A lesson from Jewish Rome

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About 15 years ago, I was sitting in a nondescript room in Rome with a handful of colleagues from the Jewish philanthropic world, most of us Americans. We had gathered to discuss issues of shared interest and dedicated a session to learning about the local Jewish community — one of the oldest in the world. 

For most of us, it was our first professional encounter with the Jewish Community of Rome (as I explained in a previous article, this type of capital-c Community is an all-encompassing membership structure intended to house all Jewish life and meet all Jewish needs of a given Jewish community in Continental Europe). One of the Roman Jews we met was a young woman, introduced to us as the representative of students and young professionals. She began to criticize local Jewish life in language that seemed familiar: the community is closed and too traditional, the rabbis obscurantist and so on. 

After about 10 minutes, we queried whether she was the only person in her circle who felt this way. No, certainly not, she said, many of her friends feel this way too. 

One of my colleagues then posed an obvious question: “If that’s the case, why don’t you do something about it?” 

The young woman seemed puzzled. What shall we do? she asked. 

My colleague responded with enthusiasm: Create a new group or space, break away from the community, get active — in short, change something! 

Our interlocutor was silent. She was clearly thinking. Then she smiled broadly and said: “You misunderstand. I have been complaining for 2,000 years! This is my role! I do not want to change anything.”

We were stunned. 

It took me a long time to understand what this Roman Jew said that day, and what I could learn from that ancient community.

I am American. I grew up in a world that assumes change is necessary and desirable. In 1931, in the throes of the Great Depression, James Truslow Adams popularized the use of the term “the American dream” as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone.” Put simply, life not only can but should be something else. This is core to the ethos of America and is its great pursuit of a better life for all. And that requires change.

But there is a price to be paid for the constant pursuit of change. Restlessness, manifest dissatisfaction with one’s lot, movement and tinkering can lead one to become uprooted, disconnected or even lost. 

The sanctuary of the Great Synagogue in Rome, Italy, pictured in 2015. sarahtarno/Flickr

The members of the Jewish Community of Rome are not lost. Many of them live in the same neighborhoods as their extended families and within walking distance of where their ancestors lived for hundreds of years. They use an ancient liturgy that is distinctly Roman, and they hold many long-standing customs and traditions that are uniquely theirs. This makes them of a piece with their home — Rome, the Eternal City, where preserving the past is integral to local culture as well as good for business. Thus, complaining for 2,000 years is fine, but changing something in response to those complaints is not.

This is not how Americans approach the world. If something is worth complaining about, it ought to be changed, if not discarded outright. The better, richer, fuller life must be pursued. So, we move, leave things behind, pursue new opportunities and reinvent ourselves. Holding this worldview without reflection is why my colleagues and I were stunned by the answer of the Roman Jew — that something may be bad enough to complain about but that does not mean it needs to be changed. 

Over the course of two decades working in Europe with the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, I have had many such moments. After all, our foundation works only abroad and across many borders; we therefore meet people and communities with different answers to the challenges that shape our world. Often, the issues they face are familiar — balancing the collective and the individual, the sometimes-competing values of authenticity and innovation, the relative benefits of understanding communities as dense, closed social networks versus more open, diverse ones — but their responses and strategies are not.

At this point, I often get the urge to ask: But who is right? Surely, we are! As the largest and most affluent Jewish community in the Diaspora today, and arguably ever, we have the confidence and clout to assume that our strategies are best — not only for us, but for everyone. The Roman complainer should become a Roman changemaker, as it will make her Jewish life better! That is what we would do, so should she.

Perhaps she should, but perhaps the question of who is right is in fact the wrong question. Maybe we should be asking, what are the benefits and disadvantages of the strategies we use? What do we gain and lose by our approaches and what can we learn from people and communities that do things differently? 

We export a lot of programs, initiatives and models. Our assumption is that with some tinkering they will work elsewhere, like an iPhone with local settings. We spend less time importing successful strategies from elsewhere, and even less time questioning our assumptions and attempting to learn from other Jewish communities, ones that may be far smaller than ours but have longer histories and greater engagement rates than we do. 

Maybe this needs to change.

Joshua Spinner is executive vice president and CEO of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.