From a Jigsaw Puzzle to a Future Jewish Boston Revolution

Image: Zen Puzzle

By Leonard M. Fuld

Jigsaw puzzles are all the rage during this pandemic. Why? According to psychologists, people are drawn to puzzles because human brains seek patterns and a sense of control in this very disruptive, uncertain time. Puzzles also allow us to step outside ourselves and the current tumult.

That reasoning is what motivated me to assemble a ten-person panel of Boston’s Jewish leaders in early May to take part in a scenario planning exercise. This was a puzzle-building activity about the future, similar to the one suggested by the Jewish Funders Network in a recent posting.

Think about how you approach a jigsaw puzzle. First you find the corners, then the border pieces. After that you can begin to fill in the picture. Scenario planning works the same way.

The four corners were the participants for this two-part session. They cut across denominational lines and included (1) funders, (2) day school leaders, (3) community service heads, and (4) the director of the outward-facing Boston JCRC. Together they represented over 150 years of Jewish communal experience.

Like a puzzle, every scenario planning exercise must have boundaries. In our case, the first border was geography, Greater Boston. The panel’s fears and concerns defined the second. Events surrounding the pandemic was the third. Finally, we needed to define the timeframe. How far into the future do we place the scenarios? We chose five- to ten-years.

Once panelists assembled and we defined the discussion parameters, their storylines began to flow.

Local fears and concerns: A very telling puzzle boundary

Leaning into the camera when they spoke, nearly every panel member displayed a sense of urgency. There was little visual “social distancing” in this intense virtual meeting.

Over two sessions, they exposed the fears that ultimately shaped the scenarios. Their arguments were complex, reflecting different perspectives. A rise in antisemitism and a need for more and expensive security. Less wealth creation in the years ahead, affecting philanthropy. The threat of a wealth tax. A rise in Aliyah, resulting in a loss of committed Jewish families.

Alan Leifer, a Boston-based funder and one of the panel’s members, was worried about the effect of progressive politics.

“The question we always deal with,” said Leifer, “is that our New England members of Congress are 97% blue and moving to the left. To what extent will this be good for the Jews?”

Dalia Hochman, head of school at Gann Academy, a community high school, worried about day school enrollment around Boston, knowing that for many families paying for day schools must compete with other priorities, including synagogue dues, camp, and saving for college.

Dark and bright storylines: At the puzzles center

I mapped the panel’s various themes into sixteen possible stories, then distilled three of them into future newspaper articles. Panelists were then asked how they would alter their strategies given these new “realities.”

The first article appeared in a 2025 edition of The Boston Globe. It describes a Bay State economy that has not recovered from a recession that ended in 2024. Downtown Boston is a hollow center with an office vacancy rate of 45 percent. Philanthropy is flat.

The second story was the darkest of the three. It takes place in 2028 and appears in The Forward. Antisemitism has reached an all-time high. In a liberal backlash, Congress passed a wealth tax to “bring the billionaires in line,” dampening charitable giving.

The third story I called, “La La Land.” In this 2030 Boston Business Journal report, everything is bright and wonderful. Boston tech, education, and innovation are firing on all cylinders. Housing prices have moderated.

(r)evolution: Panelists response

Preserving the status quo was not possible. Everyone agreed some drastic, immediate, multifaceted change had to happen very soon, and needed to come from the organizations themselves.

Self-determination was the core of this small “r” revolution. Their battle plan was multifaceted.

(r)evolution #1 – Create a central endowment. Panelists believe that the day school story is not going to play out well no matter how the future evolves. They called for a drastic change in funding structure.

Across denominations, panelists argued for a central endowment. They believe this restructuring is possible in Boston, where strong inter-denominational dialog has existed for a long time.

(r)evolution #2 Hyper-cooperation among organizations located outside Boston’s Jewish center. Geography dictates destiny, according to the panelists. Boston’s Jewish community and its center of gravity will dramatically shift in the coming decade demanding more inter-connection among organizations at the outer suburbs.

Larry Tobin, a board member of the The Rashi School and director of The Shapiro Foundation, pointed out that the “hollow center” challenge already exists, with a possible loss of the younger generation.

According to Tobin, “There are thousands of Jews in their late twenties and thirties who are settling into more affordable suburbs and looking for programming and affiliation in towns that are not plump with options.”

(r)evolution #3  Fightnot flight. The Jewish community must fully engage – not retreat – in an age of virulent antisemitism.

Jeremy Burton panelist and executive director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council reflected on the dark scenarios. They felt very real to him, a magnified version of today’s social climate.

“If we don’t participate in the greater community,” Burton warned, “the Jewish community will become weakened and we will lose out.”

This scenario exercise was unique. A New York City, a Detroit, or a Los Angeles Jewish community panel might select different boundaries from the ones chosen by the Boston group, resulting in a distinct set of scenarios for their communities.

No matter where you choose to run a futuring puzzle-building exercise, know that it is not about predicting the future but rather about grappling with change – sometimes dramatic change. This one gave Boston communal leaders a way forward in an increasingly disruptive world. For a few members of the Boston panel, their post-game strategic discussions have already begun.

Leonard Fuld is founder of The Intelligent Nonprofit and author of four books. From rocket companies to Jewish nonprofits, Mr. Fuld has successfully applied these strategy gaming techniques over the past four decades. He has appeared in the Harvard Business Review, BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and NBC.