Op-Ed: Jewish groups must learn from Obama campaign

The Marketeer, JTA's messaging columnist, urges Jewish organizations to learn a few lessons from the campaign of President Barack Obama. (JTA staff)

The Marketeer, JTA’s messaging columnist, urges Jewish organizations to learn a few lessons from the campaign of President Barack Obama. (JTA staff)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) – There is much to learn from how President Obama led his election campaign and broadcast his vision during the inaugural that can benefit the communal strategies of American Jewry.

Yet as a marketer of Jewish life, when I raise the issue, as I frequently do these days, I am often told, “Stop using Obama as the example. We have Republicans in our ranks and you are distancing them from your message.” Someone even told me that if I want to advocate these lessons, I should think of using another example.

Are we as a community so committed to our energy-depleting and grating fractiousness that we are willing to turn a deaf ear to valuable lessons and defeat our own potential victories? The message I am delivering has nothing to do with politics, who’s a Republican or a Democrat — just ask Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who despite coming from the opposite side of the political spectrum, has sought to cast himself as the Obama candidate in the current Israeli campaign.

This message has everything to do with a stunning success in leadership vision, fund raising, cause advocacy, community organizing, electronic viral penetration, mass participation and the crowning accomplishment of a once-considered elusive goal against all odds. It has to do with a methodology and message that is resonating with our most sought-after target audience — the next generation. It is much of what we want and need as a community finding itself in visionary, leadership and demographic peril — and there is no better and more powerful example.

Still, I’m finding that I have to deliver this message with thunderclaps, bells, cymbals and drums because while many appear to listen and nod their heads, few are taking the steps to do anything about it.

Obama’s message is not only about a change in government. It is a wake-up call about changing times and a changing society.

Many today still don’t understand how the Jewish communal enterprise is being vastly affected by the technology revolution and what it means for information access, communication, engagement between people, causes, funding and the creation of community. Someone in a very prominent position asked me recently if when I talk about viral communication, did I mean a traveling bacteria?

If we are serious about building our communal capabilities in these times, our leadership must be aware, reading and consuming the trends that surround us. We cannot be stymied in the technological advances for our enterprise because a few of the senior laypeople who donate major dollars “don’t read their e-mail and therefore the technology is not that urgent.”

While those people are indeed important and may need a different kind of attention, they are a quickly disappearing anomaly.

I have heard other communal leaders say that in the shadow of the economic collapse and the Madoff affair, it will be several years until we return to what was. But that misses the point: The message of change means that even when the economy improves we will then be something different. We will never return to what was.  The Madoff affair has caused deep damage and triggered soulful learning that also will lead us down the road to be something different. What that difference is will be up to us if we seize the opportunities rather than delude ourselves into thinking that change isn’t ongoing or influential.

Obama has shown us the importance of the collective. In Jewish life we have abandoned the collective for the 80-20 or 90-10 rule — the idea that 80-90 percent of the money comes from 10-20 percent of the donors. This has driven us to discount the masses as serious funding partners of Jewish life. Obama raised millions from the grass roots. He saw their potential. We need to see it as well, especially during a massive economic downturn. They are our opportunity.

Obama created his campaign as a cause and a movement. We need to create a cause and a movement among the Jewish masses, concentrating on the next generation but including other generations as well.

Are we not about causes? Do we not work to repair the world? Do we not offer service and volunteer opportunities? Do we not have the stuff of which to be a social-, justice-, identity- and nation-building movement? Do we not have nearly 6 million Jews in America from which to draw, as well as millions of others who have respect and belief in our work?

Obama has demonstrated for us a powerful model of community organizing. That model began with the concept of Camp Obama, where people were trained in the organizing and fund-raising techniques. We need as relevant and conceptual an idea for how we train our leaders, organizers and fund-raisers. We need to harness the power of the Internet for as strategic, pervasive and creative of a viral effort in community organizing and fund raising.

To do this, we must expand the Internet and communications departments within Jewish organizations. I see everywhere how these departments are still being viewed as invitation shops, being strangled with the demands for e-vites to events and are not being perceived as strategic partners to be invested in for the creation of sophisticated communication, Internet and viral strategies that a new era demands.

But more than anything, Obama has been a beacon of vision. He built a perception of visionary leadership throughout his campaign and during his inauguration. He projects himself as a leader. He speaks about ideas. He telegraphs to the issues of a new generation. He offers content. He exudes intelligence, charisma and humanity. Do our communal leaders do this? Do they inspire?

We have much to learn from this American president. He has created a framework that offers our community great opportunity and possibility. Are we going to be strategic enough to take advantage? Or are we just going to become petty, fight with and challenge one another, while it slips through our fingers?

(Gary Wexler is the owner of Passion Marketing, consulting with some of the largest nonprofits in the world, including many in Jewish life. He is a JTA board member.)

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