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  • Andres Spokoiny

Time for the Jewish Community to Learn About the Birds and the Bees

A community that believes in owning rather than sharing cannot seduce those who grew up in an Open Source world.


Sometime in the cretaceous, flowers “discovered” that bees could be an amazingly useful tool in their reproduction. Those flowers then started an arms race to develop the most brilliant colors and the tastiest, sweetest nectar, so as to attract the pollinating bees. Some 30-odd million years later, somebody crashed the party: the hummingbird.

The little hummingbird is a remarkable creature. It is a nectarivore, benefitting from the flower’s nectar revolution that was generated to attract bees, not birds. In order to make that bountiful nectar its own, profiting from a radical change in the environment, the hummingbird had to radically change itself. It accomplished five astonishing feats of engineering: first, it developed its characteristic long beak to find the crevices where the nectar awaits; second, in order to fuel the constant movement of its wings, it achieved the fastest metabolism – and the fastest heart rate – of all animals; third, it learned to process sugars at an incredibly rapid pace; and, fourth, it has infrared vision to discern the colors of the most nectar-rich flowers.

But the fifth, and most astonishing, achievement of the hummingbird is its capacity to hover in place like a helicopter. It is, in fact, the only bird capable of that movement. Pulling it off required a unique adaptation of the hummingbird backbone, an adaptation that is unique among all vertebrates. In fact, the hummingbird changed its nature at such a deep level that it virtually broke out of the category of “bird”, remaking itself into something that lies, morphologically, between a bird and a bee.

Since this is a Jewish communal publication and not a biology journal, by now you can probably guess what I’m getting at. The Jewish communal environment has radically changed, and, in order to thrive, Jewish organizations and philanthropists need to evolve. If we do, the new environment that seems daunting now may prove unimaginably bountiful tomorrow.

There are so many ways to illustrate this dynamic. But to use just one important example, consider the degree to which Birthright Israel has become the norm for young Diaspora Jews. The Jewish community is now awash with hundreds of thousands of young adults who come back from their Israel trips energized and inspired. Yet, as a community, we have seen a decade of malaise when it comes to “Birthright follow-up.” We seem to be poorly equipped to drink this sudden influx of nectar. Yes, we have developed some programs and tried many engagement tools, but success seems hard to attain.

The experience of “Birthright NEXT” and other follow-up initiatives requires careful analysis. They produced great ideas, but they fell short of the creating the structural transformations at the local level that are needed to capitalize on the advent of a “Birthright generation.” And the onus can’t be on Birthright; it would be unfair to demand that Birthright achieve its own follow up, just as it’s not up the flower to develop skeletal changes in the hummingbird. We won’t be able to benefit from this amazing change without dramatically evolving, shifting our very nature. Birthright is not an incremental change; it’s a change of paradigm. Therefore, our current forms of communal organization won’t be able to profit from it any more than “traditional” birds can eat nectar. The hummingbird didn’t just develop a longer beak (an incremental adaptation); it changed its very essence.

The Birthright revolution isn’t occurring in a vacuum; changes in behavioral and social patters of Millennials also catalyze a need for deep structural adaptations. A community that believes in owning rather than sharing cannot seduce those who grew up in an Open Source world; a community that builds structures rather than networks can never co-opt today’s digital natives; a community that directs rather than collaborates will never attract the hyper-empowered individuals of the 21st century; a community that controls instead of enabling will miss out on the unprecedented creative energy of this post-Birthright generation.

The profound changes in our environment can be a source of enormous growth; we are living in one of the most creative eras in human history. But in order to profit from this energy, we need to evolve. We need to rethink organizations as facilitators, as scaffolds for self-organization; we need to see affiliation as a fluid rather than a fixed process; we need to radically alter our approach to risk, allowing for iterative processes of trial and error; we need to empower instead of dictate and we need to trade control for inspiration. Leadership needs to be more about connectivity than about supervision and information needs to flow, and be shared, in real time. An on-demand generation demands that community processes be as fast and flexible as the metabolism of the hummingbird.

Some Jewish organizations, among them many federations (such as those in Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and others) are experimenting with many forward-thinking approaches compatible with these ideas. They are seeding innovation while restructuring their organizations.

Much more is needed. And no community can afford to sit back and try to let others do the evolving for them. Engagement is always local, and local communities can’t avoid mutating if they are to enjoy the nectar of Birthright, and the amazing energy of new generations. Nobody can do it for us.

It is time for us all to face the facts about the birds and the bees – and learn to become hummingbirds.

This article was published in eJewish Philanthropy.

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