An Alternative Statement on Jewish Vitality: The Future is Bright

By Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu

We are living during a great time of opportunity in the American Jewish community, contrary to what the authors of the “Statement on Jewish Vitality” believe. Several critiques of the “Statement” have already been offered. Each one of them has been on point, and I do not need to rehash them here. What I want to offer are come concrete steps we are taking at Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders to research the impact Jewish wisdom and practices are having on people today, identify what people need and can use from the tradition to enhance their lives, and create real-world programs, initiatives, and interactions that address those needs.

First, the organized Jewish community does not know enough about how people experience and understand their own Jewish identities today. The Pew Study on Jewish Americans is a great snapshot of the American Jewish community, but it only looked at a small piece of the Jewish landscape. They did not ask: “Why are you proud to be Jewish?” of the 94% who responded that they are indeed proud. They did not ask which Jewish practices were meaningful. They did not ask how being Jewish was beneficial to them in their lives. Answering the question “What job does Judaism do for you in your life?” is crucial for us now. We need to answer this question so that we can understand how to shape Jewish life and experiences to serve the needs of Jews today.

Using the scientific methods fostered by the Positive Psychology field, Rabbis Without Borders ran a survey conducted by Dr. Adam Cohen of Arizona State University to measure people’s levels of hope, gratitude, and belonging both before and after attending High Holiday services in 2014. We had a fairly large sample size of a survey of this type: 400 took pre HH survey, 175 took post HH survey, and 80 people took both. There was no statistically significant difference between the levels of hope, gratitude, and belonging by those who took the survey both before and after the high holidays. This was an interesting result. As rabbis, we certainly hoped that people attending service would feel a jump in levels of hope, gratitude and belonging as a result of our services. What does it mean that they did not? This has caused several of the rabbis in the RWB Network to explore how they are leading services, what messages they consciously or unconsciously send to worshipers. What changes could they make to impact people’s sense of hope, gratitude and belonging? What would we like people to experience or feel as a result of attending services? In short, the survey results left us with more questions than answers. It is clear that more research is needed to determine what effect, if any, services have on attendees, and why some people choose to attend. These are the questions we should be asking to find out what will make a vital Jewish community.

We are continuing with our research. We are in the process of setting up a new research project in which rabbis and some of their congregants will be asked to explore an individual mitzvah and ask several questions over a month of practicing that mitzvah:

  • What is the job to get done of this practice/ritual?
  • How does one do the practice? What does one do physically and what is the intention one should have when doing it?
  • How do you know it works? How do you feel after completing the action? What if any are the lasting effects?

We hope to compile the answers to about 50 mitzvot and will then share them on a broad-based interactive web platform where anyone can access the information about the mitzvah and then report their own experiences practicing it. This will give us real knowledge about what works in Jewish practice for people today. The answers can then inform the creation of new educational, spiritual, and other experiential Jewish initiatives.

Opportunities abound. The research will be extremely helpful in guiding new initiatives, yet many Rabbis Without Borders are not waiting for the new research to come in. They are innovating now based on the data they have from the Pew studies of both the Jewish and general American populations and their own lived experiences working with spiritually seeking individuals for years. What each of these Rabbis Without Borders understands is that we must meet people wherever they are, however they are, without judgment, in order to meet their needs using the deep resources of the Jewish tradition. This is very different from the central message of the Statement on Jewish Vitality, which asks that Jews come into the organized Jewish world as it stands today.

Rabbis Cheryl and Andrew Jacobs in South Florida just launched ISH this fall, a community for unaffiliated spiritual seekers to come together, discuss issues important to them and learn from Jewish wisdom, online and in person, connected to a bricks and mortar synagogue but with none of the usual expectation to ever enter its doors. ISH is an experiment. It is a new way to connect based on pluralist principles that take in to account the lives people live today.

Sinai and Synapses, founded by Rabi Geoff Mitelman, seeks to bridge the religious and scientific worlds, offering people a worldview that is scientifically grounded and spiritually uplifting. Integrating two areas of inquiry which are often at odds strongly appeals to those who have mixed and blended identities, a growing segment of the population.

Several Rabbis Without Borders are experimenting with music to reach new audiences. Rabbi Andrew Hahn, known as the “Kirtan Rabbi” is pioneering Jewish Kirtan, combining an ancient Indian chant ritual with Jewish liturgy and music. He has entered the New Age spiritual community, which is home to many disaffected Jews, and inspired them with a new Jewish practice.

Opportunities abound in the Jewish world right now. Rabbis, educators and other leaders are playing with new ideas, modalities and approaches to sharing Jewish wisdom across this country. I am full of optimism for the Jewish future because I spend my time working with these incredibly talented and creative rabbis. I have only named a small sampling here. There are over 150 rabbis in the RWB Network. Each is contributing to the Jewish future in unique and transformative ways. Collectively they are reaching over 1.5 million people a year. I know that their work will bear fruit.

The combination of new research asking deep questions about the meaning and impact of Jewish practice and rituals combined with creative new initiatives both within and beyond established Jewish communities is the way to move forward. Our future is bright, and I cannot wait to see what Judaism will look like in twenty years!

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the Director of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders.