Jewish Federation of Portland is Ahead of the Curve

In my travels, I come into contact with a lot of Jewish communal professionals who represent a wide range of Jewish communal institutions. Some of these institutions have historically been the pivotal institutions in the community. Of course, these include synagogues (still the most prevalent institution in the community, yet representing the minority of the Jewish community—only about 40%); Jewish Federations (which had been the umbrella organization for the community); and Jewish Community Centers (which provided for the non-religious aspects of Jewish community life). Some of these professionals understand the need to reimagine their institutions since their raison de’etre has, in most cases, long been surpassed. Mark Blattner, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Portland, Oregon understands that need. He has been working to transform the community, asking the right, albeit tough, questions and making some difficult choices (such as closing the local Jewish community newspaper).

I was pleased to be in Portland last week to address the community, as well as several groupings of Jewish communal professionals. It is encouraging to note that most of the Jewish communal professionals from this particular cross-section of Jewish communal institutions welcomed my analysis of the Jewish community, its challenges, and some of the solutions that we recommend at JOI. In most of my travels, as in Portland, communities understand that they face many challenges and are looking for some resolution to those challenges, as well as an analysis of the source of those challenges so that they may be addressed.

However, this is not always the case, as I recently received pushback on the thought that the synagogue is not the be-all-end-all as a way to instill Jewish identity. One comment I recently heard was that “the job of the synagogue is to make Jews. And the synagogue is the only institution in the community capable of doing so.” I really thought that I was back in 1950—in the post-World War II suburbanization Baby Boom that initiated the community that we have inherited in this generation. How can people believe that to be the case in 2012? What about Jewish camps? What about day schools? What about intensive social justice experiences? What about independent educational enterprises? What about Israel experiences? Together we create Jews and a Jewish community, since none is really capable of doing so on its own.

We have entered an era in which individuals employ what I like to call “playlist Judaism.” In other words, people want to direct their own Jewish journeys and select from a variety of experiences that the community has to offer. Like the shift in music (brought on by the IPod and those various steps that preceded it such as the introduction of Napster), they don’t want to have to buy the entire package in order to enjoy one aspect of it. The synagogue no longer has hegemony over the religious life of the individual—if it ever did—and certainly not the choices that an individual or family chooses to makes. With these choices becoming increasingly diverse and independent, there are ever-increasing ways to find one’s Jewish identity, and the job of Jewish institutions is to embrace this and learn how best to use it.

The Federation in Portland understands its new role in the community—as it understands the evolution of Jewish culture that it needs to address. They set a wonderful example for other Jewish institutions to follow, which I hope is exactly what happens.

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