This past week I was in New York for the annual Jewish Outreach Institute conference. The conference brought together some 200 Jewish communal professionals (representing synagogues, Federations and Jewish outreach organizations) from Jewish communities around North America. The focus was what will the Jewish community look like in 2030 (a topic right up my alley)?
The conference emphasized four key “entry themes” to involve more people in the Jewish community: spirituality (use of music, meditation, outdoors), belonging (membership and non-membership models), globalism (social change in both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities), and peoplehood (world Jewry and Israel-Diaspora relations).
A study was shared where a national pollster defined the American Jewish community on an interesting spectrum:
15% -- Not My thing – just no interest at all in anything Jewish
15% -- So What – being Jewish is an “identifier,” yet very very far down on their personal identity list
20% -- Social Jew – identifies Jewishly and will engage in Jewish activities for purely social reasons
20% -- Member of the Tribe Light – Jewish identity matters, may participate in synagogue life, donors to Jewish causes
20% -- Member of the Tribe – Jewish identity near top of the list as important, most friends are Jewish, participate in Jewish activities and organizations, interested in Jewish education
10% -- God Squad – “kool-aid drinker” of all things Jewish, only does Jewish activities, may be observant
What is so important is that nationally 70% of all Jewish communal funds are currently being spent on those identified as God Squad and Member of the Tribe (the top 30%). How do we begin to reach the other 70% of Jews out there with 30% of the available dollars, or do we look only at the core?
Other sessions examined the following:
The Jewish community needs to be a more inviting (yes, everything starts with an invitation) and welcoming place for all Jews and their families. We have a diverse community with in-married families, interfaith families, LGBTQ families, etc.
Interestingly, the first American synagogue to charge “membership dues” was Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina in 1824. The congregation decided to no longer auction off “aliyot” (honors) and instead to charge everyone a fee to participate. Discussions were devoted to the “pay to participate” current reality and whether the next generation will “buy in” to that concept. Our current systems are challenged with expensive costs, young people who have received “free” Jewish experiences who later in life do not think they should have to pay, and greater open competition by service providers.
Language matters. “Affiliated” can no longer mean “dues paying member of…” and Jewish communal leaders can no longer use “insider buzzwords.” We have to understand that people can connect Jewishly in many different ways today – not our old prescribed ideals.
My one critique of the conference is that perhaps it did not go far enough. People were still thinking of what we are doing today and not dreaming or imagining a totally different future. Participants would continue to refer to changing or enhancing today’s institutions and programs without an understanding of the possibilities in the future.
Therefore, I believe the following are keys to the future:
Acknowledge shifts in interest – especially with the new nature of micro-communities compared to our past focus on macro-communities. Remember, “different fish like different kinds of bait.” We can either fight/hide our eyes from the current changes or provide a myriad of opportunities to meet these differing needs. We have been reactive as a Jewish community for far too long – it is imperative that we become proactive and not consistently play “catch-up.”
Drop things that do not work or that have a minimal return. This may be unpopular but we must look at the “consumer marketplace” to understand what people want and provide those opportunities while stepping away from “yesterday’s ideas and institutions.” How willing are we to look at new models?
Technology has redefined what “community” means today. Do we understand what is truly happening on-line and how to interface with it?
Our (Jewish) world is changing at a rapid pace, yet our Jewish community is not. Let’s make sure we are preparing today --- for tomorrow!
PS – The past ten days have been fascinating to watch and listen to President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu share their visions of how to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Regardless of one’s views, it is important to realize that these are times that require bold leadership. Let us pray that in the near term an agreement can be reached that will bring peace to the region.