Rethinking the ‘secret sauce’ behind Jewish survival

Gidi Grinstein’s new book ‘Flexigidity’ claims attitudes in today’s Israel are too strict, while in North America too lax. But it’s not too late for change

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Gidi Grinstein, founder and president of the Reut Institute (photo credit: Courtesy of the Reut Institute)
Gidi Grinstein, founder and president of the Reut Institute (photo credit: Courtesy of the Reut Institute)

PALO ALTO, California – In mid-December, Gidi Grinstein came to the heart of Silicon Valley, where entrepreneurs search for the “secret sauce” of hi-tech success, to launch his new book about the secret sauce of Jewish survival, security, prosperity and leadership.

Grinstein calls this Jewish sauce, “flexigidity,” a portmanteau of flexibility and rigidity. He defines the hybrid term as the ability to optimize the pace of collective adaptation by balancing new and old, innovation and tradition, and flexibility and rigidity. Grinstein says this age-old balance has gone out of whack in recent decades, and the challenge is to set it right before it is too late, especially in the State of Israel.

Paradoxically, Jews have never been more economically, politically and militarily powerful than they are today, while concurrently having never been more vulnerable because of their concentration in two major centers: Israel and North America.

Grinstein, 43, argues that Israel has gone too rigid, and that North American Jews have become too flexible. In “Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability,” Grinstein, founder and president of the Reut Institute, a non-partisan Tel-Aviv based think tank, addresses the leaders of Israel and the Diaspora Jewish community, and makes recommendations for how they can face current threats and opportunities by returning to the “flexigid” balance that has served the Jewish people so well over the millennia.

“So much of what we need is there in our past,” Grinstein told The Times of Israel in an interview in a Palo Alto café before the book launch event at the nearby Oshman Family Jewish Community Center.

‘The primary crisis is in Israel’

“This approach was mostly in my head and scattered across dozens and dozens of emails and documents,” he explained about the origin of his book. “On July 4, 2010, I opened my first computer file for the book and poured all my existing notes in to it.” He worked for three years, including an 8-month sabbatical, to complete the 280-page treatise.

According to the author, who served as secretary and coordinator of the Israeli delegation for the negotiations with the PLO between 1999 and 2001 under prime minister Ehud Barak, his original intention was to build institutional memory and sustainability for Reut.

“The original target audience was Reut stakeholders,” he said. But over the course of writing the book, he realized it provided a framework for the audience he was most concerned about: the leaders of Zionism and Israeli society. “The primary crisis is in Israel,” he noted. A secondary audience is leaders of all kinds in the Jewish Diaspora.

Some 60 people packed in to a room at the JCC to hear Grinstein, dressed in a dark suit and tie, expound on how despite the fact that the Jewish world is “a rolling mess,” it has a sophisticated mechanism for survival. After making his initial presentation on the highlights of the flexigidity framework, he engaged in a lively discussion with the audience, mainly about the need for inclusive growth in Israel.

Gidi Grinstein's treatise on the adaptability of the Jewish people. (Courtesy of Gidi Grinstein)
Gidi Grinstein’s treatise on the adaptability of the Jewish people. (Courtesy of Gidi Grinstein)

As he explained it, the adaptability of networked early Zionist pioneer communities has given way post-1948 to rigid over-nationalization and centralization.

“The instincts for participation were taken away. Then from 1983 to 1985, the government pulled out of society economically and imposed a non-Jewish economic system,” he said.

“The State of Israel walked away from the basic unit of Jewish society as being the community, and instead it took the American idea of the household as the basic unit,” Grinstein further explained. “The incentive to support community institutions disappeared.”

The remedy, according to Grinstein, is for Israel to rebuild its flexigidity from the bottom up by strengthening community institutions together with civic leadership — a combination that has historically served Jewish communities very well over the course of history. He wants to see more investment in human capital and the adaptation of a third option that is somewhere between the government and the private sector.

As general examples, he suggested increased involvement by parents in the running of local schools and the abandonment of the fee-for-service model at community centers, as well as making the centers’ directors accountable to local communities, rather than to national bodies.

In particular, Grinstein reported on a pilot project in Safed, the historic and poor city in Israel’s north, devised by the city, Reut and UJA-Federation of New York to “leapfrog” the quality of life in the city by sustained and high inclusive growth. One intervention has been the deliberate connection of the new medical school there (a branch of Bar-Ilan University) to the community through a number of first-aid training programs for youth that provide them with medical-related professional skills for the future.

‘You need to give people the opportunity to take a stake in their community’

“It’s okay to standardize things, but you need to allow for local expression in institutions in order to tap into unique local assets. You need to give people the opportunity to take a stake in their community.”

It’s true that in 2011 there were huge street protests demanding change, but Grinstein sees little having come of them so far.

“If the thousands who came out to the streets were to take responsibility for their community organizations, we’d have something happening.”

In response to a question from the audience about all the upbeat news coming out of Israel about its hi-tech prowess, Grinstein expressed concern over what he sees as the anemic trickle-down effect from the Start-Up Nation phenomenon.

In addition, he answered an audience member’s comment about how the IDF is a mechanism for equality and integration by countering that, in fact, the current IDF is actually an instrument for creating inequality.

“When there is a huge discrepancy in the post-service prospects between a soldier in the elite intelligence Unit 8200 and one in the Golani Brigade, then there is a lack of investment in human capital.”

Grinstein does not ignore the challenges faced by the Diaspora community in terms of an over-tipping of the balance toward flexibility and the attendant erosion of Jewish pillars like language and law (education and study). But at the same time, he believes Israel needs to take a page from the Diaspora, where there is a strong network of Jewish communities rather than a central governing body.

Gidi Grinstein speaks to an audience member following his book launch event at the Palo Alto JCC. (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand)
Gidi Grinstein speaks to an audience member following his book launch event at the Palo Alto JCC. (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand)

“Heavily concentrated structures are vulnerable, while a network of small communities is best for resilience. There can be unity without uniformity.” Grinstein says.

He is confident that in 200 years from now, Jews will still be lighting Shabbat candles on Friday night. He’s less sure that there will still be a State of Israel.

“There is a lot of work to do to ensure the survival and prosperity of the State of Israel,” Grinstein told The Times of Israel.

The author believes his theory of flexigidity holds the answers, and that if leaders use it as a blueprint, Israel and the Jews will continue to thrive. As the Sages say, the day is short but the task is great. However, Grinstein sees people taking action and willing to deploy their leadership.

“We just have to believe that somewhere, someone is working on these problems.”

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