Jews Have Changed: Will We?

A new book offers ideas for creating communities people want to join – just what United Synagogue’s Centennial is all about.

by Rabbi Steven C. Wernick

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Several years ago, as a congregational rabbi, I accompanied a group of teens to Washington, D.C. on a program called Panim el Panim, Hebrew for Face to Face. We studied the crisis of homelessness from a political perspective, looked at Jewish texts dealing with poverty and then went out to the streets to speak with homeless people and offer them socks and toiletries. The experience affected me deeply. Many times since I’ve gone out with my children to do similar types of outreach. And I’ve rarely looked at a homeless person without seeing in them some spark of the divine.

So when I saw that the man who created this extraordinary program, Rabbi Sid Schwarz, had written a new book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future, I knew I wanted to read it. A true visionary, Rabbi Schwarz was the founder in 1988 of PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, which helped pioneer the now common practice of giving young Jews an opportunity to work for social justice within a Jewish framework.

Because Rabbi Schwatz is an important thought leader, I was gratified to see how closely the ideas and proposals he puts forth accord with the vision and focus we adopted two years ago after a serious process of re-imagining the work of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. To oversimplify, Rabbi Schwarz asserts what many of us know: the way we organized Jewish life in the 20th century just doesn’t work in the 21st. But, as he also says, we know for certain that Jews will flock to places that offer what he describes in four propositions for a renaissance of Jewish life: meaningful community, sacred experience, authentic Jewish wisdom, and kedushah, sacred purpose.

“What I know to be true,” writes Rabbi Schwarz, “is that if you show Jews how Judaism can offer a glimpse of a life of sacred purpose, they will come in droves.”

You may have noticed that United Synagogue has begun to use the term kehilla rather than “synagogue.” Why? Because we, like Rabbi Schwartz, believe firmly that to thrive, congregations, synagogues, minyanim, or whatever they call  themselves, must be kehillot kedoshot, sacred communities.

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Indeed, we’ve designed our entire Centennial celebration, taking place in Baltimore this October, to begin to realize the kind of change Rabbi Schwarz proposes. We call it the Conversation of the Century. It’s a catchy tagline, yes, but it’s what we truly hope this event will be: a forum for all of us who care about creating Jewish communities of meaning and purpose to speak with and learn from the most effective Jewish innovators of our time, whether they come from thriving Conservative kehillot, independent minyanim or outside of congregational life.

In his book, Rabbi Schwarz and a series of distinguished contributors lay out eloquently the profound social changes that have created the Jews that many of us recognize: people who seek spiritual meaning, who want to make a difference in the world, but who are not inclined to join or support synagogues and other Jewish institutions – at least not the way they are currently organized. But what I appreciate about Jewish Megatrends, and why I think it would be worthwhile for a congregational board to read jointly, is that while it explains what doesn’t work, it focuses more on what does work, and points the way to the future.

The only thing missing from Jewish Megatrends is the “how.” How do congregational leaders – who often face problems like declining membership, a lack of funding, too few engaged participants – steer their organizations toward becoming  the visionary places Rabbi Schwarz believes they need to be?

At United Synagogue, we believe a big part of the answer lies in leadership. Only a team that has developed a vision of where it wants to go and how it plans to get there can make the kind of fundamental, longterm shifts that allow them to realize major change. It’s why we’ve put tremendous resources into expanding our signature leadership program, Sulam. In the last two years, some 200 kehillot have taken part in various learning communities we’ve convened, through workshops and webinars, to discuss leadership development, governance, strategic thinking, planning, and finance. About 60 kehillot are now or will be working closely with us in “action communities,” tackling crucial challenges such as how to engage emerging leaders, become proficient at strategic planning, and find more sustainable dues and membership models.

Some kehillot are further along than others in their work. But many have taken major steps to becoming the kind of inspiring, meaningful communities that Rabbi Schwarz proposes, and I know that with the right focus, hard work, and a belief in the value of our mission, together we will create the renaissance in Jewish life he so eloquently envisions.

Rabbi Steven C. Wernick is CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.