Ten years from now, when we look back at this moment, we will recognize that we have lived through a period of time that drastically reshaped the way we live as individuals and as communities. Will our reflection show we made the courageous changes that were necessary, or will we be looking back in frustration and questioning why we did not respond better to what was happening around us?
Periods of disruption require us to question the validity of our assumptions, the assumptions upon which we have built organizations, formed communities and lived our Jewish lives. Our strategies and tactics are now questionable and, perhaps, already superfluous/outmoded. We must recognize that what will emerge will be a new definition of normal.
Despite the pandemic and the natural changes it has caused (no in-person gatherings, etc.), why shouldn’t our Jewish community keep on doing the things that have proved effective? Why risk radical changes? Our Jewish Federation, congregations, community centers, social service agencies, etc. adapted Jewish life to the realities of 20th Century America. But can we adapt to the realities of COVID-19 in the near-term and long-term?
Based on prior experiences we view our world through a lens of stability and see signs of change as just the normal variation expected in any stable system. From this perspective, the ups and downs we experience are just minor fluctuations in an otherwise solid world. For example, we have survived multiple economic recessions. But none of us have ever gone through a pandemic like this.
Andrew Keene recently wrote, “With an increasing shift from physical to virtual engagement, organizations need to engineer intentional and value-rich experiences understanding that people’s fluid expectations demand continuous improvement of these experiences, such that we create an immersive Jewish platform for engagement that works to fulfill our mission and purpose.”
The word “platform” itself is ambiguous. The definition I’d like to use, adapted from the book Platform Revolution, is “an ecosystem that enables value-creating interactions between people.” This may sound simple but in actuality it is a radically different mode of operating.
Plenty of organizations offer programs (or events, seminars, classes, services) that are often excellent experiences. These programs create value, are innovative, and connect deeply to our Jewish values. But a program-orientation inherently relies on an organization to be a perpetual creator, and because of fluid expectations, pressures organizations to continuously create better programs. A program orientation is in fact the opposite of a platform orientation. In a program, the value comes from what the organization provides. In a platform, the value comes from BOTH the ecosystem the organization creates and the interactions between people on the platform. As Keene writes, “Program participants are in ‘download’ mode; platform participants are in ‘upload mode.’”
What’s the difference between a program and a platform? A program model uses organizational resources to design and market programs to attendees, where organizations create meaningful events and expect people to attend them. A platform model uses organizational resources to empower emergent leaders who design and organize for themselves and engage their own networks. The organization provides inspiration and support, and the “hosts” bring meaning and relationships with their “guests.”
The shift from program to platform is happening around us whether we like it or not. And I believe the utilization of platforms in Jewish life will remain with us for the long-term (pandemic or no pandemic).
Look at how we have adapted to Zoom. The success of Peloton (streaming fitness classes). Netflix provides a platform to watch movies and shows. And, perhaps the most successful platform of them all, Amazon, where you can seemingly purchase anything. We can now access what we want…on demand…from anywhere -- this is very different than a specific scheduled program/event date/time that we have always known.
My Jewish Federation colleague in Washington, DC recently asked, “How do we start reimagining what the Jewish community is going to look like post-COVID? Because we are not going back to the way it was before. And the impact that it has had, not just on our operations but on how people connect to Jewish community, how identity is transmitted from one generation to another -- all of these things are going to change in ways that we may or may not be able to predict.”
These are certainly uncertain times. We talk about it on our daily professional team call. How do we provide programs of interest to the Jewish community and what is the platform? There will be no in-person gala this calendar year (which was to celebrate our 100th anniversary). Our Centennial Trip to Israel is on hold. People are hungering for live social interaction. And the Jewish Federation, like all non-profit organizations, is under pressure to raise money in new and different ways.
It is our plan (and, I believe, your expectation) that we remain as transparent as possible about the challenges (there will be many) and potential changes within our Jewish organizational ecosystem. But together, like we have done many times before, we will emerge stronger as a community. Whether programs or platforms, our number one focus must always be empowering joyful and meaningful Jewish experiences for today and tomorrow.
A few final notes:
We are doing a special community project regarding public safety. Please send a photo of you or your family wearing your mask to firstname.lastname@example.org by Tuesday, July 14.
Visit our new volunteerism webpage platform with monthly themed volunteer opportunities across the community.
Finally, our Weekly Wednesday Update program was introduced to stay connected with our community while gathering virtually around timely topics. We are going to take a summer pause to reflect on future offerings towards the end of this summer/early fall. Please take this survey to help us plan future programs.
Marc N. Blattner
President and CEO