A Question for the Jewish Establishment: Would We Rather be Dinosaurs, Spores or Viruses?

We must always be focused on what we are here to accomplish and not only on the structures and mechanisms we have been using.

by Martin Levine

The structure of our Jewish community is the product of a successful adaption of Judaism, its institutions and social framework to 20th century America and the broader western world. In 2012 every facet of American Jewry is experiencing doubts that the formulae that were successful in building our Federations, Synagogues, JCC’s and the other elements of our communal life are not working as they once did and that the very nature of how Judaism is lived is shifting. Is the 21st century really so different that success will turn into failure?

While the signs of significant change are easy to see, their meaning is the subject of serious debate. Sorting through volumes of information about demographic, social, economic, political and technological change can be daunting, even overwhelming. Yet seeing our world clearly is so very important in this moment. Are the changes we are experiencing really indicators of a permanent change? Are the millions of Jews who have walked away from our doors indicators they are different then their parents and grandparents and that our Judaism cannot speak meaningfully to them? Or are we being Chicken Little seeing a falling sky in a temporary snow shower? Accept that the data tells a story of real human caused climate change and we must make significant, perhaps drastic changes in the way we live or face certain serious, perhaps fatal, outcomes. Read the data to reflect just normal variation in a stable world then there is no need to change. If the data tells us that the changes we are struggling to accommodate are moving away from us quickly then our response must be rapid as well.

We have much to learn from the “strategies” that biological systems employ as they experience changing external conditions. Like living organisms, our community and its organizations will flourish when they are well adapted to the conditions around them; when those conditions change we are challenged to respond or face extinction. The more significant the environmental change the more severe the threat to survival becomes. The faster the change, the faster the response that will be necessary.

We have the ability to do more than just react, we can see our world, measure and understand it and make decisions about how we will respond to the changes we see. We can be proactive and self directed toward the future. But we need to be willing to clearly look at our world as it is and not as we wish it to be. Not liking the nature or direction of change does not mean we will not affected by it. We are challenged to make the best decisions we can based on our shared values and knowledge. We need to trust our ability to innovate and create in response to the new.

What stops us from embracing the future and making the changes that are required is often uncertainty and fear. As the signs of dysfunction in our organizations and social frameworks become clearer, as the number of Jews who are not connecting to Jewish life grows, it becomes clearer that we need to change in response, and these changes will need to be large and rapid.

We have reason to fear making radical moves in order to adapt to new conditions. We should never forget that there is much good being done by our Federations and synagogues and JCCs and every other part of the Jewish Community. They serve portions of our community who see them as well designed and responsive. Change can risk ruining what is still working, even it is not touching large segments of the population. We should be concerned about the impact of change on these parts of our community. In considering who we must be to continue to flourish we must also keep a focus on how we will meet the needs and wants of those who are well served by the existing framework. We are challenged to reconcile what may often be competing and contradictory needs and wants; of reconciling serving a shrinking segment of the community and adapting to meet the demands of a growing but underserved population.

For those of us who are engaged in the work of the established elements of our communal structure the pressure to choose wisely is profound, perhaps immobilizing. The risks of discarding the tried, true and comfortable formulae for raising funds, providing services and for living as Jew are great. For those who current approaches still work, there is great meaning in what we receive from these systems and practices.

Before we conclude that we don’t want to change because the risks are too high and too scary, I think it is very important for us to recognize that what we are holding on to are the very structures that emerged at an earlier time in response to the changing world at another time; they are the solution to problems and challenges of that moment, but problems and challenges that are very different than those faced today. It is dangerous to think that these times are the first in which Judaism has been challenged and has changed in response.

Dinosaurs are the icon of what happens when adaptation fails. Once dominant, they are today remembered by their fossilized. They model what happens when the process of change is either too slow or too limited and conditions become so hostile that status quo survival is no longer possible.

In biological systems change occurs randomly and at its own pace and from the bottom up. Within our communal world, both the nature of the change and its pace can be intentional and can come from many directions. We can choose to not become dinosaurs. We can take action to stay ahead of the negative impact of environmental change if we chose to do so and if we are brave enough to do so.

I know that those of us who have invested heavily in building the Jewish community as it is and are proud of our accomplishments can see this challenge as very confrontational. We hear the voices that say we are out of step with the world as it is today as being disrespectful of the hard work and effort that has gone into creating what we are so proud of and which was so remarkable and successful. But respectful or not, giving enough honor to those of us who toil in its machinery or not, we cannot deny, I think, that this is not just a momentary tremor in a stable world. What we are seeing is the future and what we have to decide is what we want to do about it and do it quickly.

We have the ability to be part of a process of invention and reinvention that reframes what our community is and how our Judaism speaks to the challenges and meaning of our lives. We have the ability to keep the agenda wide open so that the needs of those for whom today’s structures “work” and have meaning are on the table alongside those who have found the “establishment” irrelevant and have even walked away from it. We have the ability to think about those whose lives today’s service systems that protect so that damage is minimized in the rush to change. We not only have the ability to do this but the responsibility as well.

Denial is not a strategy for success. Not liking reality does not make it less real. Only our actions can have an impact. Denial is the strategy symbolized by the dinosaur.

Maybe we can become a community of spores. Spores are structured to protect the essence of the organism against the threats of the outside world. They allow the organism to survive within a protective coating until the world returns to conditions that are more favorable. They allow the organism to last through long periods of environmental challenge, often quite extended periods, without requiring significant change to their core nature.

This is the model for those of us who do not value living actively in the larger society and who think the changes that will be necessary are so fundamental that they will destroy the essence of Judaism and our community. If this is our conclusion then we need then to build protective walls as strongly as we can. We need to withdraw from the greater society to the maximum extent we can and keep our contact with it to a minimum. Inside the Jewish “spore” we will continue on to the extent we can while we wait for conditions outside to improve. Our judgment about how long the hostile conditions will continue will determine how much we must withdraw and isolate. And we must be willing to “abandon” those of us who are not willing to come inside the protective walls. In protecting the essence of Judaism and our community we protect the future.

It is not the direction I think we should take. It denies that over the thousands of years we have been engaged in a dynamic process of adaptation that has enabled Judaism to be relevant and meaningful in different times and places. The Judaism that we would draw into our walls is in itself the reflection of this adaptive process. We and our community are products of thousands of years of a vibrant interplay between Judaism and the surrounding society, of an effective adaptive process. This process has earlier moments of rapid, even cataclysmic change that required radically different frameworks to replace what had been there before. We have been raised within a community structure and within institutional frameworks which are the products of a rapid and deep adaptation to the wave of immigration that occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, the holocaust, and the miracles of 1948 and 1967. We are products of a belief that Judaism has value in living fully in the world and not just within the walled community; that Judaism can be the key ingredient which will allow us to respond, even flourish, in difficult and changing times.

Sorting out what can change and what cannot is never easy. While the structures that are the established community, our synagogues, our community centers, our federations have valuable resources and provide meaningful service to many; we must be ready to creatively change them but not destroy what is important within them. At the same time we must recognize that they themselves were creations to solve problems of other times and are not in and of themselves Judaism or the Jewish community. We must always be focused on what we are here to accomplish and not only on the structures and mechanisms we have been using.

We need to see viruses and other microorganisms as our inspiration. They cycle rapidly allowing many different options to spring up and be tested in their real world, with those that work replacing those that do not. They model a style of change that innovates quickly and builds the future.

The formal structures and controlled channels of the 20th century will not work in a time of rapid change, loss of trust in authority and flexible and multiple ways to connect and communicate. Those of us who are positioned within the organized community need to recognize that change occurs throughout our environment and we are not the sole inventors or controllers of change. The next stages of Judaism and of the American Jewish Community will emerge from a process of interaction between the new and the old in which a more open process and dialogue will be better and more effective in combining the needs of the future with our obligations to meet the needs of those we successfully serve today.

Because innovation often happens on the fringes and the changes that we need may be developed by those who are outside of existing structures we need to create open and shared systems for engagement which allow our shared desire for a rich and meaningful Judaism and Jewish Community to be the control rod rather than just tradition, power and authority.

The establishment has the ability to fuel the process of effective and rapid change or to impede it and make it difficult and painful. To allow the creativity and energy of change to flourish, we need to share power and resources with those now outside the organized community. We need to be ready to engage with those who are not inside the establishment about change and the future in a framework that is open and egalitarian rather than within our typical systems of command and control. We need to become investors in the new, innovative and experimental.

We need to recognize that our future is not about organizational survival and continuity in the absence of connection and meaning.

Martin Levine is General Director/CEO of JCC Chicago.