Re-Inventing Jewish Community: a Response to Jonathan Woocher

by James Hyman

Jonathan Woocher is a passionate advocate for real change in Jewish education. There is little doubt that change is needed, and I fully agree with his beliefs that we have fallen behind the times and that Jewish education needs to innovate in order to catch up.

So while I agree that Jewish education needs to be reinvented, it cannot be done in a vacuum. I believe that there is a more fundamental challenge facing American Jewry and Jewish education today. Education is a reflection of the values and beliefs of a particular community. For the past 100 years, Jewish education has been situated primarily in synagogues, with a small percentage of the total population attending Jewish day schools. The resources that the American Jewish community invests in synagogue education are significant. This reflects a particular understanding of Judaism and Jewish identity: a belief that Jewish identity is exclusively religious in nature. We have been taught to believe that Judaism is a religion like other religions, and the Jewish community is a faith based community along side our Christian neighbors. That notion of Judaism as a religion is deeply ingrained in the very fabric of the infrastructure of the American Jewish community. In many ways our focus on a narrowly defined understanding of Judaism is the most powerful determinant of our educational system.

The challenge is in the fact that most American Jews today do not behave in ways that illustrate a deep seated belief in a narrow definition of Judaism as a religion. 80 years ago Mordecai Kaplan wrote “Paradoxical as it may sound, the spiritual regeneration of the Jewish people demands that religion cease to be its sole preoccupation.[1]” Kaplan was of course writing about Judaism as a Civilization. And even he agreed that religion should be the primary expression of Jewish life in America. I am not suggesting that Kaplan was wrong. On the contrary, fears of dual loyalty and concerns about integrating and being fully accepted into American society were very real challenges in the 1930’s. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, we built a community that reflected the basic belief that Judaism is a religion like other religions, and we created an institutional infrastructure that looked and felt like the Christian community.

Over the past 60 years the infrastructure of the Jewish community has changed little while American Jews have changed a great deal. We now fully embrace the most fundamental value of American society: as sovereign individuals we have the right and responsibility to determine our own destinies. This focus on the self has been derided by many within and without the Jewish community. But it is a profound and foundational value in American society and it is unlikely to change in the near future. Instead of fighting it, perhaps we in the Jewish community need to embrace it and understand how such a value might enhance Jewish life and Jewish community rather than destroy it. Creating a community that is more in synch with the values and beliefs of American Jews might be a good place to start. It would reflect a partnership between lay and professional members of our community. We would need to talk to each other and gain a better understanding of what is meaningful and engaging, and where a full expression of Jewish life might be able to play a significant role. This conversation would be a critical starting point.

So before Jewish education can be re-invented, Jewish identity and Jewish community must first be understood through the lens of the 21st century. From there, we need to create an infrastructure that supports this new definition. To be sure, religion will continue to play an important role, but it will not be alone. Jewish values, Jewish traditions, art and language, history and philosophy must become a part of how we understand Jewish identity today. Many will say: that this is what we already do – synagogues are involved in cultural aspects of Judaism, they work together to express a set of Jewish values within their synagogue community and beyond. In fact, the infrastructure itself is designed to appropriate virtually all meaningful Jewish actions in the name of religion. That is precisely why Kaplan’s warning was so prophetic: by making everything religion, religion itself will become stultified, and Jews will reject. But that is what we have in America today, and Jews reject it precisely because of its all encompassing nature. The infrastructure of the community must reflect a broader understanding of Jewish identity both because Judaism is more than a belief system and because we recognize that in their search to construct meaningful lives, American Jews will be engaged by a heritage that brings meaning to them as Americans. This change in our understanding of Jewish identity will provide the necessary groundwork that will enable Jewish education to blossom in a new paradigm, reflecting a more nuanced understanding of Judaism, Jewish community and Jewish identity for American Jews.

James Hyman, Ph.D., is Chief Executive Officer, Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.

[1] Kaplan, M. Judaism as a Civilization pg. 345.

This is a slightly modified version of the original posted article.

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  1. Gordon Silverman says

    Bravo to James Hyman. His article should be read by every person who has a role in shaping the future direction of Jewish life in the US.

    I will add only one thought, really a question. Has anyone ever asked us Jews what we believe is important to us?

  2. says

    This is precisely why the Jewish startup sector – the Jewish “innovation ecosystem” – is so important to the reinvention of 21st-century Jewish life: the broad diversity of organizations in the sector really is “Judaism as a civilization” made manifest. Emerging Jewish organizations around the world are moving far beyond “Judaism is a religion” and into a multiplicity of other ways of accessing Jewish life, learning, community, and culture. It’ll be fascinating to see how this revolution in Jewish identity and community-building plays out in the Jewish educational sphere.

    Felicia Herman, Executive Director, The Natan Fund

  3. Steve Kerbel says

    I too agree with James, and as a synagogue educator, believe that our entry points aren’t situated where the people want to enter, whatever that means, or that a la carte services are the direction we should be taking. I’d gladly transition from being a congregational to a community resource. Let me know when the hiring begins.

  4. Brian Amkraut says

    Gordon Silverman’s comment is right on the ball – other than the numerous surveys that are generally sponsored by the Jewish establishment and processed through that apparatus, and whose results always allow for subjective analysis (right down to who is being counted as Jewish for the survey standards), the Jewish community does an extremely poor job of getting input from the majority of our population, most of whom it would seem would like to be counted even if not interested in being overly engaged – and in general we have communal and organizational leadership that has a set agenda, regardless of what the grass roots might find most important or timely.

  5. says

    While I agree that Jewish community and Jewish identity are an important ingredient to perpetuate American Judaism, they can’t be the primary ingredients. If we emphasize Jewish identify and Jewish feelings without practice and serious meaning we will just revert to that which got us to this point of Jewish apathy in the first place.

  6. says

    Kol Hakavod James! You hit the nail on the head.

    In line with Felicia’s comments, I think the innovator ecosystem (along with some parts of the establishment) is making impressive progress toward building a Jewish community that is aligned with the actual values and beliefs of American Jews. We still have a long way to go. But I am so thankful for the Jewish music and movie festivals, responsible Jewish food initiatives, independent Havurah’s etc.

    The biggest problem I deal with is that the traditional education system does not reflect the reality that Judaism is so much more than a religion to American Jews.

    In the prevailing model of Jewish supplemental education we teach our children about the Torah parsha, some prayers and how to read and write Hebrew. These are important aspects of our religion, but it would behoove us all to also expose our children to the other aspects of Judaism…. especially the ones that are meaningful to us as secular, proud, Jewish American adults.

    At Jewish Kids Groups ( where we’ve reimagined, remixed and renovated Jewish education, student’s meet Israeli hip-hop artists, dance, sing and grow as they build Jewish friendships, engage in Jewish cooking, learn modern spoken Hebrew, build sukkah’s in public spaces and so much more.

    All the while joyfully celebrating Judaism as a religion, culture and tool for being human!

  7. says

    The timing of this essay today, alongside Seth Cohen and Shoshana Boyd Gelfand’s “Energy and Possibility: Empowering the Future of Jewish Life in Europe,” couldn’t be better.

    When we look for ways to meet James’s challenge that “Jewish values, Jewish traditions, art and language, history and philosophy must become a part of how we understand Jewish identity today,” we need look no further than contemporary Europe. As Jumpstart‘s own research has shown, creative projects such as the ones described in Seth & Shoshana’s article, as well as community-wide innovations like Limmud and Jewish Salons are pointing the way to a Jewish future rooted in what James calls a “heritage that brings meaning.”

  8. Gordon Silverman says

    I appreciate Brian Amkraut’s comments in response to my own. He has fleshed out my less than innocent question.

    I have thought about the necessity of reaching out to “Amcha” that I would like to throw out to the readers of EJewish Philanthropy for comment. For several years, now, I have had the fantasy of experiencing a series of public “town meetings” sponsored by local federations to invite the input of grass roots Jews who would discuss their thoughts regarding the future direction of their local Jewish communities. The discussions would not be abstract; rather, each participant would discuss what would interest them enough for them to affiliate in some degree or another. Critical to these meetings would be the attendance and participation of community leaders, for, in order for the participants to have any impact, they must be present. Also critical to the meetings would be participation of unaffiliated Jews who, while positively identified have not found a place in the organized community. (We should all be reminded that identification is not the problem — a large majority of those polled in the last demographic study identified positively as Jews. It is most interesting to see how large a percentage of respondents celebrate home holidays. The problem is that the majority of the participants are not involved with the organized community.)

    I am not sure that such meetings would make any difference. But, it could.

    We all must come to grips with James Hyman’s correct assertion that the Jewish community has changed dramatically and that the leadership must address this issue. The life of Jews is radically different than it was, even a generation ago. We are more dispersed; we are more affluent; we are more accepted. The necessity (real or perceived) to maintain a self-contained community is no longer relevant. Thus, even social social coercion of such a tightly-knit community no longer exists.

    This issue is only exacerbated by the seeming lack of interest of the community leaders as they play out their own agenda or flail as they search for the “next best idea”. It is time to ask just those people who they are interested in reaching to join them in helping to determine the future of Jewish life in this country.

  9. Michal Morris Kamil says

    I too identified with James Hyman’s approach to relevance having worked for nearly 30 years in both the formal, informal and synagogue school worlds. A number of thoughts:
    * I would caution against the continuation of a culturally silo type approach-American Jewry/European Jewry/Israeli Jewry. Though first steps need to focus on ‘backyard’ relevance that is rich, broad and comprehensive in reflecting the ‘Jewish experiences (spiritual et al), narratives, and roots’, what is missing is a feeling of a broader community and hence broad responsibility. Any rethinking today, must drop the ‘us and them’ approach. it is outdated, divisive and does not reflect what is happening with young people today-social action, multi national IDs and migration and expertise in social networking.
    * A comprehensive approach and review needs to start with parents and a stronger emphasis at early ages of shared family experiences in identity building. Whether new approaches to life cycle milestones that communities take on as communities, whether shared Mitzvot tikkun olam projects, etc. One cannot underestimate the impact home/school has in building holistic Jewish identities.
    * Role of Israel-Israel must become central to serious Jewish conversations that take place in the education community-and organizations need to start working together on creating spaces and trained facilitators/educators to facilitate sophisticated conversations that involve Jewish ethics and sources and how they relate to integrating Israel into developing Jewish identities…..Any review of Jewish education needs to relook at Israel education as well and at the professional level of those involved in this sphere.The Israel experiences, mifgashim and trips are invaluable, but they do not take place most of the year.
    I join in the thanks for this discussion….and count me in as well!

  10. says

    Judaism has never seen itself exclusively or even primarily as a religion; indeed, you won’t find the modern Hebrew word for “religion” anywhere in the first five books of the Bible. The Biblical terms for what we today call Jews are Am Yisrael – “the nation of Israel” – and Bnei Yisrael, “the children of Israel.” And that’s precisely the point: From a Jewish perspective, the Jews are first and foremost a nation.

    Judaism is many things: a civilization, a nation, a religion and a culture. You can’t reduce it to one facet.
    As a country Israel embodies all of the above aspects of Judaism.

  11. Tali Zelkowicz says

    Bravo to James and the many others today who are making similar careful observations about the often jarring folk-elite misfit between what synagogues seem to provide and what Jews actually want and need. I agree with James’ premise of change and assessment of our contemporary historical moment. But I would like to challenge the notion that “synagogues” are actually solely religious in nature – that’s the ELITE’s label and frame for what they are suppoed to do and be. I believe the folk treats the synagogue consciously and often unconsciously as local address for a way to belong – culturally, socially, and otherwise. So while I’m quite ready to “re-invent” what American Jewish life can be (or catch up with what is already happening…), I have a hunch we all still need a local address in each community to show up to, to rehearse our Jewishness. For some that’s a day school, and for many, it’s still the shul…but it’s not necessarily religious attachment that brings people there.

    Tali Zelkowicz, Assistant Professor of Jewish Education
    Rhea Hirsch School of Education, HUC-JIR Los Angeles

  12. Gordon Silverman says

    James Hyman certainly touched a nerve with his comments. It is good to see so many responses. Now, the question is, what do we do next? The current approach to communal life must be changed. It won’t, though, unless something concrete is done. In my second response, I suggested that a series of “town meetings” be scheduled around the country. Before that is done, though, perhaps a national conference be held, designed to bring out people from as broad a cross-section of Jews so that planning the next steps can begin. Is it possible, for instance, for the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies, whose president Brian Amkraut has participated in this conversation to host such a meeting?

    I look forward to your responses.

  13. Brian Amkraut says

    Thanks Gordon for the promotion – I serve as the Provost at the Siegal College of Judaic Studies here in Cleveland,OH, not the President – and I have participated in some forums where these issues are seriously discussed, though generally among professional Jews – interestingly enough I saw them raised at a continuing rabbinic education conference I attended last year which did try to raise the topic of the changing nature of synagogues as institutions and how rabbinic roles are being transformed. We at Siegal have sponsored a conference for Jewish educators for each of the last three summers, but admittedly we are dealing with people already in the profession and not digging down into the grass roots level. It may be the case that for most Jews (and here I mean the majority who are not all that active in Jewish life) the activities of the Jewish establishment – federations, synagogues, schools, etc. – are not of immediate interest. It’s not that people are necessarily unaffiliated (though many are) but that even among the dues-paying Jews, most are disengaged and passive rather than active participants in organized Jewish life. But again this is speculation – and we should be able to get our hands on more useful information – we have more effective tools at our disposal, considering the ubiquity of facebook and other social media, to assess the wants and needs of the broader Jewish public – but one important hurdle would need to be overcome to engage them in that process – people would have to want to be involved and actually respond to requests for participation. Until we hit that point I think it will be difficult to overcome the current realities so accurately described in previous posts.

  14. Gordon Silverman says


    It’s always good to get a promotion. Sorry, however, that the promotion that I gave you doesn’t include a salary raise!

    I am intrigued by your response, particularly your distinction between the unaffiliated and those people who are members of Jewish organizations but, in reality, are disengaged in the work of the organization. It reminds me of Leonard Fein’s “cafeteria Judaism”, a phrase that he coined to express his frustration with the practice of joining organizations — synagogues, in particular — for specific needs, and then disappearing until there is need, again. I must admit that cafeteria Judaism does not bother me. In fact, it indicates to me that the interest that people have in playing out their commitment to Judaism. (An aside: After the 2000 demographic study was reported, I called the demographer Gary Tobin z”l to ask him about the statistics regarding synagogue membership. It had been reported that less than half of the respondents were members. I asked Gary what he would estimate the percentage of Jews who had held memberships over a period of 20 years. He was quick to answer that between 80-90% of the community probably had been members over that period of time. “Cafeteria Judaism”, I guess so. But what does that say about commitment to Judaism?). All this to say that we are probably speaking about the same people whether we call them unaffilated or peripheral or disengaged.

    I do think that there is an underlying problem that is endemic to American society as a whole, but more pressing for the Jewish community to address — that is, the issue of “community”, in general. How do we define, even describe, the American Jewish community? Its institutions (I exclude the Orthodox) have a very weak coterie of loyalists. The federations and the synagogues are frantically trying to create identities so that they will retain relevant roles. And,there isn’t a viable secular organization around that might capture the interest of the non-religious. Even organizations like Limmud or Hazon, only reach a small — should I say miniscule — number of people. These groups can probably define themselves as communities, but they relate only to a small, well-defined, segment of the Jewish population. Perhaps, though, they offer a a lesson as we begin to address the question of community. They have something that is of interest, first of all, and they provide a venue for people with common interests to develop relationships among themselves. Another thing: I would guess that the creation of these two entities was organic. The processes of their development were not top-down. The constituency already existed. And, there were no gimmicks, no hip hop, but real substance.

    Ah, the social media. Although I honestly don’t know why it is so ubiquitous, it has taken this country — and other parts of the world — by storm. I admit that whatever understanding of this phenomenon comes from my daughter; I certainly don’t have much experience with it. However, I do know that new “communities”, new relationships (no comment about the strength of these virtual relationships) are being created and cultivated every day. So, yes, maybe the social media should be used to assess needs and desires of the broad Jewish public, as you wrote. It certainly is something to explore.

    It is essential, though, to begin the process of information gathering and community building. So many things to do…

  15. says

    Judaism teaches social responsibility. It teaches that a people should work together to take care of all of their own. It teaches that God’s commandment, “Love your neighbor,” is something that ought to instruct the way a government operates.