Adapting to Change Through Action

By Bob Goldfarb

In a recent essay, Rabbi Hayim Herring and Dr. Steven Windmueller give a clear-eyed assessment of Jewish communal life in America today. They recognize a fundamental shift in values, as well as our consequent “post-peoplehood condition.” At the same time, their essay envisions renewed cooperation across a variety of Jewish interests.

That’s what Samuel Johnson called the triumph of hope over experience. The writers acknowledge that there is disagreement even about who is a Jew and who is part of the Jewish community. They see that the great causes of the past – Israel, Soviet Jewry – have been replaced by a welter of smaller issues. They know that the old institutions have lost ground to much smaller, more specialized groups. Yet they still foresee a wider, inclusive community, and a meeting of the minds between older and younger leaders in order to plan a shared future.

Let’s remember that Jewish communities in the U.S. do not exist in a vacuum. The trends in Jewish life mirror the larger changes in American and global life. Power is devolving from institutions to individuals; the electorate is increasingly polarized, with scarcely anyone left in the middle of the road. People mistrust technocratic, top-down solutions.

It’s not enough to recognize these changes. We have to adapt to them. The great labor unions are a shadow of their past selves, and there is no sign they can ever be as powerful as they once were. Voters are less likely to feel loyalty to a particular political party; many vote for, or against, personalities. The dominant corporations of the past – General Motors, Exxon, U.S. Steel, IBM – still exist, but they are nothing like the monoliths they once were. No amount of planning will change that.

Similarly, much of the attrition in Jewish organizations comes from increased competition for people’s time and money, changes in the larger society, and from growing apathy as well. Many younger non-Orthodox Jews think of Judaism not as a culture or a community, only as a different version of a church, mosque, or pagoda. They understand that Judaism has value to a lot of people; it just doesn’t appeal to them. They’d rather spend their time doing something else. Being more “welcoming” will not change that.

What’s more, the people who care about Jewish life have deep disagreements with one another, just as American voters do. Most have no desire, and no incentive, to compromise with others because their identity is tied to the issues that excite them, not to the “Jewish future.” The main reason for any compromise is power: either it’s a way to gain or keep power, or else a concession by the weaker side to the stronger. The goal of communal harmony no longer has the power to impel such compromises. Issue-oriented advocacy is now far more compelling.

Rabbi Herring and Dr. Windmueller propose to map the Jewish community in order to “enable leaders to proactively plan for opportunities to strengthen Jewish life.” That assumes that long-term opportunities can be identified in advance; that a consensus can be reached about them; and that there are leaders who have the ability to carry them out. The authors imagine a desire among leaders to accept “both/and” positions instead of “either/or,” and they posit a desire for a “broader, inclusive community.”

But those conditions no longer exist. Dr. Windmueller and Rabbi Herring themselves acknowledge the “new Jewish paradigm of instability and disequilibrium,” which defeats any effort at long-range planning on a grand scale. It also fosters deep skepticism about any top-down, technocratic solution.

When confronted with an intractable problem, leaders often feel that they nonetheless have to ‘do something’; they can’t simply stand by. When the 1990 Jewish Population Survey found that 52% of Jews were intermarrying, communal leaders launched many efforts to strengthen Jewish identity among younger Jews. As we know, they utterly failed to reverse the trend. Those efforts may have been beneficial in tangential ways, but as a strategy it was failure.

What’s the alternative? It starts with accepting the flow of history. Affiliation outside the Orthodox community will continue to decline, whatever our communal institutions do. Decision-making will continue to devolve from the leaders of once-great institutions to smaller organizations and to individuals. Different segments of American Jews will continue to hold irreconcilable views about ethical values and the demands of justice.

A communal plan will not change that. The key to revitalizing Jewish life is a shift in the priorities of the big philanthropies. An enormous amount of their money goes toward outreach to the unaffiliated, as it has for the past 20 years. Those projects have touched hundreds of thousands of younger Jews, but have altered the behavior of very few.

As Rabbi Herring and Dr. Windmueller say, we need to relinquish patterns that served us well at one time but limit our ability to thrive today. So let’s not put our faith in the old methods: abstract vision statements, tools for modeling the community, more meetings among communal leaders. Let’s declare a moratorium on declarations that we’re at a “crossroads,” and on calls for “a conversation” in lieu of proposing a solution. What we need is wiser and more effective use of financial resources, and that starts with the people who allocate those resources.

Our major philanthropies must acknowledge that outreach to the unaffiliated has been no more successful than the efforts to slow the rate of intermarriage. Rather, the continued vitality of Jewish life in America depends on supporting the Jews who choose to take an active role in its future. Instead of giveaways to the unaffiliated, funders ought to give much more support to the many innovative organizations that have sprung up to serve younger Jews in new ways. Those range from independent minyanim to social-service programs to Israel projects to cultural activities, and more. Those groups, not legacy organizations with veteran leaders, know best how to attract young Jews.

Dr. Windmueller and Rabbi Herring have compellingly described the contemporary state of Jews in America. It’s time to act on the implications of that predicament. We need to move past the failed pipedream of transforming the indifferent, and forge our communal chain out of our strongest links, not our weakest.

Bob Goldfarb is the president of Jewish Creativity International.