After reading the 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study, I’m reminded of my friend and colleague Rabbi Yonah Schiller’s Rosh Hashanah message: “To make ourselves new, to truly give ourselves a new year, requires us to be open, to become different. We allow ourselves to hear new things, to see with new eyes, to be open to experience our day-to-day in a new way, even when it objectively looks no different….When we are new, we approach life in order to discover; we stretch with the goal of unearthing new capacities and understandings.”
So I look at the Community Study with new eyes and ask: What should we make of data showing a decline in denominational identification and institutional affiliation, while at the same time describing a vibrant, diverse and engaged community?
Millennials appear to disregard institutional norms. Insider/outsider categorizations no longer resonate. This is a generation comfortable carrying multiple identities, not beholden to tradition, and uncomfortable with the idea of exceptionalism. Religion is not immune to these characteristics. The 2012 Pew Research Center report “‘Nones’ on the Rise” indicates that nearly one-third of millennials do not belong to a faith community, and of those only 10 percent are looking for one.
If they’re not looking for a faith community, what are they looking for? In the recent publications “How We Gather” and “Something More,” Harvard Divinity School students Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston point to new communities, such as SoulCycle and CTZNWELL, that fulfill traditionally religious functions of meaning, values and belonging. In a 2014 design thinking research study the Jacobson Family Foundation commissioned, we learned that interfaith couples put their relationships first, and although they seek meaning, it must come in a community that honors all of who they are, without rigid structures that confine their busy lives.
In the Jewish community, we hold our institutions dear. When does an organization transition from a collection of human, intellectual and capital resources to a symbol whose purpose is to assure its continuing survival? Despite many of our Jewish institutions being “new” in the context of Jewish history, we ascribe to them such weight as to assume that their decline signifies the demise of the Jewish people. How can we understand this when we put so many resources into innovation?
Let’s take synagogues as an example. The Community Study indicates a decline in synagogue membership between 2005 and 2015, from 42 percent to 37 percent, yet for many of us synagogue life works. We see cases where inspiring leaders and dedicated members create dynamic, vibrant and inclusive spaces that serve as magnets for those seeking to connect. What do we make of this contradiction? Great leaders—with vision, willingness to take risks and an ability to embrace change—will engage people who want what they have to offer. For others, connection will take a different form.
Some creative responses are emerging nationally, where clergy unconstrained by existing models are charting their own paths. A group of seven independent spiritual communities have come together as the Jewish Emergent Network to train other clergy in techniques that have made them successful in engaging a diverse population with creative use of space, new membership models, alternative spiritual practice and integration of social-justice values. Moishe House is incubating a project to support more independent spiritual communities, with the goal being to help entrepreneurial clergy develop sustainable models that are both attractive and nimble.
Synagogues are just one of many institutions being “disrupted” by innovation. Jewish Kids Groups in Atlanta and JWOW: Jewish Without Walls in New York are redefining what Jewish education and engagement looks like for kids and families. Honeymoon Israel gives couples (mostly interfaith) the space, and friendships, to explore how to do Jewish. PJ Library is finding a way to help parents, including those with no Jewish background, to do something Jewish with their kids.
Let’s not kid ourselves. These emerging spiritual communities and new models of learning and engagement will one day become the institutions they seek to disrupt. InterfaithFamily and Big Tent Judaism fought for more than a decade to bring interfaith issues to the forefront, and today there is growing consensus that the term “interfaith”—not the work of engaging the interfaith—is no longer relevant in a community where they will soon be the majority. The real work is in building vibrant, meaningful communities that attract all of our Jewish community, and putting the emphasis on the community rather than on the institution.
So how do we embrace this change, this opportunity to celebrate examples of excellence while embracing new ways of doing things? How do we get comfortable with Jewish practice that looks and feels different from what we know? These are just a couple of the questions I hope CJP takes on in its strategic planning process.
Read the 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study here.
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