Thoughts on the American Jewish Community

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I have been traveling a great deal lately, consulting with communities, making presentations, attending conferences. And there seems to be a pervasive feeling of paralysis among many Jewish community members who are fearful about the future and about the era of transition and change in which we currently find ourselves. While I am adamantly optimistic about the Jewish future, I worry about the ability of many of our institutions and its leadership to make the “adaptive changes” necessary for us as a community to grow and prosper. And the changes are necessary. Many of our communal institutions are hemorrhaging, but most people are willing to only make cosmetic changes, and think that they will be sufficient.

We are at the dawn of a new generation, one that is fully American. Thus, many of the institutions that were created to serve an immigrant population and a population not fully accepted no longer serve the current population. We created a parallel universe, but that universe is crumbling because it has lost the majority of its raison d’être.

It seems to me that there are two camps out there. The first group is made up of those who are trying to return to a community that never existed. It reminds me of the story I like tell about my own grandmother, my bubbe, who was the last of our family to hail from Russia. When I pressed her to tell me stories about the old country, about the shtetl, she reprimanded me by saying, “We left because it was terrible. I have forgotten about it. It’s time that you forget about it, as well.” This sense of “shtetl nostalgia” is once again threatening our community. But this time, the contrived nostalgia is not about the old country. Rather, it is about what we strive to remember about the way the American Jewish community once was. And of course, it was never that way.

The other camp is made up of those who are willing to blow up the system (figuratively speaking, of course). I am not speaking of the so-called Occupy Wall Street protesters and their derivatives. These folks are trying to radically change our communal agencies, in particular, our synagogues and local Jewish Federations so that they can continue to serve the community in bold, new ways.

The American Jewish community is as informed by American values as it is by Jewish values. And America has taught us all to vote with our feet. If our institutions are emptying, then we have to discover what are the needs of the people in our community that are no longer being met.

It isn’t as if there aren’t great things going on out there. They just aren’t aligned with the organized community. So it’s time for the organized community to align itself with what indeed is going on among its people—or the distance between the engaged and the unengaged will continue to grow into a chasm that will be impossible to traverse.

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