Jeff Saperstein is the co-author of “The Interconnected Individual: Seizing Opportunity in the Era of AI, Platforms, Apps, and Global Exchanges.”
Jeff Saperstein is the co-author of “The Interconnected Individual: Seizing Opportunity in the Era of AI, Platforms, Apps, and Global Exchanges.”

Now is the perfect time for the global Jewish community to retool itself

The coronavirus has created global havoc, uncertainty and dread. We face uncertainty as individuals, communities, nations and the international order.

The organized North American Jewish community is reeling from shutdowns, layoffs and insecurity.

But rather than “Band-aid” our way back to the norms we know, we can be thinking about audaciously and smartly reimagining how we can change as a community moving forward.

We can take a cue from the trends that are emerging, as well as with our own lived memory of the rescue, resettlement and renewal of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews a generation ago.

Just as many in the nation are taking stock of our challenges and hindrances, leadership in the Jewish community can use this crisis to disenthrall ourselves from past practices, beliefs and structures that should be re-examined.
Here are suggested areas that mirror the wider societal changes, offered to stimulate discussion.

Increase internet use to provide Jews with both local and global resources and activities. Enable creation by users.

The internet’s resiliency in the era of coronavirus has shown a particular kind of global network — open, efficient and highly interoperable (so anyone could join and nobody needs to be in charge). Individuals and small groups can initiate and bring others who share their passion.

This “Me, too” movement shows how spontaneous organizations can emerge separately from established hierarchies.

Jews are already participating in many interactive online communities. The emergence of Daf Yomi (daily Talmud study) on a global learning platform is an example that can be expanded to many areas of interest — and engage Jews who may resist institutional structures. We can expand Jewish interconnection to augment, not replace, face-to-face interaction.

Streamline and consolidate operational systems by using artificial intelligence, platforms and apps.

Do we really need so many independently funded Jewish nonprofits in the U.S. and Israel that are not connected on platforms and common apps? The internet has demonstrated that community and special-interest organizations can thrive on commonly used platforms. Nextdoor.com covers 180,000 local communities, enabling neighbors to post items of interest. Why can’t we have a Jewish Nextdoor where Jews can independently evaluate and recommend programs for children and activities for adults?

Create “open organizations” to attract members as paraprofessionals and contributors.

The new organizing principle is called open organizations. Rather than a producer and consumer model, successful organizations are utilizing their communities to cocreate value.

Consider LinkedIn, Amazon, Wikipedia and other examples of open organizations that have transformed the business model to engage users to be part of value creation and expand capabilities.  Similarly, we can expand Jewish organizational vitality by invigorating paraprofessional participation.

In a gig economy — with university lecturers, psychologists, health care workers and many others seeking additional employment — we can reimagine certification and engagement of paraprofessionals to augment the Jewish workforce. The Shalom Hartman iEngage series is a good example of an excellent curriculum that can be taught online or onsite by teachers following lesson plans. Online platforms enable high-level quality to be taught by many to many.

Engage Jews to creatively use technology for good purpose and to scale.

Online groups are managed by leaders and influencers who may be outside the conventional Jewish institutions. Global Jewish leadership can be networked beyond geographic limitations to create new ways to identify, interact and initiate.

Imagine if Jews in the online edutainment industry were networked to bring North American Jewish and Israeli designers and developers together to innovate for the challenges of Jewish identity, consciousness and education.

Google Classroom currently is being used by millions of kids who are at home. Why not a Google Jewish curriculum that can be home-schooled with opportunities for scholarships and trips to Israel with proficiency based on a core competency global curriculum, offered separately from organization affiliation?

Open synagogues and JCCs to pilot community innovation for employment training.

Synagogues and JCCs have the physical capacity to become far more relevant and proactive, because with increased unemployment, furloughs and business closings, there will be a massive need for training centers.

These facilities can acquire desperately needed funding and provide important community service through hosting member participants to train, mentor and partner with churches and community colleges for needed employment skills and family support services.

Make the connection to Israel easy, inexpensive and attractive for all who wish to go — in person and/or virtually.

Provide support to encourage individuals and organizations to go to Israel for multiple purposes. There is no substitute for visiting Israel to vitalize Jewish consciousness, identity and involvement.

Efforts for teens are important, but the connection to Israel should be lifelong. There are many active seniors in our community who might be encouraged to visit Israel for special interests, as well as organizations that could organize membership trips.

We should find ways to subsidize or match organizational and individual trips to Israel in an appropriate way. The Birthright program has shown that subsidized trips to Israel to the unaffiliated can be attractive and bring people into the community who might be lost.

Israel needs us, and we need Israel. There can be no greater investment in our community than a massive living bridge to Israel.

Also, we can build online communities based on common interests and experiences:  tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews have worked on kibbutzim as volunteers. Why not bring them together online for vibrant interaction and enable them to revisit Israel together. We can also aggregate (perhaps bundle with memberships) Israeli television, music, comedy and all the arts to bring more “Israeliness” into our lives right here.

Partner with Israel for a “Zionism of Imagination” and big thinking to address global issues that concern us all.

The coronavirus and climate change will be the defining experiences for our era and the next decades to come. Could there be a global Zionist response for Jews in addressing these issues? Who are the Jewish Bill Gateses whom the world turns to for inspiration and leadership on global issues?

There was a time, a generation ago, when this community, in partnership with all Jewish communities, Israel and the U.S. government, dedicated ourselves to the rescue, resettlement and renewal of 1 million Soviet Jews and 80,000 Ethiopian Jews. I witnessed Jewish leaders weeping as they devoted themselves and their resources, evoking the names of their grandparents who fled Russia. I was privileged to be part of this effort, which inspired young Jews to join their elders.

All of these challenges require imagination, planning and resources. No one organization, or even group of organizations, can address the challenge for the community.

But isn’t this the time to question our assumptions, and innovate to increase Jewish consciousness, identity and affinity worthy of bold leadership and vision?

Jeff Saperstein
Jeff Saperstein

Jeff Saperstein was the marketing communication director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation from 1983 to 1985. He is the co-author of “The Interconnected Individual: Seizing Opportunity in the Era of AI, Platforms, Apps, and Global Exchanges.”