs discussion and community agreement. To more firmly root the ideas expressed in this essay, imagine this sanctuary of Jewish life conveniently located on the Federation’s 28-acre campus.
A Stronger Together model offers several advantages to address the profound pressures mounting in and outside of our community. We’re witnessing a dramatic rise in antisemitism which threatens our safety and security to live Jewishly. From a financial and leadership perspective, Sinai, Temple, and Federation are dealing with economic and leadership issues that hinder our ability to chart a more independent course of action.
To this end, many say, “It’s just common sense; today, more than ever, we need to gather, find common ground, and support each other.” We would want to craft the Center’s mission statement to communicate its multidimensional nature with its social, spiritual, cultural, and religious focus. An exemplary mission statement might be: To strengthen Jewish life and identity in our community, provide for people in need, and promote, support, and intertwine with the broader Jewish world.
The second innovation is to support the Center’s operation with a new membership model. This model entails pooling resources in support of this multipurpose Center for Jewish Life. The singular focus on supporting our Jewish diversity may mitigate donor fatigue. A bolder and more aspirational community plan to strengthen Jewish life may spur a greater propensity to give.
It’s a given that capital investments will be needed to build the agreed-upon Center infrastructure. From an operations, budgeting, and sustainability perspective, we could see cost-saving benefits in critical areas such as clergy leadership, buildings and grounds, and professional staff. In addition, the Center may realize potential savings related to campus security, programming, insurance, office expenses, dues, and allocations.
In thinking about this new model, I can’t help but wonder what percentage of people in our community who identify as Jewish are not affiliated with a synagogue but have a strong desire for a meaningful connection to their Jewish culture. Therefore, our third innovation ripe for exploration is outreach and recruitment inside and outside our community.
This brings me to my next point. Given the current demographics of Sinai and Temple, donor giving will need a boost. This boost can come from other available supplemental funding sources. Tapping into these funding sources will require fresh thinking. Developing local and regional partnerships around opportunities to expand the playing field will be critical based on our shared values.
In summary, the Center for Jewish Life is a holistic community concept. It’s designed to sustain our Jewish community as an oasis for spiritual nourishment, a learning incubator for arts and ideas, and a place to celebrate living Jewishly. The Center will move toward this vision by engaging in four key priority areas:
Connecting Jews to all facets of Jewish life (spiritual, cultural, educational)
Caring for the most vulnerable through Jewish Family Services
Promoting a secure Jewish community and countering antisemitism
Building bridges between South Bend, Israel, and Jews throughout the Diaspora
As Jews in South Bend, we’re called to answer this moment in history with thoughtfulness, seriousness, resolve, creativity, and courage. Working together, we can draw on our deep reservoirs of wisdom, leadership, and community building to unlock our potential in a way never before possible. Our future to achieve unbelievable things will not be a failure of either imagination or the inability to act.
Research on organizational success reveals that timing is the number one factor for success or failure. After timing, the team, the execution, and adaptability may matter even more than the idea.
New adventures await! Maybe not on the high seas like the Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, but right here in South Bend. The time to strengthen Jewish life to ensure a vibrant and sustainable Jewish community for today and the next generation is now.