Downsize Institutions and Upsize Imagination

Posted on: June 4th, 2012 by Hayim Herring
Creative brainstorming

Photo: opensourceway, on Flickr

Kudos to Dr. Stephen Windmueller for his piece last week in eJewishphilanthropy, entitled to the unfolding of the third Jewish revolution. Windmueller provides us with a rich framework for analyzing major historical turning points in Jewish communal life, including the one that we’re experiencing now. I want to focus on one of his points – the one that preoccupies many in Jewish communal life today.

Money: who isn’t concerned about having sufficient financial resources to maintain or launch high-quality programs, needed services or simply pay for administrative overhead? Windmueller says it best when he writes, “the American Jewish system is a $9.7 billion annual enterprise that cannot be sustained as a result of the current economic realities.” (We should ask if it should be maintained, but that’s another issue!) It is no surprise that many of our institutions are being downsized. That’s a tough reality for those who are experiencing it.

Precisely because we have to downsize our institutions, we have to upsize our imaginations. All the money in the world wouldn’t solve many of our challenges if we continued to do things in the same way. So this transition can challenge us to think about how to do critical work differently and better. It can also help us prioritize the issues that will have the greatest impact so that we can focus on them and sunset less essential activities.

Upsizing our imagination is one strategy for making our way through the transition successfully. Another is embracing the idea that it is possible today to do more with less in some cases. And that’s a fact that is easy to forget in the current economic environment. For example, it used to take thousands of dollars to build a quality website. Today, a pre-teen can build a website without effort. When we wanted access to a book or periodical, we used to have to spend time going to the library. Today, the library is at our fingertips. One of the ways to do more with less is to fully exploit the advantages of time and cost savings that technologies enable.

I don’t want to minimize the pain that many are feeling as our Jewish community undergoes a major revolution. While this transition may cause momentary paralysis, I hope that it will ultimately energize us as we move further into the 21st-century.

Rabbi Hayim Herring

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