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Relational while individualistic

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Drawing upon relationship-building and cultural capital allowed JWW to flourish. Under Kamenir-Reznick’s direction, three key structural elements served to maximize the organization’s role as a force on the Los Angeles cultural landscape: (1) JWW became an independent entity that leveraged the charisma of its founder without being tied to only one individual; (2) every level of the organizational structure and outreach efforts relied on the activation of individual leadership capacity and social capital; and (3) the organization’s structures and processes balanced individual and organizational autonomy with collective action.

Rabbi Schulweis’ appeal as a charismatic leader cannot be under-emphasized. As a senior administrator in JWW noted, “The reason we were successful is because it was Rabbi Schulweis’ idea ... He’s a very, very powerful presence in our community.” Using his pulpit and position as a senior statesman in the Los Angeles Jewish community enabled Schulweis to effectively leverage the moral authority and reputational capital he accrued throughout his career.

Schulweis could have easily developed his efforts to mobilize Jews around Darfur as a program within Valley Beth Shalom, but his vision was broader. Rather than limit the reach of the project by locating it within his congregation or housing it within the Conservative movement or even the Federation, JWW was fashioned as a self-governing entity. It is an independent, non-profit organization with a board of directors, president, and executive director. Schulweis became one of several board members, demonstrating both his commitment to the effort and his interest in leading collaboratively. As JWW developed, the organization walked a fine line between utilizing the draw of its charismatic founder while dislocating the organization from the seat of his power. Instead of being housed on the campus of Valley Beth Shalom, JWW moved into office space in Encino.

Synagogues in Greater Los Angeles were invited to join JWW. Member organizations paid dues based on congregational size. Rabbis of local Los Angeles congregations were individually invited to participate by JWW leaders. They were urged to use their pulpits to spread J WW’s moral message and were also invited to bring their congregations in as organizational members.

Early in its development, JWW formed a synagogue advisory' council to support productive working relationships across denominations. The model of organizational participation and membership allowed congregations that became members to be fully autonomous, while working in coalition. Programs were centrally designed but tailored to individual or congregational interests and assets. JWW leaders recognized that each congregation has different needs and designed resources that could be flexibly used in different circumstances. For example, a JWW curriculum was available, which religious schools could use selectively, or in its entirety. JWW grew a strong base of support from lay leaders, in part because of the organization’s agility in galvanizing both individuals and communal action. To effectively mobilize, the organization relied on best practices in social movements: the “incorporation of resources into an organization” along with the “activation of external networks of individuals and organizations” (McCarthy and Wolfson 1996).

The growth of the JWW was facilitated through personal relationships from the start, as Schulweis personally asked Kamenir-Keznik to collaborate. That approach, which was used to penetrate scores of existing social networks, became the foundational organizing culture of JWW. One volunteer who was brought in by Kamenir-Keznik recalled:

I don’t think you can underestimate those personal relationships. I think it was really important and partly because if Janice was willing to commit this time and energy into it, that for me is a huge signal that it’s really something very worthwhile.

Rabbis approached individual congregants and asked them to volunteer for JWW on behalf of the synagogue. A volunteer described how she became involved, explaining that when the rabbi approached her and asked her to be a liaison for JWW, she knew little about the organization, but was compelled to participate because of the rabbi’s direct and personal request.

JWW professionals also proactively made connections across congregations. For example, when people reached out to JWW independently of their synagogues, staff members used the opportunity to reach out to their synagogue leadership using that initial point of connection. In doing so, JWW created organizational connection by activating lay leaders and supporting them to involve their rabbis and synagogue boards. A high priority of JWW is to value lay leaders’ time and efforts as well as their financial contributions.

The reliance on individual initiative, financial contributions, and social capital has long since been a hallmark of Los Angeles Jewish culture. According to historian Deborah Dash Moore:

Migration placed the individual at the center of Jewish collective endeavor and transformed community activity ... Although Jews established communal institutions in Miami and Los Angeles that appeared superficially similar to those in other cities, the characteristic agent of Jewishness became the singular individual (Moore 1994, 266).

The strong culture of individual mobilization and the replication of that approach at every organizational level contributed to JWW stakeholders’ strong sense of buy-in and created a large base of ambassadors for the organization’s work throughout the community. As JWW’s community-wide visibility grew, so did the number of its new member congregations. That momentum garnered the attention of congregations that did not want to be on the outside of a successful community-wide initiative. A JWW leader explained:

We knew from the first few months that it was going to be something big because we also started raising a lot of money at the beginning, which helps you along ... Success begets success, but within the first 8 months we went from four synagogues to 24 synagogues ...

Likewise, individual contributions grew and a sense of community and mutual support developed among volunteers. This momentum supported and nourished ongoing individual and the communal involvement. A JWW volunteer explained this dynamic at work:

I found that people want the support of other individuals. That’s why this congregational premise really works for Jewish World Watch. People don’t want to do it alone because it gives them the excuse not to do it, and I think people like to be with other people. When only five people show up, they don’t feel like their work is valid or important. But when 50 people show up or 100 people show up or whatever it is, they go, “Ohhh, this feels really, really good.” It’s amazing, knowing that you’ve got that support ... Well, we all sit on an advisory council together. And obviously just being on a council together, where a lot of parties come together, and you collectively make decisions. It makes people more engaged, more committed to doing the work. And you need that support system ... there’s something about working as a team, not only within your own congregation, but collectively, that is a driving force.

The unique composition of tensions between individual and communal, relational and charismatic, parochial and cosmopolitan, were modeled into a structure that was rigid enough to provide participants with boundaries and reinforce their identity, and yet open enough to enable their agency.

Conclusion

Deborah Dash Moore’s account of the influx of Jews to Los Angeles in the postwar period emphasizes the ways in which Jewish community and identity have been strongly mediated by personal choice and geographic dispersal (Moore 1994). The case of JWW corroborates Moore’s insights into Los Angeles Jewish culture: the organization uses a strategy of both centralization and decentralization, collaboration and personal autonomy, as ways to build and reinforce collective action. Communal connections developed and flourished through and because of personal relationships. The organization provided a particularistic starting point that strongly tapped into Jewish Angelenos’ cosmopolitan sensibilities. Thus, the story of JWW’s founding and development both sheds light on and reflects the nature of Jewish communal life in Los Angeles.

Notes

  • 1 We are grateful for the contributions of Richard Flory, who conducted the interviews that serve as much of the research for this work, and for Nick Street’s astute editorial guidance. This project was originally funded by a small research grant from the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life. Richard Flor)' conducted ten in-depth interviews with Jewish World Watch leaders and volunteers, and Brie Loskota conducted six months of participant observation. Subsequently, Brie Loskota joined the board of Jewish World Watch in 2012.
  • 2 Full text of the sermon can be found at https://www.jww.org/wp-content/uploads/ 2010/06/articleGlobalismAndJudaism.pdf.
  • 3 JWW’s mission overlaps in part with that of the New York City-based American Jewish World Service, but in contrast, AJWS has a broader mission focused on relieving poverty and upholding human rights in the developing world. “Who We Are.” American Jewish World Service: https://ajws.org/who-we-are/our-story/ (accessed March 1, 2015).
  • 4 Academy for Jewish Religion (http://ajrca.edu), Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University (http://ziegler.aju.edu), and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (http://huc.edu).
  • 5 Jewish Federations of North America https://jewishfederations.org/about-jfna, and Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations https://www. conferenceofpresidents.org/about/members.
  • 6 Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) http://www.hias.org/history; American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) https://www.jdc.org/our-work/; and Na’amat USA. https://naamat.org/about/mission-statement/.
  • 7 Quotes are drawn from confidential interviews with ten Jewish World Watch professionals, lay leaders and volunteers conducted between February 2009 and August 2010.
 
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