Category Archives: Opinion

Young Adult Jewish Communal Professionals Conference?

A session at TribeFest on spirituality led to a lot of comments from young adults, that was the genesis of this post
A session at TribeFest on spirituality led to a lot of comments from young adults, that was the genesis of this post

One of my takeaways from having attended TribeFest last month is that many young adult Jewish communal professionals are really looking for something [that is not yet being offered to them] (when speaking about young adults, for the context of the organized Jewish community these days are 20s-30s (for some, it also includes early 40s)).  

Yes, they want to serve the Jewish community in a full-time capacity – perhaps they dedicate their lifework/career to working at it – and, many times, are not getting financially remunerated to what they should be for their talents and efforts.  In many cases (most?all?), they are also looking to grow and to stretch with their Jewish identities, as well as to wrestle with it.  Yet, how many opportunities are given to them to do so?  I think many young adult Jewish communal professionals (henceforth, YAJCPs) were attracted to TribeFest for a variety of reasons – perhaps for professional development, for professional networking, for a great time, sure – but also to struggle and to think and to be inspired in their own Jewish identities.  This became evident at one particular session in which several of the participants – who also happened to be YAJCPs – voiced their struggles and desires to be Jewishly enriched, while also working as a part of the organized Jewish community.

Lest one think that YAJCPs’ quest in their Jewish identity is a selfish reaason to come and to spend time on, one of the special aspects of TribeFest is the energy and inspiration to refuel one’s Jewish life.  This then feeds into one’s professional life and into the communities they are serving.  clearly, a worthwhile communal investment that should be returned manifold.

It would be great if such a thing were to come to reality.  However, such a national (or North American) event would most likely need to gradually build up and develop interest.  If such a conference were to be held, it would need to start small.  Maybe it could be a regional gathering, which expands each year.  Alternatively, it could be something that has multiple regional gatherings that build up to (and perhaps even continue into) a national/continental conference.

I don’t know either who/which organization would want to convene it (JFNA?) or, more importantly, who would want to fund it.  Who knows?  Maybe it could be a grassroots thing and get crowd-funding, perhaps through Jewcer.

Also, it will have to develop not only interest, but also buy-in from the YAJCP’s supervisors, since the money would come from their organizations (unless it is crowd-funded).

Of course, one question that inevitably pops up with such a huge endeavor as this is why expend the resources – be they mental, emotional, chronological, intellectual, financial, social, etc. – when there are other burning issues for the Jews, especially when it comes to money for young adults?  Maybe even having that money going into using these YAJCPs to tap into their peer networks, perhaps even those who are not that involved with the organized Jewish community.  But the most important reason is that YAJCPs are not only the future of the Jewish community, but they’re also very much involved in the present.  Furthermore, by energizing them and helping them become better Jews and Jewish communal professionals, they will be better at their current and future jobs, and the Jewish community will stand to benefit.  Moreover, the types of conversations and ideas that emerge will be incredibly fruitful, as the types of people who come will contribute to a great atmosphere.

Here are some further elements, ideas, etc.:

Who: 20s-30s working in Jewish organizations
When: Monday-Wednesday or Tuesday-Thursday conference

Where: Big enough city that is easily reachable by all
What: Some Potential Topics:

  • dealing with older people {managing up. dealing with donors, etc.}
  • dating as a YAJCP
  • raising kids as a YAJCP
  • developing one’s jewish identity as a YAJCP
  • problems…
  • working as young people in a culture that is not thinking in current ways
  • getting our peers involved in the organized jewish community

Rabbis Without Borders Evaluates

rabbis-without-bordersAs one of the rabbis who have participated in the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship, I was initially saddened when I read Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu’s “A Time for Bold Action: Redefining the Metrics of Jewish Life” which appeared the other day on eJewishPhilanthropy, in which she wrote that there will not be a new cohort of Rabbis Without Borders (RWB) fellows next year.  When I was in RWB two years ago, I greatly enjoyed it and am glad that there is a visionary program devoted to developing the rabbinate and think it has a great potential for helping make rabbis become more nimble in sharing Judaism and Jewish tradition.  I also want others to be able to experience the program and to also be shaped and to develop their rabbinate thereby and, by closing it off next year, this move, unfortunately, prevents colleagues in partaking in the fellowship.  This is especially evident in Rabbi Sirbu’s reporting of 100+ applicants for only 21 spots – there is a very high demand for this great program.

Indeed, I am part of the “over ninety percent of the rabbis” who have gone through the fellowship and, as a result of my experience, “report that they have the tools to make Judaism more meaningful and accessible to a larger population, have increased their audiences, and have enhanced people’s connection to Jewish life.”  Furthermore, I agree with Rabbi Sirbu’s assessment that “the results have been powerful”, which only makes this move a it wondrous.

However, since the aim of RWB is to “help rabbis stay ahead of the curve of American Jewish life and lead us in to the future”, it is interesting that Rabbi Sirbu writes that RWB needs “to gain more information about how and why people use Jewish traditions”, therefore

During the 2014-2015 academic year, instead of soliciting a new fellowship cohort of rabbis, we will devote considerable resources toward meeting with our alumni and their communities and exploring ways they experience Jewish rituals, teaching, and wisdom in their lives. We want to collect data that will give us a better understanding of the motivations and challenges of practicing Judaism today. What is working for people and why is it working? What does it mean for something to “work?” We intend to gather and study critical information Jewish leaders need now in order to prepare for the future.

In a way, despite being saddened that an entire cohort will miss out on this opportunity, nevertheless, I think it is a great idea to draw upon the “strong network of rabbinic alumni from which to draw such information” about developing the program.  Since RWB has “trained 103 rabbis and 68 rabbinical students”, that means there are many opinions (consider the famous adage that in a conversation, two Jews will have three opinions) that will emerge, but it should be fascinating to see how RWB develops and morphs.  I will certainly provide my input!

There was something that was a bit unclear in Rabbi Sirbu’s piece that I would to read about in fuller detail.  The subtitle is “Redefining the Metrics of Jewish Life”, yet Rabbi Sirbu neither describes what those metrics are, nor does she describe how they will be measured. As someone who enjoys metrics as a potentially great tool for use in the Jewish community, I am very curious to read/hear about them.  However, in a follow-up communication with her, she indicated that they will be greatly driven by qualitative data (of which I’m an advocate/fan), which should be awesome.  I’m very much looking forward to this development, as well 🙂

On Not Worrying About Decreasing Synagogue Membership in America

Ron Wolfson Speaking at Merage JCC - October 2013
Dr. Ron Wolfson speaking at the Merage JCC, October 2013

A couple of months ago, I attended an OCCSP lecture in Irvine by Dr. Ron Wolfson, essentially advertising his new book, Relational Judaism.  It was an interesting talk – he definitely did a great job highlighting problematic issues that are in Jewish life, focussing on issues synagogues have been having in recent decades, primarily with dwindling attendance and membership.  He also did a nice job with discussing other elements, as well.

However, what really caught my attention was both his and the audience’s sadness in discussing dropping synagogue membership.  The numbers back up this sense that synagogue membership numbers are quite low: this fall’s Pew Forum Report’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” said that 31% of Jews belong to synagogues (p. 60) and

nearly one-in-four U.S. Jewish adults say they attend Jewish religious services at a synagogue or other place of worship at least once a week (11%) or once or twice a month (12%). Roughly one-third of Jews (35%) say they attend religious services a few times a year, such as for the High Holidays (including Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur). And four-in-ten say they seldom (19%) or never (22%) attend Jewish religious services. (p. 75)

I definitely didn’t disagree with the assessment that synagogue membership has dwindled, but the dour sentiment struck me as a bit strange.  Yes, I value the importance of synagogues in Jewish life and I attend them, and I also value the role of prayer in our people’s heritage and I pray every day, but I know that most Jews nowadays don’t pray much.

So, let’s ask ourselves, why would Jews in America nowadays – especially younger Jews – want to join a synagogue?  What’s in it for them?  This is something I ask myself, since this age demographic is my constituency.  The main attraction of synagogues is, ostensibly, prayer services.  But

  1. Jews can go to synagogues and pray without needing to pay to pray,
  2. Jews can pray without going to synagogues, and
  3. Most Jews don’t particularly care about praying or attending prayer services.

Well, what about becoming a member for social reasons?

  1. One can still go to a synagogue without becoming a member,
  2. Jews, in general, are less interested in expressing their ethnic identity by membership, and
  3. Synagogues don’t frequently have social programming for young adults.

In the last decade or so, many synagogues have folded while many have merged to stay afloat.  Earlier this year, a JTA news story covered this merging, even across denominational lines, as in the case of the Orange County shuls Congregation Eilat and Temple Beth El, although merging is not new (even before the recent financial crisis), as a New York Times article from 2007 shows.  So, clearly, there are issues for synagogues being able to stay afloat.

Last month, a Chabad rabbi in Maryland criticized the twentieth century model for synagogue membership:

The current American form of Judaism developed as a reaction to the mass immigration of Jews into a free society and the headlong drive to acclimate and acculturate to the societal norms of the time. In order to prevent the masses of Jews from abandoning Judaism in the process of adjustment to a new land, a new emphasis was placed on the institution in Judaism. This emphasis reflected the prevailing religious norms of the society, namely those of Christianity, which is church-centered.

The practical result was that the synagogue, and membership in these institutions, became the distorted focus of Jewish religious life.

It’s not insignificant that a Lubavitcher Hassidic rabbi would write this: the typical model of Chabad Houses is not to charge membership fees; instead, they allow people to participate in their programs, services, and more, followed with asking for donations to support their efforts.  As someone who goes to my local Chabad, I enjoy this model much better than the typical synagogue – why should I pay dues?  I am happy to make an annual donation rather than an obligatory membership fee!

I think we have in front of us two significant questions:

  1. Can we encourage Jews to want to pray and engage in prayer and prayer services?
  2. Which alternative revenue models need to employed to make synagogues financially sustainable?

For the first question, that same Chabad rabbi continues: “I believe that it is this synagogue-focused paradigm that young people are rejecting — and I don’t blame them”, suggesting that

The Jewish community needs to pivot from this current prevailing model to a more authentic one that emphasizes the personal observance of mitzvot and engagement in religious life. Whether it is the realm of “between man to man or man to God” they are both ultimately about man’s relationship with God. Without this core, nothing can be sustained for long.

Perhaps, there is hope – many Jews are looking to connect to God and not necessarily to institutions.  This seems like an entirely separate topic to explore further, so I will leave that there.

As to the second question, Chabad has found a model that seems to be working incredibly well – perhaps other synagogues ought to try their method out.  Other people have tried coming up with creative solutions to this question, including Noam Neusner (although I don’t think his answer works, I applaud his creative approach) and others.

But what seems fascinating to me is that this issue is not a distinctly Jewish issue: Protestant Churches are also facing a membership decline.  But this is also not an issue unique to churches and synagogues, there is also a decline in membership in America, generally – whether in labor unions or in civic involvement and bowling leagues, as Robert Putnam wrote in Bowling Alone.

The question going forward, in my mind, is not “How do we try to increase membership in synagogues?”, but “What new models of Jewish life will be emerging and how do we support them to contribute to a more robust Jewish community?”  Synagogues may have been good for the middle of the twentieth century for most Jews, but aside from the growing numbers of Orthodox Jews, they may have less of a significance for the [non-Orthodox] Jewish communities in America.  And that’s not necessarily a cause for sadness; we now have to get to developing, understanding, and supporting new models of Jewish life.