The Establishment is Not an Idol

by Liz Fisher

At this week’s Jewish Futures Conference, Rabbi Laura Baum led a text study on Abraham and his bravery in smashing idols. At our tables, we were instructed to confide in each other: What are the idols in the Jewish community? What “idols” would you smash? Esther Kustanowitz has already blogged some of the responses. Others can be found by searching #jewishfutures on Twitter.

As an educational exercise, this conversation was terrific. It got people talking. It broke up the formality of the room. Rabbi Baum pushed us, and gave us space to vent their grievances. I was grateful to her for doing so.

But as a metaphor, idol-smashing falls apart for me. The idols mentioned – JCCs, synagogues, b’nai mitzvah, Federation – fall into the general category of “the establishment.” Those things are not idols. Idols are worshiped with blind devotion. Idols are shells. Idols have no meaning. Idols are empty, and always were.

There is no question that the establishment needs to evolve. There are institutions that should say goodbye and gracefully close shop. There are others that should change the way they do business. There are new institutions that need to be brought into the fold. But the establishment doesn’t need to be smashed.

Let’s take the federations. Do they need to include more diverse voices at the planning table? Yes. Do they need to realize that people under the age of 50 are actual leadership, not young leadership? Yes. Do they need to realize that the Jewish-Russian-American communities are partners, not recipients? For sure. But I’m not ready to smash the services those resources provide for the Jewish community in the United States and around the world.

The synagogue? Yes, we need to move programs out of the building. Yes, we need to create relevancy. Yes, many pieces of the congregational school model are broken. Yes, there is a desperate need for congregations to understand the power of the web and social media. There is no question that we need to re-envision the membership and business model. And yet, at NEXT, when we polled Taglit-Birthright Israel alumni in the New York area about their needs, what was at the top of the list? High Holiday tickets. The synagogue has been home to the Jewish community for hundreds of years. I, for one, am not quite ready to smash the place where I was first called to the Torah, where I was married, where my children were taken into the Covenant, where people coordinate meals for those in need.

This kind of discourse is divisive. During the conversation, Rabbi Ilana Garber tweeted: “Remember folks, rabbis need to be part of the #jewishfuture too.”

It’s not helping anyone to create an “us and them” – the “us” being the twitterati and innovators, and “them” being rabbis, Jewish communal professionals, and the “establishment.” The young, hip innovators are not alone in having creative ideas. They aren’t the only ones thinking about how to build community. The establishment folks are thinking about this, too, and they are in the institutions where most of our children are learning – the institutions with the resources and capacity to help us all move forward.

To me, these are the empty beliefs: The belief that we “cool kids” are somehow different; the belief that we need to wipe the slate clean and start over from scratch; the belief that no one over the age of 40 can possibly create Jewish relevancy in the modern world; and the belief that we are the first people to ever worry about the Jewish future. We alone do not hold all of the solutions.

You want to smash some idols? Have lunch with someone on the other side of the fence. If you consider yourself an innovator, call up the most “establishment” person you can think of and invite them for a conversation. If you spend most of your time in the establishment, call an innovator and do the same. And let me know how it goes.

Liz Fisher is the Managing Director at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. Reach her by using @liz_fisher or

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  1. says

    Well put. However, please note that despite broad outreach to congregational rabbis, none showed up to the conference (or at least registered by the time the list of participants was distributed). In a room that was notable for the diversity of communal professionals from organizations and foundations across the region, the absence of CONGREGATIONAL rabbis is significant. It was certainly a surprise to the conference organizers.

  2. Gabrielle says

    There is the elusive “middle” of leadership in the Jewish philanthropic sector that poses more questions and more challenges on how to incorporate young leaders when they have “graduated” from their programs and are ready to take charge. What can we do to provide structured and meaningful next step programming for individuals who were so valuable to our organizations in their 20s and 30s (pre-marriage, pre-children, pre-new life choices) and show them that they not only deserve a seat at the adult table but are a part of its maturity? At the same time, our young leaders must understand that when they begin their leadership journey with us that it is our hope that the time, energy and resources we put into them will result in a lifetime supporter and advocate for our missions. I have been continually impressed with the work of Federation to do this and do it so seemlessly for decades. All organizations should take the time to look at their young leadership that is moving towards the middle to ensure that they are not lost. It is worth the time and resources to create meaningful leadership opportunities for this group that will best fit the long term goals and needs of the organization. If they are not, the only ones that will lose will be us.

  3. says

    The irony is that all of the oranizations mentioned as potential “idols” are actually not worshipped at all. In many communities, the leaders of those organizations may behave as though they are entitled to membership and support and then blame the customers when they don’t show up.

    But most have boards of directors and venues where their policies and decisions are serously questioned and discussed.

    The irony is that the one true idol that we have in the Jewish community–the one that has become the third rail of civil Jewish life–is Israel.

    The most divisive and passionate people who are truly ripping our community apart are those who believe that the decisions and policies of the Israeli government are so holy and sacrosanct that caring Jews are not allowed to question the statements and actions of Israeli religious, government and military leaders in public or even to discuss them. The response from many organizations to J Street is not just to disagree with its views but to work to silence those views altogether.

    It is such a strong idol that it sounds like no one at this conference even brought it up–choosing to focus instead on organizations that are not idols at all but simply organizations whose leaders feel a sense of entitlement and often respond to declining attendance and funding by blaming the customers. That is arrogance and stupidity but not idolatry.

    If you want idolatry, look at the impact of the evangelicals and zealots within our midst and their behavior toward Israel.

  4. says

    Bravo and thanks to Liz for continuing the conversation begun at the Jewish Futures Conference — that’s exactly what we hope will happen. (Acknowledgement: Liz has been a valued supporter of the Conference from the outset, and NEXT was one of the sponsors.)

    The issue of “idolatry,” what it is, how to recognize it, and how to respond to it is one that interests me greatly. I believe it was the great Bible scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann who pointed out that the Bible and later Judaism consistently and probably deliberately misrepresent ancient paganism as worship of sticks and stones. (In addition to the midrash of Abram smashing his father’s idols, see Psalm 115, recited during the Hallel.) More accurately, physical idols were the concrete representations (symbols) of powerful forces (the gods) upon whom one’s life and livelihood depended. Pagans celebrated and sought to propitiate these forces; it’s unlikely that the sophisticated among them (Abram’s father, for example), believed that the physical representations were actually worthy of worship and devotion.

    And yet, religious symbols are tricky, precisely because unlike mere signage, they actually take on some of the sanctity of that which they are meant to represent. The line between kissing the Torah and worshipping the golden calf can be a thin one. Think of the complex emotions and ideas that get wrapped up (sic) in a nation’s flag — whether saluting it or burning it.

    The Christian theologian Paul Tillich defined idolatry as “the elevation of a preliminary concern to ultimacy. Something essentially conditioned is taken as unconditional, something essentially partial
    is boosted into universality, and something essentially finite is given infinite significance (the best example is the contemporary idolatry of religious nationalism).” In simpler terms, we can think of this as elevating the symbol (the representation) to the status of that which is being symbolized.

    Federations, synagogues, denominations, rabbis, and — yes — “innovation” only become idols worthy of being smashed when we forget that they are concrete representations of and pathways to larger values like community, kedushah (sanctity), and tzedek (justice). When they become ends in themselves and objects of devotion for their own sake, we slip dangerously close to idolatry. And, that is something, alas, that even the best of us are prone to, whether we intend it or not.

    It is the sense of many of us today, I believe (and I speak as a card-carrying member of the Jewish establishment, which was also well-represented in the room at the Jewish Futures Conference), that we have too often let non-ultimate things like organizational turf, unnecessary ideological infighting, institutional budgets, status competition, personal egos, and a few sacred cows (like the Bar/Bat Mitzvah as the pinnacle Jewish experience) get in the way of what is genuinely important in Jewish life. That is an indictment, but I think most of us recognize that it is not directed at “them,” but at “us” — all of us who, human as we are, fail to live up to our highest potential.

    So, I agree with Liz that we should not be willy-nilly running around with our hammers smashing everything Jewish in sight. We need our symbols, and we need institutions that point us toward and help us realize the values we are meant to live. But, a little smack here and there won’t hurt. Joseph Schumpeter argued that “creative destruction” is the key to progress. I think Abram would have agreed.

  5. Susan Friedman says

    Bravo Liz! My former colleague from UJA Federation of New York, who is herself a dynamic innovator, touches upon what I believe is the flawed reasoning of our youth obsessed society. That only those who are young and/or untainted by the bureaucratic thinking of our established Jewish institutions can incubate the fresh ideas that we need to enliven and preserve Jewish life for the future. I concur with Liz that to remain relevant and vibrant Jewish institutions need regular infusions of new blood, new ideas, and new perspectives that push the envelope, create new models, and tools that serve and enrich our world in non-traditional ways.

    However to suggest that this can happen only outside of established institutions is hubris plain and simple. In the nine years I served as Managing Director of UJA-Federation’s Jewish Communal Network Commission I witnessed first-hand the capacity of its strongest network agencies and of area synagogues to incubate new ideas, test them in the market place and then, with their own resources often matched or supported by Federation, institutionalize them, thereby ensuring their continuity for the Jewish community. What too many young innovators learn once they take their cutting edge ideas and turn them into projects is that without institutional scaffolding and a basic infrastructure, innovation often blossoms only to die on the vine.

    Many Funders in the Jewish and broader philanthropic communities delight in bringing forward innovation particularly generated by Millenials and whoever comes next. Where these Funders fail in my opinion is in their reluctance to share responsibility with their grantees in helping them secure the successes of those projects into the future.

    I would suggest to Jewish philanthropies that they take Liz’s concluding point, that of young innovators and establishment types breaking bread together, a step further.
    Strong established Jewish institutions could serve as both the launching pads of and the infrastructure for the next great Jewish communal ideas. A key role for funders in my opinion is to make these “shitachs” happen. In their critical convening roles Funders can take the lead in bringing young innovators and established institutions to the table. They can identify those in our community with the imprimatur and ability to communicate across these divergent cultures, and support them in serving as facilitators and guides in building towards real cross fertilization, collaboration and possible integration. In so doing Funders could leverage their grants and relationships with established Jewish organizations, and the young social entrepreneurs whom they support through incubator grants, to embrace a shared responsibility for the continual re-invigoration of our community.

  6. says

    Great article. It is not about the old or the young, the traditional or the new… It is about eliminating barriers, eliminating titles, eliminating turf and all focusing on why we do what we do…to provide as many opportunities for people to be intentionally “Jewish” and to engage with one another and be part of the/a community.

  7. rskeen says

    Terrific piece Liz, and you clearly tapped into subjects important to many that participated Monday. I too found the idol-smashing metaphor problematic, but found the big response a gauge of the eagerness – at least among that audience – to have our institutions evolve more quickly than they seem to be. However, starting over from scratch rarely works; integrating and encouraging new ideas and leadership does. One need to simply look at the current explosion of innovation and ideas happening in the tech business – now a decade removed from the V 1.0 bubble crash – to see how successful for-profit organizations are doing it: leaders learn form their mistakes, regroup, reload with talent and nurture/encourage new ideas, nimbleness and a culture unafraid of mistakes. The Jewish institutions that take this path will serve us well, those that don’t won’t need any smashing – they’ll simply become obsolete.

  8. says

    Larry Gellman writes passionately about the Israeli third rail and the determination of zealots to silence JStreet and any other critic of Israeli policies. While the people that Larry describes certainly exist, I believe they are a small minority today. Criticism of Israel is plentiful within the Jewish establishment and debate of Israeli policies is a prominent element of every conference I attend including the last General Assembly. The Jewish world has changed, is much more open to debate than it once was, and that is evident for anyone who wants to see it. The third rail is powered as much by critics of Israel who are deeply invested in the position that their voices are neither valued nor acceptable as it is by the minority who still refuse to accept them. It is time for everyone to understand that just because some people don’t agree with your positions doesn’t mean they are not heard or appreciated.

  9. says

    As Rabbi Baum’s colleague at and Beth Adam, I find it invigorating that her presentation has engendered such energized dialogue. Idol smashing is a delicate practice. One needs to have the confidence to smash an idol and the wisdom to know which idol needs smashing.

    In today’s environment even raising the issue can be problematic. While everyone is willing to cheer the idol smasher of old (Abraham) for his courage, we do so with 20/20 hindsight. It is always easier to know the idol smasher was correct with the luxury of time.

    However, contemporary idol smashing is much more challenging. Looking out into the future, we cannot be sure which idols are holding the Jewish community from realizing its full potential. And so uncertainty can lead to paralysis. Unsure of what to break, nothing is broken and the past remains fixed and the future frozen before it has begun.

    Rabbinic myth teaches us, that smashing idols is not done by committee. Abraham smashed the idols alone. But more importantly, idol smashing only takes on meaning if the idol smasher has a vision of the future and energizes others to follow. Broken idols, lack of vision, and no followers is a recipe for disaster. It serves no purpose and destroys rather than creates.

    Where Rabbi Baum’s talk leads is uncertain. Some may resist the challenge while others may want to wield the hammer wildly – neither is the wisest course. Today, we need idol smashers whose vision is bold and whose passion in contagious.