In the past two weeks we held a beautiful book launch at my home shul, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD and then I did events in New York and Boston.
The New York event was held at the JCC of Manhattan, directed by my good friend, Rabbi Joy Levitt who is also a contributor to the book. We had an embarrassment of riches with five contributors all coming to the same program. In addition to Joy, we had Nigel Savage of Hazon, Jon Woocher of the Jewish Education Service of North America, Jill Jacobs of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and David Ellenson of Hebrew Union College. The evening was moderated incredibly skillfully by Jane Eisner, the editor of the Forward.
One interesting moment was a comment by Nigel about the need for the Jewish community to engage in evangelism. Nigel believes that Judaism has something precious to offer the world and he believes that we should be more pro-active in telling non-Jews that they would be welcome to join us. I publicly challenged Nigel on this. I state quite clearly in the book that Judaism can provide an antidote to the spiritual malaise of American life.
Yet evangelism strikes me as a bad strategy. I believe that if we create compelling spiritual communities, people will come, both Jews and non-Jews. Heaven knows we don’t have to work hard to bring non-Jews into our spaces. They come quite naturally, hand in hand with our sons and daughters, or as guests of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah or as spiritual seekers who are checking out the Jews. I’ve had numerous encounters with these gentiles after services. Even when I discount the false flattery (and there is plenty of that) there are many who find our music uplifting, our Torah discussion stimulating and the way the community embraces each and every visitor, quite special. I know that it plants seeds in people’s minds about whether they might want to join our community through conversion or help to create something similar in their church.
I am less interested in capturing souls than I am in offering a spiritual alternative to the superficiality of the American public square.
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The morning after the New York event I got an email from a 20-something who was in attendance at the event. He grew up in an interfaith household, attended Unitarian church and experienced both Christian and Jewish holidays in his home. After getting turned on to Jewish life as a result of a Birthright trip to Israel he got involved in several Jewish social justice organizations, became an active participant in a Reform congregation in the DC area and volunteered for HIAS. On all counts, it was quite a Jewish communal success story, though not as common as I would like to see.
But then the letter changed tone. He went on to say that he moved to New York almost two years ago and has yet to find a welcoming environment. It has not been for lack of trying. He also finds a disturbing gap between Jews of his generation and older Jews. Reacting to the comments I made about the need for more dialogue and cross-fertilization between Jewish legacy institutions (e.g. Federations, synagogues, JCC’s, etc.) and the younger, Jewish innovation sector, the letter bemoaned the fact that he saw few people his age at the very forum where I was speaking about Jewish Megatrends. Nor does he find many older people when he spends time at some of the Jewish social justice programs that he attends.
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The letter was an interesting reality check on the state of the American Jewish community, made even more poignant because the next day I was in Boston, participating in two separate forums with Barry Shrage, the long-time director of the Boston Federation and a contributor to Jewish Megatrends. I invited Barry to contribute to the book because he has built one of the most innovative Federations in America. In his chapter he reflects on the similarity between the four core principals that I suggested are necessary for Jewish institutions to have a shot at engaging Next Gen Jews and the core principals that guide the work of the Boston Federation.
Still, despite that common ground, Barry and I do not see things exactly the same way. He does not agree with my assessment that Next Gen Jews are largely turned off by Jewish legacy organizations. He also does not share my view that Next Gen Jews are seriously distancing themselves from identification with the state of Israel. After our exchange that was done in front of his own staff at the CJP offices in Boston, I asked Barry publicly if he thought there was a serious divide between Jews who were involved with and played leadership roles in the Jewish establishment and the vast majority of Next Gen Jews. He said “No”.
Now despite an impressive list of accomplishments at the Boston Federation, I don’t believe the Jewish community is well served by such a sanguine assessment. At virtually every stop of my still young book tour, I hear stories from young people that suggest that a serious divide between them and the organizations that are the stewards of Jewish communal life. Not only do we need to do more to fund and support the new approaches to Jewish life that are emerging from Next Gen Jews, I think that the legacy organizations need to pro-actively try to bring Jews from the next generation into their planning and leadership circles. Only that way can we hope to build and shape new models of Jewish life that are responsive to the changing nature of the American Jewish community.