Tuesday, October 1, 2013

In Defense of Jews and Judaism

There was recent survey as reported in the New York Times that in essence is predicting the end of Liberal Judaism in North America.  Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of U.S. Jews Now to be clear, prognosticators have been predicting the end of Judaism for well over two thousand years, and yet we are still here.  Jews and Judaism are not going anywhere.

But what we are seeing is a significant change in practice and observance by those who label themselves as non-Orthodox.  Though I do feel it is important to state that there are many Jews who call themselves Orthodox because they attend an Orthodox synagogue, but are not actually Orthodox in their observance.  So already there is the blurring of some lines.

What is happening is a trend that is not new.  In some ways we are a victim of our own success.  The Jews of North America represent the most successful Diaspora community in our history.  We have achieved economic success beyond our wildest dreams.  We have achieved political success our ancestors never could have imagined.  And we have achieved freedoms never afforded us throughout our wanderings.

We have built institutions, denominations, and a veritable alphabet soup of organizations.  Some of which have achieved amazing accomplishments and milestones, while others have become stagnant.

What this poll indicates is that we will see an increase in cross-denominational merging as Jews are becoming less affiliated.  We are also going to see beloved organizations and congregations either merge or fold with the times.  Those institutions that are innovative and focus on programming, worship, and financial stability will thrive, while those that continue with models of the past will fade away. We will continue to see amazing clergy and Jewish professionals rise to the top, while some others, who are equally as amazing and committed finding ways to create new paradigms for their professional careers. 

Judaism and especially liberal Judaism is at a cross roads, but ever since the 1800s, the Enlightenment, and Emancipation, Judaism continues to be at a cross roads.  To be part of a communal experience while having personal freedom and autonomy has always represented a fundamental challenge to Judaism.  Communal norms are not what bind us together.  So instead we need to focus on the individual and communal experiences we can share in meaningful ways. 

And there are many other things we can do as well.  We need to look at joining together many of our alphabet soup of organizations.  We simply have too many organizations competing for the same pool of dollars for similar purposes.  We need to get ahead of the challenge of the À la carte trends in Judaism.  Many of our folks today are of the Netflix and Amazon tradition that they want what they want when they want it.  It is imperative that we start to switch to models to help accommodate them while helping them feel connected and not losing our sense of purpose and mission at the same time.  It is a daunting challenge to say the least.

We have to redefine what it means to be a 'member.'  The dues model is broken.  There are those who speak about switching to a contribution model or a pledge model.  The reality is, people have fewer resources nowadays with more demands than ever, and we need to find ways to be willing to acknowledge the financial realities of today.

One way to do this is to re-examine our use of space.  Far too many of our congregations and organizations are invested heavily in underutilized facilities.  Some have invited in other congregations, organizations, and the like to rent the space, which is more often than not, a stop gap measure.  We should be asking ourselves, how much space do we really need?  For every dollar we spend maintaining our facilities is one less we can invest in the people and programs that help to fill our sacred spaces.   Our spaces have become monuments to our past successes, but are sadly now a hindrance to our future.

We need to shore up our resources with long term investments.  We need to double-down in the people who work overtime and are underpaid to help our congregations and organizations thrive. 

The future is bleak only if we do nothing.  We still have time and we still have opportunities.  I can prognosticate as to what the future will look like, but what I do know is there are a lot of intelligent and hardworking people still working hard for the future of Jews and Judaism.

Rather than wring our hands and worry about the fate of Judaism, I feel as rabbis, we need to spend more time focusing on the fate of the individual Jews with whom we encounter.  I am not here to "save" Judaism.  I am here to help my congregants and even my non-congregants to continue to find meaning and connections with our ancient and modern heritage.  I feel it is a fight worth fighting, and I will continue to fight on behalf of Jews and Judaism, no matter what the polls may say.