Shaping Our Jewish Tomorrow: a Q&A with Cindy Janower

You’ve heard a lot about the 2015 Community Study and the Strategic Plan, but what have we learned, and what does it mean for the future of our community? Cindy Janower, the incoming Chair of CJP’s Board of Directors, tells us more about surprises from the Community Study, what Our Jewish Tomorrow (the Strategic Plan) actually is, and where the Greater Boston Jewish community is headed.

You are such a dedicated volunteer, both here at CJP and in the wider Greater Boston Jewish community. Why is it important to you to be so deeply involved?

As a young mom in my early 30s, it was my children who brought me back to Judaism. My husband, AJ, and I decided that it was really important to us to raise our girls within our Jewish tradition, first at Temple Israel’s preschool and then at the Rashi School. We wanted our girls to become people of integrity, to question critically, to care about something bigger than themselves, to grow up surrounded by a caring community, and even to learn a bit of chutzpah. What we didn’t anticipate at the time was that we, too, would “grow up” in the Jewish community. It very much became our center and inspired us to give back — both within the Jewish community and beyond it — in ways we could never have imagined.

I was first exposed to CJP as Board Chair at the Rashi School. My impression of CJP’s Peerless Excellence grant and the process surrounding it was that it was smart, audacious, thoughtfully designed, and informed by a strategic view of our community’s needs. My experience since then has only reinforced that view; I’m regularly wowed by CJP’s bold initiatives around Jewish learning (such as Me’ah, IACT, and efforts to revitalize Hebrew schools), efforts to eradicate poverty, and Strategic Israel Engagement. I also regularly feel blessed to be challenged and inspired by the staff and lay leaders I get to work with.

You co-chaired the 2015 Community Study. What was the most surprising thing that you learned?

I think there were four “aha” moments for me in the Community Study.

First, the biggest change we saw over the last 10 years was the decline in denominational affiliation among Boston’s Jews. Though I wasn’t surprised to see the trend, I was surprised to see the magnitude of the trend, a 30% decline in Conservative and Reform affiliation since 2005.

Second, though none of us were surprised to see more young adults staying longer in the urban core, again, the numbers provided a wake-up call, as 33% of Jews, including 50% of young adults, now live in Cambridge, Somerville, Central Boston, or surrounding areas. We need to think more seriously about the needs of urban Jews.

Third, because of the Brandeis University Cohen Center’s innovative approach of segmenting the Jewish community by their behaviors and attitudes, we developed a much more textured sense for the community and how different people “do” Jewish. As someone who grew up with an Israeli father and family both here and in Israel, I have always had one foot in the local and one foot in the global Jewish community. I try to follow the Israeli press, I have some Israeli music in my Spotify playlist, and I love to read Israeli literature (in English — I don’t want to set unrealistic expectations!). So I loved seeing the various parts of my own upbringing — both religious and cultural — in sharp relief.

Finally, for me, the statistic that represented the biggest call to action was that only 24% of Jews really feel connected to the local Jewish community and only 23% believe Judaism is very much a part of their daily lives. AJ and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had such a close-knit Jewish community help us raise our girls and bring meaning to our lives. I firmly believe that every single Jew should have that opportunity.

You also serve on the Commission for Strategic Priorities and have co-chaired our ongoing strategic planning efforts. Can you tell us about how the two are related?

First, I feel fortunate to have been able to co-chair our strategic planning effort with Shira Goodman and Jon Sandler. They are both brilliant leaders, and I learned a great deal from them in the process of writing our plan. But we also learned from so many others. We had a highly engaged 31-person committee that was made up of a mix of long-time CJP supporters and relative newcomers to the conversation, and we were careful to assemble a mix of generations and perspectives in the room. We involved several committees and task forces, our board, and agency leadership, and we talked to thousands within our community — either in person or via survey. We collectively wrestled with laying out a vision, a role, high-level objectives, and a resource and engagement approach that will help guide CJP over the next 10 years.

The Commission for Strategic Priorities (CSP) was formed to shepherd the 2008 Strategic Plan’s implementation, making tradeoffs and other strategic decisions as they arise. CSP is made up of highly tenured volunteers with a broad sense of CJP’s overall agenda who are well positioned to steward some of the thorny questions that come up and make thoughtful recommendations to the Board. CSP continues to play that role relative to our 2017 Strategic Plan. For example, in the plan, we recognized that in addition to investing in small innovative pilots or larger scale strategic initiatives, CJP plays a role in ensuring that our community has a solid foundation on which to build — the right people, institutions, infrastructure, and processes to ensure that we have the capacity, resiliency, and cohesiveness to succeed in our collective efforts. But the Strategic Plan does not define what those were or how to get there. CSP is wrestling with a set of questions around how we should consider investing in our kehillah, our community. We want to have a perspective on our kehilla investments that is as thoughtful, strategic, and impact-oriented as the more “white space” parts of our agenda.

Developing a “strategic plan” almost sounds like we’re coming up with one document to shape the next ten years of CJP (and beyond). Is that true? Or is it something more flexible?

We think of our plan as providing a set of guiderails for how we aim to move forward. It essentially states that we will invest strategically in our community to enhance its capacity and connective tissue; specify clear targets around a prioritized set of goals; work with our partner institutions more comprehensively to assess options, develop strategies, and achieve those goals; engage more of our diverse community; and foster innovation to create solutions for tomorrow. It also provides that we shift our approach to become much more nimble by testing, learning, and iterating. In developing that plan, we decided to double down on what we do best but also aim to become even more nimble, inclusive, and outcome oriented.

But the devil is in the details, and those have yet to be worked out. How do we broaden our outreach? How to we adapt our volunteer structures? How do we better connect our donors to our impact and to each other? There is much to be worked out as the high-level goals cascade through the organization and our work. We explicitly provided for a test-and-learn approach, fully expecting those details to continuously be worked out over time as we adjust to reality in achieving our target outcomes.

Also, other than reaffirming CJP’s mission and endorsing (even as we change some of the language around) our historical impact areas of “caring, justice, learning and living, Israel, and community,” we did not go all the way to specifying a set of targeted outcomes or priority areas, let alone an initial set of tactics. CJP’s various Planning departments and lay committees are thinking through those specifics now and seek to do so in a manner which involves broad community input.

This work is already focusing and shaping the work of CJP in the community. What are the top three things people should know about it?

First, I think it’s forcing us to clarify what matters… and the clearer we can be about what matters, the more decisive we can be in determining where we seek to invest and the more compelling we can be in convincing others to invest with us. Relatedly, it has already driven us to hire a new team member who promises to bring rigor and creativity around setting goals and measuring against clear target outcomes.

Second, it’s pushing our teams to think more proactively about how to engage more of our community in our work so that it is an increasingly shared enterprise — to bring more voices into the room as we brainstorm solutions, outline a plan, and execute. It’s exciting to me, for example, to see the agencies involved in our Caring agenda increasingly collaborate to bring families out of crisis and into stability. To quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “the most powerful home is the home we build together.”

Third, we explicitly called out social justice in our mission. We have always done social justice work; most recently, we founded the CJP Legal Aid Fund for Immigrants to support the work that Catholic Charities does for the immigrants in our midst. But by not calling social justice out in our mission statement, we were missing an opportunity to tell that story; we were also missing an opportunity to think about what role we are best positioned to play in that work and convene more of the community in our efforts. We have created a new Commission for Social Justice which will actively spearhead that work.

If I can add a fourth, I would add that the Strategic Plan also helped our Search Committee define the position requirements for our new President. The plan envisions a leader who is bold, visionary, innovative, and highly relational — truly a Federation President for tomorrow.

Our strategic planning work is going by a new name: Our Jewish Tomorrow. How does this work reflect our hopes for the community?

There was much great news in the Community Study. We were encouraged to see that interfaith families are increasingly participating in synagogue life at the rate of in-married families and that 66% of us, including 76% of young adults, have traveled to Israel. And we attribute both of those accomplishments to past visionary leadership, including our own 2008 Strategic Plan, which helped to open doors for interfaith families, and New York philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, who had the vision to scale and fully fund Israel travel via Birthright Israel to unite our global Jewish community.

I think the drop-off rates in affiliation and the sense of alienation, however, suggest that we don’t yet have the community that will take us to tomorrow. Our task is to craft a community that cements authentic relationships and inspires a sense of purpose. We have pockets in our Jewish community that excel at providing both strong bonds and deep meaning; but they are not yet the norm. My own goal is for more Jews truly feel a part of an inspiring local and global Jewish community.

You are the incoming Chair of CJP's Board of Directors, and you also serve on the President Search Committee. Can you tell us more about why you were inspired to take on these responsibilities?

Frankly, I feel really honored to have been asked to serve. We have so many brilliant, committed, and forward-thinking leaders in our community; we are doing work that is pushing the entire Jewish world forward, not just here but throughout the US and even in Israel; and we are tackling challenges that I believe are new and unique to our time. I feel lucky to be able to play my own small role in the work. I also love the people I get to meet doing this work, and I love being able to wrestle with the big ideas that will help shape our future both as Jews and as Americans.

What do you think is the most important aspect of CJP’s work to the community? What about in your own life?"

Personally, Jewish learning has always been the on-ramp for me. I like to think of myself as a lifelong learner, and I am always looking for new sources of wisdom, whether in books, podcasts, film, theater, Ikkarim, or Me’ah. Though I am not Orthodox, I did study at an Orthodox day school before transferring to public high school, and I appreciated the rigor of deep textual analysis and commentary in my studies. And it was Jewish learning for my children that brought me back to the Jewish community after a relatively disengaged period in my late teens and twenties. But I’m also extremely committed to the people of Israel. I am a dual citizen of the U.S. and Israel, and my paternal grandfather fought in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. Yet, I’m not sure there’s anything more important for a community animated by Jewish values than to help take care of those less fortunate among us. My maternal grandparents, both Holocaust survivors, immigrated to the U.S. penniless after the war; they spent their lifetimes helping others do the same. At the end of the day, I’m not sure I can highlight a single pillar — our agenda is an integrated whole, grounded in the core principles of our tradition.


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