Twenty-five years ago, I joined the cause to free Soviet Jews. Now I have Russian speaking children. Lately I’ve been reflecting on what this cause has meant for me not only personally but also as a Jewish professional and leader. Here’s the blog post I put together for my colleague Rabbi Hayim Herring. Click on the link or read on. I’d love to hear what you think!
On December 6, 1987, I joined 250,000 others in a March on Washington to free Soviet Jewry. Seventeen years later, almost to the day, I met a man from the FSU who became my husband. This cause played a big part in my youth, but I didn’t think about how it had changed my adult life and the lives of so many others until I stopped to reflect on the march and the movement that surrounded it. Much about the Jewish community, the world, and the way we organize has changed, but I think some truths about leadership and contribution have stayed the same.
What has stayed the same? People want to be part of something that matters. The Washington Post article I saved from December 6 mentions that “many ‘grass-roots’ Jews who never before have carried placards in pro-Soviet Jewry rallies, or even been members of Jewish groups, will be taking part today, including some who are traveling long distances.” The cause was compelling, and people wanted participate. Clay Shirky calls this “the plausible promise” – “a message framed in big enough terms to inspire interest, yet achievable enough to inspire confidence.” (Here Comes Everybody, pp 17-18) In 1987, people needed to show up on the National Mall to send a message. For some people, this was harder than others, but they did it, and they were counted.
What has changed? Now it’s a lot easier for people to quickly self-organize behind a cause. Living in an area affected by Superstorm Sandy, I saw this unfold over the past month. I’ve seen calls to help victims of Sandy in the following places and more: the local Starbucks drive-through, my gym, an online mom’s group, my childrens’ music classes, individuals on Facebook, Donors Choose, The American Red Cross via ABC television, synagogues, Federations, JCCs and smaller Jewish organizations. I’ve also read about people frustrated that they couldn’t find a place that needed their help. It wasn’t a coordinated effort, and the question still stands as to whether or not it was or will be more effective, but it is a good example of how people today come together around a cause.
There are some lessons here for Jewish leaders. Today’s Jewish organizations must be nimble enough to respond to issues and organize immediately, without being bogged down in red tape or outdated policies. They have to put the power back in the hands of the people in order to stay responsive and relevant. Otherwise, people will do it on their own. They will use the technologies and networks they have at hand and respond right away. That’s how people are making a difference today.
The metaphor that comes to mind is the sukkah. Although it appears fragile, it has persevered as part of our tradition. The walls are flimsy and permeable (if not absent) for the weather to penetrate. The spirit of the holiday teaches us to invite people in. At the same time, the frame is solid enough to offer some structure, and through the roof there is a vision of a higher truth. Finally, it can be constructed or taken down in a matter of hours. Jewish organizations need to be able to respond to the world while providing a vision and a framework to direct the energies and passions of the people.
More important than the organization is the purpose. “Save a Soul…March on Washington.” This message outlines the cause and what people can do about it, all on a button. Could your organization’s cause fit on a button? Do people know what it is? Can they explain it to others? Jewish organizations must be able to formulate a compelling, straightforward and achievable message. Recently a friend from the FSU learned that I had been at the rally in 1987, right around the time when her family emigrated to the US. “I didn’t know you did that,” she said. “Thank you. It made a difference.” In the end, isn’t knowing you made a difference all that really matters?