A Response to Dr. Rob Weinberg

By Jordan Goodman

Shalom Dr. Rob,

You wrote: “First, we need to know what success is. For as long as I’ve been involved in Jewish education the debate has raged about what constitutes success. Is it assimilation prevention, Jewish literacy and ritual competence, Jewish identity formation, informed Jewish choice, lifelong engagement in Jewish learning, or adopting Judaism as a pathway to thriving in one’s own life and striving for creative responses to a changing world? ….Yet without clear and shared outcomes, how can we identify which practices are successful? …Second, once we agree on outcomes, we need to measure those outcomes to determine which practices were successful … If we can neither define nor measure success, how can we purport to scale it?”

First of all I’ll take the liberty of assuming (with all of the attendant risk that implies) that your post addresses North American non Orthodox (NANO) Judaism and NANO Jewish Ed. That said, the common denominator of all of your examples is that a clear, consistent and compelling case has NOT been made that there is value to any of your definitions of success to most NANO Jews.

Please help me understand why you then proceeded to outline a strategy to scale that which as yet is undefined? There is no point to answering the “how’s” (strategy) about that which is “tohu vavohu” (unformed and void)? What’s needed first is a clear, crisp, concise and compelling vision and mission (as Peter Drucker z”l put it “able to fit on the back of a tee shirt”) for both NANO Jewish Ed and NANO Judaism. Number 3 below begins that discussion. But first some preliminaries.

1. NANO Jewish education does not exist in a vacuum. Thus….

2. There can be no fix nor effective NANO Jewish education without first rediscovering a meaningful, relevant, practical, application oriented NANO Judaism, the foundation upon which NANO Jewish Ed must be built. It would have the power to reach the minds and enter the hearts of most NANO Jews who have voted with their feet, and the use of their discretionary time and dollars (see Pew Oct, 2013) that the status quo is irrelevant and meaningless except perhaps for life cycle events (weddings, funerals, b’nei mitzva etc.) and/or an occasional worship service, e.g., The High Holidays. It would clearly, crisply, and most importantly, compellingly answer shalosh qushi’ot (three tough questions): Why be intentionally Jewish, why do Jewish and why Judaism? It would teach us to answer the question “how now shall we live?”

3. Vision and mission are not synonymous. Vision is a “passion producing picture of a preferred future” (h/t Bill Hybels Founding and Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in So. Barrington, IL). Mission is “the business an institution/organization/individual/idea needs to do in order to move toward fulfilling the vision” (h/t Ken Blanchard).

To get the ball rolling, please consider the following ideas.

The vision for NANO Judaism and NANO Jewish education is to facilitate ”becoming fully functioning Jewish communities (NOT the trivial idea too often seen in fora like this of a population of Jews in a specific locale) based on Jewish teaching (which as I’ll tentatively define as the Hebrew Bible and Pirkei Avot [I’m obviously open to any additions to these sources]) and Jewish folkways.”

The mission of NANO Judaism and NANO Jewish education is “the formation and support of Jewish mentschen.”

The way (Halacha, Tao etc.,) of Mentschhood is a lifelong journey; there is always room for improvement. A mentsch is a person who consciously and with intent works toward five areas of wholeness/healthiness: 1. Physical 2. Financial 3. Emotional 4.Relational and 5. Spiritual. There are more than a few pathways to Mentschhood. Thus Jewish Mentschhood would be specifically characterized by where those five areas of healthiness intersect with Jewish teaching (i.e., NANO Halacha). There is a lifetime of learning (and then some) available therein pertaining to and answering the question, “how now shall we live” and specifically about the active pursuit of wholeness/healthiness as defined by the five areas above.

4. Re the strategy and tactics for all of this: we must begin with an affirmation of the truth of the facts on the ground re #’s 1 and 2 above for we can’t change what we don’t first acknowledge.

So … when will professional NANO Jews (clergy, educators, movement staff, independent consultants, etc.), acknowledge that the failure of NANO Judaism is at the root of the membership retention/attraction and financial/funding difficulties experienced by many if not most NANO synagogues, institutions and organizations? There can be no change of any consequence without first acknowledging this incontrovertible fundamental fact.

The 2600-3000 year old wisdom of Mishlei (Proverbs) 29:18 reads “B’ein hazon yipara’ ‘am. In the absence of vision people will be unrestrained.”

Where is the passionate vision? Where is the visionary needed to make the clear, consistent and compelling case for a NANO Judaism with ongoing value; value worthy of making the choice to exchange one’s time, talents and tithes for that value? Based on results nowhere. When/How will nowhere ever morph into now here?

” ‘Eitz hayim hi … (see Mishlei [Proverbs] 3:18 &17). The beginning of pereq gimmel of Mishlei (chapter 3 of Proverbs) shows that these verses refer to “hochma” (wisdom), in the universal sense. If Torah (our specifically Jewish brand of wisdom which for now I’ll define as the T’Na”Ch [the Hebrew Bible] and Pirqei Avot [Chapters of the Fathers]) doesn’t live up to the the declaration of ” ‘Eitz hayim hi” then all of the above is futile. A compelling case has yet to be made and until it is the North American melting pot (assimilation) will continue to make most NANO Jews at best Jewish by descent.

She/He (a visionary) has a unique strategic opportunity to make this case in less than two months. It only comes annually, i.e., the High holidays with more Jews in the pews than at any other time during the year. Is there such a person with the inspiration of “ru’ah ha’elohim” (the Spirit of God), with the ability to inspire others to work to transform the “tohu vavohu” (the unformed void) of the measurably failed/failing status quo of NANO Judaism into a contemporary, meaningful, relevant, practical, application oriented new NANO Judaism? Will Abba Eben’s quip about “never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” sadly come true once again? We’ll all know more in the fullness of time.

Jordan Goodman is a husband, dad and zaide. He grew up in the conservative movement in the 50s and 60s, and attended Camp Ramah in Wisconsin for four summers beginning in 1961. Though currently not a professional Jew (clergyperson, educator, movement staffer, consultant, etc.,) he is a musician who has served synagogues and temples in metro Chicago as a tutor for b’nei mitzvah as well as a music director, choir conductor and accompanist and music teacher. He is a greying, ponytailed, aging boomer, medicare qualifier and social security recipient, who enjoys sparring with others about ideas. He is grateful that every day he awakens, is another opportunity to do good and to do better. He can be reached at eashtov@aol.com.