This article originally appeared in Looking Forward, the journal of the Aspen Center for Social Values.
Let us begin by distinguishing between two questions. The posed, “What will American Jewry look like in 10 years?” includes various elements — deeper assimilation, higher intermarriage rates, increasing disillusionment with Israel, etc. — all of which seem quite inevitable despite our great efforts to prevent them. “What might American Jewry look like in 10 years?” is a question that invites vision, mine and that of Hebrew College Rabbinical School, which I founded in 2004.
Our rabbinical school has just taken in the largest new-student group in its history, which is also the largest incoming group of students in any single-site, non-Orthodox rabbinical school in the country. We are a factor to be reckoned with in the shaping of the future leadership of our shared country. We are, therefore, compelled to ask, how might Jewish life look different if a significant percentage of America’s rabbis are trained at Hebrew College, or at other institutions shaped by our influence?
I have, in fact, had a fairly consistent view of American Jewish life, its spiritual ills and some ways of healing it, since founding Havurat Shalom in 1968, the beginning of what came to be known as the “Havurah movement,” though regrettably never organized as such. The opportunity to work in several different institutional contexts over the years has sharpened my perspective, but the essential value system has remained surprisingly constant across nearly half a century.
The synagogue remains the key institution of American Jewry. Despite the fact that Jews measure as the most secularized ethnic/religious group on the American scene, no secular institution, such as the JCC, has significantly displaced the synagogue as the center of Jewish life. There are two reasons for this, one external and the other internal.
From the outside, we are living in the most religious of any advanced society the world has seen. Church affiliation is important to Americans. As we moved from the ethnically monolithic urban neighborhoods out into white suburbia between 1950 and 1975, Jews needed to show our WASP neighbors that we, too, had a place of worship, one with which we proudly identified, even if we attended quite irregularly, as did many of them. Internally and more significantly, secularized Jews are not nearly quite so secular as statistics have portrayed them.
If you define secularism by the pollsters’ questions, “Do you believe in God?” or “Do you believe in a personal afterlife?” you will indeed see a very high degree of secularity. But if the question focuses on practice, particularly around the defining issue of the personal life cycle, as in, “Do you want a bar/bat mitzvah for your child?” of “Do you want to be married/buried/mourned as a Jew?” you will see evidence of a very high identification with Jewish religious praxis. True, on the regular year-cycle observances the statistics will be lower, but there, too, they have improved dramatically in recent decades, including among intermarried families. Witness Passover seders, Hanukkah candles, even the rebirth of such unpredictable “oddities” as Tu BiShvat and Tikkun Leyl Shavu’ot.
What does all this mean for the future, and specifically for our approach? Let me provide you with two answers:
- The synagogue functions primarily as a place of prayer. Prayer is not easy for non-Orthodox American Jews, most of whom are not sure if they believe in God, and almost all of whom do not think God answers prayers in the ordinary sense of that term. How, then, will we make the synagogue work? This is not a question that can be answered simplistically or in a singular way; a variety of approaches need to be tried. Creativity is the key; the old service, whether standard Conservative or Reform, no longer suffices. Such creativity must include new versions of the prayer book (including remarkable recent achievements within each of the liberal movements), new music, silence, movement, guided meditation and lots more. The synagogue of the future has multiple worship experiences offered simultaneously, serving a variety of spiritual and emotional needs. These all depend upon greater cultivation of spiritual awareness as a key dimension of human life. Open discussion of such often taboo topics as God’s love, mortality, doubt and the quest for personal meaning are all necessary components. Above all, meaningful prayer experiences do not just happen, they require creative thought, insight and planning.
- No matter what rabbis and synagogues do, prayer will remain difficult for a large part of the Jewish population. That is simply a reality of the secular age in which we live. But that is not true of Jewish learning. Today’s Jews, virtually all of whom are college graduates, thirst for Jewish knowledge. The success of various higher-level adult study courses (Hebrew College’s own Me’ah, Wexner, Melton, Limmud, etc.) attest to this. If Jewish tests and ideas are presented on a high level with room for lots of interactive participation in the commentary and understanding processes, many Jews will be attracted to such learning. The synagogue needs to be converted into an interactive bet midrash, or house of study. Learning should become its best-known and most popular activity. The synagogue should be as full on a Tuesday evening for bet midrash night as it is for Shabbat services. The Rabbinical School of Hebrew College’s greatest success has been in imbuing our students with a sense of ahavat Torah, a genuine love of Jewish learning, and a sense that text study, especially in small groups or hevruta pairs, is the fast-beating heart of Jewish education. Our graduates are sent forth with a very clear message that the synagogue needs to become a house of study. This should include groups engaged in studying Torah, TaNaKH, Mishnah, Talmud, Zohar, Hasidic sources, classical and modern Hebrew poetry, Jewish arts and fiction and lots more. The future of Jewish involvement for this generation of bright and well-educated Jews will depend on the quality of learning and how well we communicate the excitement of the learning process for all ages, across generational lines.
The mention of hevruta brings me to the next important area where I believe the synagogue can make a distinct contribution: the creation of intimate and caring community. Possibly the most important role that religion has to play in contemporary American society is the preservation of small face-to-face communities of people with common values and concerns. As we become ever more atomized in our lives behind computer screens, and as “friends” turn more and more into people who see your Facebook page, real community is in sharp decline. This will be a tremendous loss on the simple human level of personal support and caring. Religious communities, especially those that still meet at least once weekly, provide a true sense of connection for a large part of the American public.
Over the past several decades, partly because of the influence of the havurah movement, most liberal synagogues have moved in the direction of increasing such community-building efforts. Synagogues have become much less formal and pretentious than they were 40 or 50 years ago. A sense of warmth, welcoming of newcomers and embracing community are all values on which congregations are judged by prospective members.
Rabbis and other Jewish professionals need to be trained in the art (yes, art, not science) of building community. HCRS places great value on the communal experience, much of it taught by personal example. The highly nonhierarchical style of student-faculty relations, as well as the sense that the faculty members themselves constitute such a community of teachers and scholars, are intentional acts of modeling from which students are meant to learn. The presence of a weekly “community time” circle, during which we all share both good and painful things happening in our personal lives, is another important model. The welcoming of new people into that community is a self-conscious and thought-out process.
Community brings me to the next important issue, that of pluralism and diversity. Because we are a pluralistic and nondenominational program, we do not have a formula to determine the right kind of Jewish living and who is a proper Jew. The synagogue of the future will need to be based on an “ahavat yisra’el,” love of fellow Jews, that embraces all sorts of difference. This includes the difference in degrees of Jewish practices, on opinions regarding Israeli and world Jewish politics, on varying views of conversion, marriage and divorce, differences of race, of gender definition and sexual orientation, and many more. It will also need to reach out to the sorts of Jews who would never join such an institution, including the ultra-Orthodox (this will become an increasingly difficult reach) and the avowedly secular.
Among the toughest issues our community will have to face in the decades to come is that of our relationship to Israel, including (but not limited to) the feelings aroused in liberal-oriented American Jews by Israeli government policy toward its own Arab minority and the future of the occupied territories. This problem will not go away and will not be resolved by public relations efforts of by wholesale condemnation of younger American Jews for disloyalty to the Jewish state. (I write this just as the Knesset, led by the prime minister, is set to declare the precedence of “Jewish” over “democratic” in determining the state’s character.) Israel must understand that its sister-community in North America is deeply committed to values of pluralistic democracy. Its desire to attract our involvement in “the state of the Jewish people” will increasingly fall on deaf ears if American Jews come to perceive Israel as a state less than fully committed to those values.
The synagogue will only attract the involvement of the coming generations if it becomes a launching pad for enacting values that these generations respect. These include concern for disadvantaged in all areas, both locally and internationally. Without this sense of balance and moral gravitas, the championing of exclusively Jewish concerns will seem narrowly chauvinistic, alienating increasingly large portions of a generation that may want to see itself as Jewish, but is also intimately connected to non-Jewish family members and to broader societal concerns. If “Jewish” echoes with human rights and moral responsibility, including the great questions of environmental degradation and planetary survival, the Jewish community will be respected by those it needs to attract. Without resounding commitment to those values, there is no chance.
On such matters, we are a single Jewish people. The differences among Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and large members of nondenominational liberal Jews (and perhaps even the Modern Orthodox, though their leaders hate to admit it) are mostly in matters of worship style and observance choices. When it come to the issues we face as Jews in the contemporary world, our needs for building community, and the learning we seek, we are all very much the same and should be united. In this multiplex age, there is no reason that a single synagogue could not supply multiple options for worship, but have everyone join together for learning, community, “hesed” and social action. The breakdown of rigid denominational lines would both provide for greater Jewish unity and save a tremendous amount of budget duplication and personal vitriol.
Finally, I turn to the issue of theology, no small matter when it comes to the future of a community that is defined in mostly religious terms. What do we believe? What can we believe? Is there a way to articulate a faith for the next generation of Jews that will be at once intellectually honest, passionately exciting and unifying?
This has been my primary intellectual effort over the past several decades. In the study and teaching of Hasidic and mystical sources, I have found that formulations of faith, that if universalized and updated, can be reformed into a credo that I believe can meet these criteria. You can see much of it in my neo-Hasidic credo, but more of it in Radical Judaism and many of my other writings. No one would be happier than I if the next generation goes ahead and improves upon what I have done, or even replaces my thinking with other forms of Judaism that share these criteria of honesty, passion and unification. But the struggle to understand and articulate what we believe is a vital and exciting one. A rabbi is, above all, a person of vision.
To quote an old saying, “If Jews are not prophets, they are descendants of prophets.” The Jewish people needs leaders who will represent a sense of vision and faith to the communities they lead. The example of such a quest, open-ended and lifelong, is also part of the legacy that we at HCRS are giving future rabbis we have the great privilege to teach.
Think of the above as a program for the transformation of North American Jewish Life” meaningful prayer, exciting learning, warm, inclusive community, the blurring of denominational lines, struggle with great moral issues and an ongoing attempt at articulating a compelling vision of faith. That’s what we’re about in the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, and I am truly happy and proud to share this vision with you.