Jewish Megatrends: On the Road-part 1

I’ve just completed the first segment of a national book tour which will take me to ten cities over the next few months. Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (Jewish Lights) was published March 1st and I just returned from my second trip to the West Coast where I spoke at about a dozen separate events. Some authors despise book tours, accepting it grudgingly because they know it helps to create buzz about the ideas (which, to my mind, is the point of writing a book) and drive sales. In contrast, I love the opportunity to engage with different audiences, especially when the questions and interchanges that take place challenge some of my assumptions and expose me to new ways of thinking.

Here are a few highlights from the first leg of my tour:
• I did two sessions at the CCAR national convention, the annual gathering of Reform rabbis which took place this year in Long Beach, CA. In my first session, I had the pleasure of being on the panel with Rabbi Naomi Levy, a Conservative rabbi, author and founder of an alternative spiritual community in Los Angeles called Nashuva. The session was designed to discuss new ways of thinking about the synagogue business. I presented the four core principles of the new synagogue paradigm that I introduced in my 2000 book, Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews can Transform the American Synagogue (Jewish Lights). I’ve called it the “synagogue-community” as distinct from the “synagogue-center” which is still the prevalent paradigm of the American synagogue and one that is seriously at-risk given the spiritual needs of the next generation of American Jews.

Since the publication of my book I have worked with dozens of synagogues and many more rabbis and rabbinical students to help them understand and implement the synagogue-community paradigm. It has necessitated a very planful, well constructed methodology. What was so refreshing was that, as Naomi told the story of how she started Nashuva, she confessed to little if any interest in the organizational principles that I outlined. Rather her approach was quite instinctive and intuitive and it has worked, attracting hundreds of spiritual seekers to her music-filled Shabbat gatherings in Los Angeles. Some would chalk this up to another illustration of the differences between Mars (male style) and Venus (female style). Perhaps. But I also think it points to the need to support different approaches to innovation and creativity in our community.

• In the 1990’s the synagogue world was abuzz with the astounding growth and palpable energy that was generated by B’nai Jeshurun on the upper West Side of New York. Indeed BJ was one of the four synagogues that I profiled in Finding a Spiritual Home. In the last few years, there has been equal, if not more buzz about IKAR, an alternative spiritual community in Los Angeles founded by Rabbi Sharon Brous and a small tribe of talented friends. I was thrilled when Sharon agreed to write the chapter on synagogues in Jewish Megatrends and it is just one of the parts of the book that is a “must read” for Jews who care about the future.

It would be hard to imagine a more receptive audience to the message of Jewish Megatrends than the IKAR members who filled the room after the Shabbat kiddush to hear my presentation. After all, the book has dozens of examples of young Jews re-inventing Jewish life in every conceivable way and the book makes the case why the organized Jewish community must help move these examples of Jewish creativity from the margins to the center of Jewish communal life. I should add that IKAR’s services more than live up to its reputation. Having visited and profiled many Jewish spiritual communities around the country, it should be a source of great hope and optimism that places like IKAR are being created around the country. In fact, I am involved in creating a new program at Clal (called the Rabbinic Leadership Incubator) to accelerate and support just such a process. (More about that in another blog.)

• My speaking engagement in San Francisco was organized by an old and dear friend, Toby Rubin, who founded and leads Upstart, a cutting edge incubator of new ideas and new ventures for the Jewish community. The mid-day forum at which I spoke was co-sponsored by Hazon, Bend the Arc and Keshet. What a perfect consortium for a forum on Jewish Megatrends with organizational sponsors that so embody the trends that I talk about in the book. Of course, that very sponsor line-up set the stage for a rhetorical question from a woman who identified herself as active in several legacy Jewish organizations that represent the “establishment” Jewish community. Mainstream Jewish organizations like Federations, JCCs and large synagogues need to hear your message, she argued. To which I could only say: “Amen”. Indeed, those opportunities are in the works.

A more provocative question came from a man who identified himself as my age (59). I make the case in the book for the importance of facilitating more cooperation and collaboration between the innovation sector and the legacy sector of the Jewish community. This gentleman said that, for most of his adult life, he has been involved in a variety of political and social causes that have been viewed by the organized Jewish community with suspicion, if not hostility. Before there is any of the collaboration that I advocated, he argued, the Jewish community needs to take responsibility for its behavior over the past few decades and make amends. I responded by saying that it reminded me of the argument made in the early 1970’s by Black Power activists who argued that the first step to racial harmony in America would be for the U.S. government to atone for the systemic racism of this country by paying reparations to the Black community. The amount of money and the use of that money varied depending on who made the case but I recall reading one article that asked for $10 billion—a nice round number and, in that day and age, something that represented serious money . I went on to say that without challenging the truth of his claims nor the very real woundedness that he experienced (and clearly that he still carries) his suggestion would not be a very helpful starting point for the collaboration that I think is essential for the vibrancy and future of the American Jewish community.

• One of the highlights of my recent west coast swing was a forum at the Jewish Funders Network annual convention. Not only did we have a standing room only crowd for the session but we had a “dream team” to discuss Jewish Megatrends and my presentation. Sandy Cardin, the president of the Schusterman Family Foundation and the author of an extremely important chapter in Jewish Megatrends about the future of Jewish philanthropy, framed the session masterfully. Responding to my presentation was Scott Kaufman, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit, and Maya Bernstein, one of the most impressive voices of the Jewish innovation sector who works with Toby Rubin at Upstart in San Francisco.

What was so important about the forum was that it gave lie to the assumption that the legacy sector of the American Jewish community is out of ideas and out of gas and that they need to step aside to let the innovation sector take over. Scott is part of a new breed of Federation executives that is re-inventing the way Federations operate and it is most encouraging. To see the overlap in the way Scott thinks about building community and the way that Maya thinks about Jewish innovation was really heartening.

I hope that in the coming months, I will be able to bring the message of Jewish Megatrends to more and more communities to spark the kinds of conversations among professionals and lay leaders that we began at the Jewish Funders Network session.