Sunday, November 05, 2006

So NFTY really IS a cult after all?

I stumbled across this article by Daniel Rose at the Informal Jewish Education page of Infed.org (an amazing resource for informal education and life-long learning - well worth browsing). The article ("the world of the jewish youth movement") describes the differences between a "youth movement" and a "youth club."

Broken down to its most simple elements, a youth movement is an organization that has a strong ideology, and focuses its activities and educational content towards that ideology. Every decision made in the movement, from programming to recruitment policies, publications to catering plans, first and foremost must centre on the ideology of the movement. In contrast to this, a club or organization has the participant at its centre, and their needs are first and foremost, even though there may also be an underlying, implicit agenda that runs the club, such as the development of good citizenship, or providing a Jewish social context for its participants.

Figure 2: The Pendulum Model of Youth Organizations[The above figure] describes various organizations and their members, and where their personal ideologies vis-a-vis the movements’/organizations’ ideologies are. Each x represents a member, with the arrow leading from the x, their personal ideology. This suggests that a true movement verges on a cult, and all the negative connotations that go with that. Conversely, an organization where each member tries to lead the organization on their own path, lacks dynamic leadership, growth, and “movement”.

This model, called the pendulum model, suggests that each organization oscillates between these positions, rarely finding themselves at the extremes. Classical Jewish youth movements would find themselves generally towards the right side of the pendulum swing...

OK, I eggagerated a bit in the header. NFTY isn't really a "classical" Jewish youth movement (along the lines of the Zionist movements of the last century, which the paper is really about), and of course the Reform emphasis on autonomy and personal choice somewhat mitigates the emphasis on a common ideology. But my parents certainly thought I was being brainwashed.

Anyway, I think the pendulum model is a helpful way to think about the natural development of Jewish organizations more generally. Founded by ideologically driven individuals seeking to actualize their own visions, over time either the ideology becomes institutionalized or various individuals try to push the organization in different directions. In either case, the organization can quickly become irrelevant - a successful one must manage the polarities of authority and choice. An organization without a unified sense of purpose provides no basis for affiliation, but one that fails to account for the needs of its stakeholders will lose its membership. A good, enduring, organization (like, say, the Jewish people as a whole?) will reflect upon - and rethink itself - in light of the demands of both collective vision AND the individual needs of participants.

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