(February 25, 2014 / JNS) By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org
Jam session. Flash poll. A tapping into our collective mind.
For four days, from Feb. 16-19, 2,135 people—61 percent between the ages of 18 and 34—participated with world Jewish leaders in an online “jam session” organized through a joint initiative between the government of Israel and an entity being termed world Jewry. The initiative, said Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett, was about “hearing new ideas and empowering Jews from around the world to take part in the debate over which direction Israeli-Diaspora relations should take in the years to come.”
The session was a window into a year-and-a-half of still-underway efforts by the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Jewish Federations of North America, and top Jewish philanthropists to develop practical solutions to the greatest challenges facing world Jewry. A primary emphasis, said Dr. Misha Galperin, president and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development, is on strengthening Jewish identity amongst Jews and connecting world Jewry to Israel.
“The jam session was to see what people are saying, to ask questions, start dialogues,” said Mark Gurvis, JFNA executive vice president. “The jam session was an experiment.”
And a fascinating one at that, according to both participants and planners. But while the virtual conversation did lead to 2,280 posts over 96 hours and to more than 20,000 visitors from cities as widespread as Tel Aviv to Buenos Aires, top researchers and surveyors say the session was far from scientific. With only .0153 percent of the Jewish population represented in the jam session, which was run through the Ning social media platform, there are still an exponential number of voices unheard.
Jacob “Jack” Ukeles, president of Ukeles Associates, Inc., a planning and management consulting firm that has conducted community surveys of major Jewish communities from New York to Cleveland to Chicago, said there were fundamental principles lacking in the online jam session process if the team was hoping for actionable and accurate information about world Jewry. The main one was randomness.
“It has to be random,” explained Ukeles. “Many people want to know why we don’t do an Internet survey or put an ad in the paper and let people call in. It is because once we do that, we have introduced bias.”
Ukeles said there is no way to know if the people that responded are similar or dissimilar from the people who did not respond and his “hunch” is that they are dissimilar. The people who take the time to talk are likely to be “active, have complaints or be joiners.”
Larry Moscow, a partner with Washington, DC’s Maslansky + Partners, a public opinion research firm that works with top companies such as AT&T, Comcast, and NBC, focuses on messaging for its clients—“the actual words people need to tell their story.” He said what companies say is less important than what their clients hear and in the case of the jam session, he cautioned that voices polled were likely not those of the target audience.
“It is at best going to give you a snapshot of how the most engaged think,” he said. “What we need is a snapshot of how the rest of the community looks at things.”
That’s because, whatever plans the group determines to implement, its leaders will have to sell it to the average Jewish Joe.
Galperin and Gurvis said the team knows that. The goal was feedback and not analytical data, though the material that came out of the session was—and is—being analyzed by a team of thought leaders. The session followed more than 100 structured interviews with a variety of lay and professionals from Jewish federations and foundations, as well as a 130-person global planning summit that took place in November 2013 in Jerusalem. Since the fall, content work groups have been delving into seven pre-defined areas that could assist strengthening Jewish identity and Diaspora-Israel relations: formal education, informal education, college campuses, immersive experiences, follow up, community service, and aliyah.
“The jam session was the next step,” Galperin said, noting that the content teams are finalizing recommendations, which will go to the government of Israel for dialogue and resolution. The government is planning to invest roughly $100 million per year between 2015 and 2020 to implement a yet-to-be-determined program or group of programs. Another $100 million would be expected to be raised by world Jewry, and still another $100 million should be raised through program fees.
Gurvis said what content teams “understand clearly” is a need to better invest in Jewish personnel, strengthening the number and capacity of those who touch people, such as teachers, counselors, and emissaries. The other message is there is no getting away from technology.
“We have to find ways in which we can use and leverage technology to support this agenda,” said Gurvis.
With its unprecedented participation by millennials, the jam session supported this sentiment— showing that young people want their voices to be heard, but on their own terms and in a way that is comfortable to them. But both insiders and outsiders say there are still too many unknowns to judge whether the project can and will be successful. Jeremy Ruden, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, told JNS.org, “The implementation process is still being ironed out.”
Sam Sokol, Jewish world correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, described his and others’ attitudes as “hopeful and cynical at the same time.”
“There is no governance structure. They are still working out program details. … Will programs be funded directly? Will money go into a big pot?” said Sokol. “There will be arguments. People are going to want their say. … There is a long way from a working paper to an action plan.”
At the same time, Sokol called the Israeli government’s willingness to try this endeavor “incredibly interesting and significant.”
If anything, said Gurvis, the jam session will prove a new paradigm for how the government of Israel views and works with Jews outside the Jewish state, a sovereign country relating to a voluntary and sometimes unorganized Jewish community. According to Ruden, there are six government ministries involved in the project.
For now, interested people can still visit http://securingthejewishfuture.ning.com to read the jam session dialogue. Galperin said content papers and recommendations would continue to be updated and posted to that website. Maybe the Jewish world will even jam together again.
Said Gurvis, “We’re not trying to swallow the whole ocean in one gulp.”
Maayan Jaffe is a freelance writer based in Overland Park, Kan. Email Maayan at firstname.lastname@example.org.