Thanksgiving Feature (1): the Search for Community at the End of the 20th Century

The idea of a “thanksgiving” celebrates and reinforces the American traditions of community and family, which represent those “places” within our lives and culture that have nurtured our sense of “contentment,” a safe space set aside for us.

Yet, our American society is undergoing such profound and sweeping changes that even former sanctuaries of “contentment” are being torn apart, breaching all areas of the social order.

Institutions and individuals, in an effort to both embrace and cope with each profound transformation, are now forced to confront the new realities about all those special “places” that touched and shaped our lives.

Jews and their communal structures are not exempt from the focus and debate over these transformations. The Jewish world is witnessing, in a number of settings and on a variety of levels, this revolution of change. The organizational network that defined our community was built on ideological and religious movements, born out of the events that shaped and directed our historical pathways a century ago.

Just as the American environment and traditions nurtured such ceremonies and rituals associated with Thanksgiving, an American Jewish communal culture was to emerge, filled with its own collective behaviors, mythologies and rituals, designed to draw upon this nation’s opportunities and to celebrate this special society.

The “reinventing” of the American Jewish experience is now under way, as we approach the 21st century. This transformation is so profound as to not only require us to deploy a new corporate language about community, but also to confront new ways of thinking about and acting out the concepts of affiliation and participation.

The intellectual framework associated with these structural and social transitions come to us from two schools of writers, including, among the first group, Alvin Toffler, “Power Shifts”; Peter F. Drucker “The New Realities”; and Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. “In Search of Excellence.”

Each of us is rapidly being made aware, form this cadre of authors, of the meaning of these external sets of changes that touch all phases of how we live, how we receive and digest information, and how our institutions, global as well as communal, are being challenged to compete.

Within the second group, we have been introduced to a cadre of Jewish academic and communal spokespersons, including Gary Tobin of Brandeis University, Steven Bayme of American Jewish Committee, social Steven Cohen, Jonathan Woocher of Jewish Education Service of North America, and Barry Schrage of the Boston Jewish federation.

The debate surrounding the implications of economic, demographic and social change gives rise to a different set of expectations about the Jewish future and the types of functions and organizational forms that will be required.

As part of this discourse, there emerges a new vision regarding the type of Jewish enterprise that will be required to serve this evolving community. Five principle ingredients are built into this equation:

Strategic Thinking: The capacity of Jewish communal institutions to clearly define their visions and their goals.

Marketing: The ability to “sell” institution’s messages to its various “publics” through the development of communications plan.

Innovative Sales and Services: The willingness of institutions to develop, produce and market efficiently its products and services in order to meet the desired needs of its constituencies and, in the process, to create new streams of revenue.

Leadership-Making: The conscious act of recruiting and training new cadres of committed corporate leader-types who understand this culture of transformation.

Research and Development: The necessity of establishing an “R and D” function as an integral part of an organization’s management plan.

In the process of recreating the Jewish community, we will be “remaking” Jews, as well. Throughout our past, we as Jews would ask, “How do we fulfill mitzvot?” Tomorrow’s generations will be posing the questions of “why by Jewish?”

This idea of selecting Judaism connotes a different set of assumptions linked to consumerism, the ability of individuals to be able to choose among institutions regardless of past loyalties or family traditions, and commitment, the belief that individuals and groups can reshape and redefine for themselves ideological concepts and institutional demands to meet their particular cultural or spiritual search.

As American, and especially as Jews, we will need to maintain and establish in this new age “places” where our community can build sanctuaries of security. The act of “giving” thanks ultimately is an expression of confirming that individuals, their communities and their societies have a sense of confidence in the world that they have helped to construct. As we engage in the process of recreating the American Jewish experience for the 21st century, the measure of “contentment,” of feeling secure and functioning efficiently, will ultimately be the benchmark of our collective success.

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