A Centered-Set Approach to Jewish Community

By Rabbi Hugh Seid-Valencia and Rabbi James Greene

One Friday morning while I [James] was making my normal rounds around the JCC preschool, visiting classrooms to celebrate Shabbat, Sonia, the child of an interfaith family came up and welcomed me at the door of her classroom. She brought me over to the table where they had challah, juice, and candles. Together, we led the Shabbat table rituals for her class. Afterward, Sonia and I talked about the Shabbat rituals and what they meant to her and how they marked the end of the week with a celebration.

Sonia is on a Jewish journey – and it is a complicated path with parents who are struggling to figure out how she will be Jewish and grandparents who believe and behave differently. And, with all of that, Judaism is part of her journey that will remain with her through her life. The values, traditions, and teachings of the Jewish community are helping to nurture her growth; helping her to become the wonderful person she is growing up to be. This is true for many other children at the JCC who participate in our preschool, camp, and afterschool programs. It is equally true for adults who take classes, engage in Jewish wellness programs, or attend programs and events at the JCC. As the living room of the community, the JCC is a place of welcoming.

In fact, the JCC is strongest when we help people draw closer to their Jewish identity and help people of all backgrounds move along their Jewish journey in the community.

A Centered-Set Community

During our time at the Mandel Executive Leadership Program, we visited Grace Chapel, an evangelical megachurch in suburban Boston. Much about the visit was surprising and compelling. Grace Chapel does not collect membership dues and does not prioritize membership, nor does it emphasize gathering demographic information about its visitors. The church does mobilize impressive numbers of volunteers who partner with church staff to produce excellent programming that draws people in. In explaining the theory behind these practices, Senior Pastor Bryan Wilkerson described how Grace Chapel conceives of itself as a centered set, as opposed to a bounded set. This distinction entered into evangelical discourse in the 1970s when Paul G. Hiebert borrowed the language of mathematics to describe how Christians might shift their approach from traditional congregational work to missionary work and has since become a tool for conceiving of church life more generally. For Hiebert, communities that fall into the bounded-set paradigm have relatively clear markers for who is in and who is out, and community leaders emphasize the rights and obligations of membership. On the other hand, centered-set communities spend less time and energy on boundary maintenance and more on defining what is at the center of a clear and compelling community. As Pastor Bryan claimed, he is less interested in clarifying the insider or outsider status of those with whom he engages and more interested in seeing where they stand in relation to the Chapel’s center. For Grace Chapel, that center is “Discovering Life with God for the Good of the World.” For leaders of Grace Chapel, what matters is that an interlocutor is interested in engaging in dialogue about that center.

We contend that we, in Jewish communities, might benefit from shifting our thinking about what it means to engage in our communities. We suggest that we move from bounded-set to centered-set paradigms – that we ought to worry less about boundary maintenance and clarification and instead focus more on defining a compelling and engaging center that draws participants in.

The Changing Landscape

The landscape of the Jewish community is going through a period of dramatic change. The Mandel Institute’s Executive Leadership Program is working with 16 emerging Jewish organizational leaders to help us understand and prepare to guide Jewish communities through that change. This is not the first time our community has undergone a massive shift. As Simon Rawidowicz, the great Jewish philosopher, wrote, we are the “ever-dying Jewish people.” But, as Mark Twain would say, reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. We contend that the Jewish community is in fact growing in new and unique ways. Ninety-four percent of American Jews reported having pride in their Jewish identity, although many of those Jews do not choose to affiliate in traditional ways. New and vibrant Jewish expressions are popping up all over the country through new social justice organizations, Jewish environmental programs, creative ritual and online portals, and alternative community models. Many of the people connected to these organizations are on a Jewish journey, but that journey does not include traditional affiliation, and what they are telling us is that attempting to replicate the Judaism of our parents or grandparents is not a strategy that is likely to succeed.

The Jewish community has long been held together as a bounded set – a series of boundaries that you would cross to be part of the whole. For many, that was membership or affiliation, financial contribution to Jewish legacy institutions, participation in synagogue life, or specific Jewish observances that identified you as a “member.” Today, those old boundaries are breaking down. And, the legacy institutions of the Jewish community are struggling to keep up as Jews choose different ways to “do Jewish.” Boundaries are breaking down as people choose new ways of affiliating and expressing Jewish identities. Attachment to denominations among younger Jews is shrinking, but a new movement of havurot and non-synagogue prayer groups is emerging. Hillels and Jewish campus groups are seeking meaningful Jewish interactions and investing in personal interactions and breaking down models of belonging to the organization. Among the younger Jewish generations, the number of donors to Jewish Federations is shrinking, but engagement in social justice issues remains high. This next generation of Jews wants to be in relationship, not purchase a membership. Given the rise in blended families and the multiplicity of ways of defining Jewish identity, the lines between insider and outsider status are increasingly blurry. Those in our communities increasingly do not respond well to the boundaries of a bounded-set community. Rather, they are seeking community that is genuinely interested in their journey and is open to meeting them at their point of availability. What is emerging is a new model of community that invites people in, meets individuals at their point of interest, and embraces the journey, rather than the destination.

Reframing the Jewish Community

For JCC professionals, the idea of a centered-set community offers an attractive approach to community. If, as Grace Chapel has done, we can clearly articulate what the center point of the Jewish community is within the context of a JCC, we can be in relationship with the people who share that journey. Although each community might choose a different center point, let’s begin with this as one possibility:

The center point of the JCC is meaning-making through Jewish values and experiences. And, everyone who is open to this process is part of the community. Whether they are born Jewish, Jews by choice, fellow travelers, or are simply engaging with Jewish concepts, themes, and experiences through the course of their relationship with the community, people who are open to the possibility that Jewish thought and Jewish activities can help them find meaning or purpose are “members” in this centered-set approach. This would include our preschool student from a mixed-religion household who loves Shabbat. It would also include Jews who are unaffiliated but are open to a Jewish journey that might emerge. It also includes people who are on Jewish journeys of all sorts who have never set foot into the JCC.

By making this shift in thinking, we leave behind the desire to serve our “members” as a limiting force for communal change and impact. Instead, we come to an expansive place of looking at the whole of the community as our constituents. And, we have an obligation to equally serve every constituent, because they are on the journey with us and are therefore part of our community.

The JCC has, for most of its history, been a fee-for-service agency. The financial model of most JCCs would not necessarily change in this centered-set approach, but the thinking behind it would. People could still purchase access to our fitness centers. And because we believe that whole family wellness is an important Jewish value and that using multiple services is an important opportunity to deepen relationships, we could incentivize and offer discounts, which might replace the current model of “member” and “general public” rates for programs and services.

Benefits of This Approach

Imagine the conversation at a board meeting as we think more expansively about who we serve and our obligation to them! Think about how we might frame this approach to Jewish community by giving every stakeholder equal opportunity and voice. JCCs often struggle to serve the needs of the greater community while also being responsible to their members. This leads to some questioning when we wonder why some Jews are not “members” of the JCC. But, in fact, in our formulation they are. Every person on a Jewish journey has a stake in the Jewish community. And, our JCCs should be places where this centered-set approach can be a beacon of connection, relationship, and engagement. It invites us to rethink what kinds of services we offer and asks us to meet people at their point of availability, rather than always asking members to come to us. It has the potential to drastically reshape and rethink who we serve, how we program, and what kind of staff we need to accomplish this new mission.

The transition from a bounded-set community with defined borders and entry points to a centered-set community with a defined center point that welcomes everyone who is heading toward it will be one of the defining characteristics of our Jewish generation. How we respond to this challenge will determine whether our institutions will succeed. By welcoming everyone who is on a Jewish journey as a member of the community, we can focus less on memberships and more on relationships, and think less about boundaries that keep people out and instead look to meet people at their point of availability.

It is scary to think about change, particularly a change as daunting as restructuring the concept of bounded-community membership, which has been the cornerstone of Jewish community in America. But the moment has arrived to make this change, and if we fail to act, the central institutions that for so long have guided the Jewish community will continue to shrink in size and relevance to the next generation. The new Jewish community is emerging. The bounded-set model that has held the community together over the last 300 years is deteriorating. The question is not whether we can push back that tidal shift. We cannot. Rather, the question is how we can create a compelling centered-set community model that invites people to enter into relationship. And we have the opportunity to travel there together.

Rabbi Hugh Seid-Valencia is the Community Engagement Director of the Addison-Penzak JCC of Silicon Valley. He previously served as Jewish Community Liaison for VITAS Healthcare and, prior to that, spent ten years teaching Jewish Studies at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto, CA.

Rabbi James Greene is the Assistant Executive Director of the Springfield JCC in Western MA. He is a board member of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and prior to moving to Springfield in 2015 had previously served Jewish communities in Oregon and California.

James and Hugh are fellows in the inaugural cohort of the Executive Leadership Program, an initiative of the Mandel Institute for Nonprofit Leadership. The 16-month fellowship enables rising leaders of Federations and Jewish Community Centers to sharpen their visions for their communities and organizations and gain critical leadership and management skills. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not reflect any particular view of the Mandel Institute.