Something’s Happening Here

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In 1967 Buffalo Springfield issued an anti-Vietnam War song called “For What It’s Worth” that began with, “There’s something happening here. What it is, ain’t exactly clear.” The lyric expresses what I was observing in the Jewish communal landscape over the last decade that inspired me to write Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (2013). In the book I describe two opposite trendlines that were happening simultaneously—the decline of legacy Jewish organizations and the concurrent rise of an innovation sector of Jewish themed organizations that were experiencing growth, especially among millennials.

The analysis from the book suggested an opportunity that I was eager to pursue. In 2015, with the support of the William Davidson Foundation, we launched the New Paradigm Spiritual Communities Initiative (NPSCI) under the auspices of Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. NPSCI’s mission is to identify, convene and build the capacity of emerging Jewish spiritual communities and organizations.

Because we were particularly interested in emerging groups that were attracting Next Gen Jews we looked at activity in five discreet sectors: social justice; spiritual practice; Jewish prayer groups (like independent minyanim); Jewish learning groups; and eco-sustainability/food-justice. Helping us in the effort are five co-sponsoring organizations: Hazon; the Institute for Jewish Spirituality; JOIN for Justice; Mechon Hadar; and UpStart.

We have just completed our first cycle of NPSCI. In March 2016 we gathered 55 creatives together, well distributed from the five sectors and coming from every part of the United States and Canada. While the innovators skewed heavily towards those in their 20’s and 30’s, the phenomenon is by no means restricted to that age group. The second stage of NPSCI is called Kenissa (Entrance-way): A Training for Leaders of Emergent Jewish Communities. That took place in December 2016. Each member of the initial Consultation was invited to bring a team of up to three people, professional or lay, from their communities.

What is exciting as we think about repeating this cycle for the next several years is that each person we find helps us discover one or two other Jews who are creating approaches to Jewish life and identity of extraordinary variety. NPSCI is creating a platform where these innovators can come together and gain strength from spending time with other creative individuals from around the country. Typically, most of these innovators are under-resourced, over-worked and sit at the margins of the organized Jewish community. Despite the fact that they are having success attracting the very Next Gen Jews that the organized Jewish community fails to attract, typical of start-ups, most struggle to become sustainable.

An invitation into the innovator’s network that is NPSCI is a little taste of heaven. If we did nothing more than identify these creative individuals and convene them, we could say “dayenu” but we do much more. We are essentially unleashing the creative wisdom of those in the network to teach and learn from one another. We are also offering a specific conceptual framework that inspires communities and organizations to imagine their work in more robust ways.

If the Jewish community is to turn the corner and be relevant to the next generation of American Jews, we need to better understand the phenomenon that NPSCI has begun to identify. To that end, we commissioned a study of the first cohort of NPSCI by Dr. Tobin Belzer, a sociologist affiliated with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. Her findings build on previous work in the Jewish innovation space: Mechon Hadar’s Emergent Jewish Communities and their Participants (2007), and two studies by Jumpstart: The Innovation Ecosystem (2009) and The Jewish Innovation Economy (2011).

Studying the background, attitudes and behaviors of those attending the 2016 NPSCI Consultation, the study found that the vast majority were beneficiaries of strong Jewish backgrounds including a mix of afternoon religious school, day school, participation in Jewish youth groups and summer camps. Yet few identified themselves with the movements that presumably sponsored those experiences. The vast majority identified as “just Jewish” or “post-denominational” which raises question about their future affiliation patterns and the ongoing challenge to existing synagogue movements.

In terms of attitudes, our sample reflected the waning influence of the Holocaust on their identities and a rejection of a communal narrative centering on anti-semitism and “Jews at risk”. It confirmed what other recent studies have told us about attitudes towards Israel, with very few putting Israel at the center of their Jewish identity and a majority holding critical views about some of Israel’s policies. One fascinating paradox is that the vast majority saw their identities as global and universal instead of particular and Jewish and yet, virtually all expressed an affinity to the ethics and values of Judaism.

I have argued in my own articles and books that while some describe the next generation of American Jews as “post-tribal” a more accurate term would be “covenantal”. What I mean by that term is that even as younger Jews reject many of the parochial aspects of Jewish communal life, they resonate to values that are core to Jewish teaching—every person made in the image of God; the protection of the stranger and most vulnerable in our midst; a pursuit of peace and justice; a commitment to learning and the pursuit of truth. As such, programs and organizations that put such values at the center have the best chance of attracting this next generation of American Jews.

In fact, the Jewish innovators that NPSCI is identifying and convening are building exactly these types of communities and organizations. Asked to characterize the organizations that they are creating or leading, the terms most often used were: transformative, welcoming, non-judgmental, pluralistic, accessible, unconventional and risk-taking. By implication, few believed that the legacy organizations that make up the organized Jewish community reflected these values or principles.

As part of NPSCI’s commitment to support emerging Jewish communities in the innovation space, we are about to undertake a major mapping project of the phenomenon across North America. Identifying the people and organizations that are part of the upsurge of creative efforts to redefine Jewish life and Jewish identity is a necessary part of any effort to support the Jewish innovation sector. Those interested in being listed in our database and being invited to future gatherings sponsored by NPSCI can register their organizations or communities on the home page of our website: http://www.npsci.org/

Those interested in reading the Tobin Belzer’s full report, “Jewish Communal Transformation: A Look at What’s Happening and Who’s Making it Happen” can find it here: http://www.npsci.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/NPSCI-report-Nov-16-final.pdf.


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