My teacher, Jacob Rader Marcus, of blessed memory, published his first book in 1934. It was called “The Rise and Destiny of the German Jew” in which he predicted the further flowering and expansion of the German Jewish community. There was no reason to think otherwise. Then Hitler came to power.
Following that failed venture into futurism, Dr. Marcus restricted his work to the past and mostly to the American Jewish community which he felt was filled with promise and an unprecedented breath of optimism and hope for the Jewish future. As a matter of fact, most scholars credit him with the creation of the field of American Jewish history and affectionately referred to him as its longtime “dean.” (But we used to call him “the chief.”)
While I hesitate to prognosticate about the future, having learned my teacher’s lesson well, I feel that there are many things that have to be said about it nonetheless, especially if we are going to have a hand in shaping it. (That is one of the reasons why the Jewish Outreach Institute is calling its next conference Judaism2030.) And so I have some questions to ask, even if I don’t have all the answers. It is clear that the Jewish community in which many of us were raised, and spent large parts of our professional careers, and in which we raised our children, will look little like the Jewish community in which our grandchildren will be raised. Some of the extant organizations and institutions will remain. Many others will cease to exist, merge with other organizations, be absorbed. As the landscape changes for these institutions, so will it change for the Jewish communal professionals who are being trained to lead them and work in them.
A case in point is the Jewish hospital. These institutions once played an important role in the development of the North American Jewish communities, at a time when Jewish physicians could not find residencies and itinerant Jews, in particular, were not welcomed at local (often church-supported) hospitals. As these circumstances changed, so did the need for Jewish hospitals. Thus, we see the closure or transfer or privatization of Jewish hospitals in one community after another. The truism is true—even if we don’t want to believe it—nothing is forever.
Synagogues have been the cornerstone of the Jewish community for several generations. And while affiliation is often measured in relationship to these institutions, they are in as much flux as are the national movements with which most of them are affiliated. As Jews move out of second and third tier communities, it will make it nearly impossible for these institutions to survive unless we see a return to those communities. As a result, some may first merge with other synagogues in the community. Then they may become part of community-wide institutions. The only way for synagogues to thwart this inevitability and survive is to actualize their role as providing meaning for individuals. At the same time, they may have to move away from their giant edifices and inhabit more functional buildings that reflect their usage. Moreover, they may have to welcome in disparate groups whose religious philosophy and ideology may be at odds with one another. But this is what it means to be a Big Tent Jewish community. Why is it that the institutions that are being held up as models are not part of any religious movement and are often start-up visions of individuals?
Other community institutions will face similar struggles. The Jewish Community Center, which once served an important role in the Americanization of the Jewish immigrant has become an umbrella for three core businesses (day care/preschool; summer camp; and fitness center), the latter of which cannot effectively compete in the marketplace and is often outsourced. The best idea coming out of the Jewish Community Centers Association—something we have been advocating for years—is the dismantling of the myth of membership (let all community members become members for free or for a nominal fee) and then charge them on a fee-for-service basis. The free market economy will determine the rest. The JCC is currently not reaching beyond the population already reached by the organized community. It is now considering offering programs and services similar to those of the synagogue but neither institution is really reaching out to those on the periphery of the community.
Community agencies like Jewish Family Services are serving more outside of the Jewish community than inside it in most communities. And the Jewish Federation is no long the umbrella of the community and, in fact, is often competing for dollars with the very institutions that it supports.
While such structures would undoubtedly have to be created were they not already extant, those that do exist will have to reimagine themselves to thrive. There seems to me to be little alternative.
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