Bridging the Gap: A New Paradigm for Change

We need a new generation of leaders who are attuned to the underlying ethos of the times.”


huc logoThe following is Richard Siegel’s Graduation Address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Los Angles’s campus on May 18, 2015:

President Panken, Dean Holo, Chairs Berger, Davidson and Hochberg, members of the administration and faculty, alumni, friends, guests and most of all our graduating students… I am honored to have been invited to present tonight’s Graduation Address… on the eve of my own professional transition.

I had occasion recently to revisit the Masters Thesis I wrote in 1972 for my degree in Contemporary Jewish Studies from Brandeis University. I needed to reference it for an article I’m writing… and I was curious to see whether I would have been able to pass the Zelikow School’s thesis requirement. (I believe I would have, but since I’m also the grader, I may not be a reliable judge.)

The title of my thesis was “The Jewish Whole Earth Catalogue: Theory and Development.” It was the precursor to The Jewish Catalog which was published the following year and became a kind of manifesto of and guide to the Jewish counterculture of the 1960s and 70s.

I am proud to say, I was a charter member of the Jewish counterculture of the 1960s and 70s… as were a number of people in this sanctuary. Now it is true that the late-60s Jewish counterculture committed a number of sins for which we are still confessing:

We were arrogant…
We were naive…
We were narcissistic…
We were impatient…

But we did have a legitimate critique of American Jewish life, and we were offering some new ideas for its reinvigoration. To be clear, we weren’t just pointing out the Jewish community’s faults and admonishing it to change its priorities. As activists, we were working to make the change happen, to “be the change we wanted to see,” to use a contemporary aphorism. And this was not a case of “Hadesh yomanu k’kedem” (“Renew our days as of old.”), but rather of “Ev’en ma’asu ha-bonim hoyetah le’rosh pina.” (“The stones which the last generation discarded, have become the cornerstone of the new building.”) We wanted to revolutionize the American Jewish community from top to bottom.

As an aside, I recently read a quote by Garry Trudeau where he said “…one of the nicer things about youthful cluelessness… is that it’s so frequently confused with courage.” But back to our revolutionary agenda.

Break up the synagogues. Bring the rabbis down from their pulpits. Create new rituals that speak to the issues of the day, like Arthur Waskow’s Freedom Seder or celebrations of women’s experience, like simchat bat ceremonies. Create new ritual objects which reflect the aesthetic of hiddur mitzvah, like multi-colored tallesim or hand-calligraphed, egalitarian ketubbot. And above all, empower the individual Jew to take the tradition into his or her own hands. The 60s Jewish counterculture was the original Jewish DIY movement… whether building your own sukkah, baking your own hallah, or moving to Israel to build a new kibbutz

As captured in the somewhat frothy introduction to The Jewish Catalog (whose subtitle, btw, was “A Do-it-Yourself Kit”), the objective was to “move away from prefabricated, spoon-fed, nearsighted Judaism into the stream of possibilities for personal responsibility and physical participation. This entails,” it continued, “returning the control of the Jewish environment to the hands of the individual – through accessible knowledge of the what, where, who and how of contemporary Judaism.”

Although we were certainly accused of it, this was not just Baby Boomer narcissism and self-entitlement; this was Baby Boomer optimism and self-empowerment. We saw how all around us the larger American society was undergoing radical change, almost overnight… civil rights, feminism, the anti-Vietnam movement, the sexual revolution, identity politics, ethnic pride… And we asked, why not the Jewish community, as well?

Surprisingly, both to ourselves and to our elders, we actually had a modicum of success; we had an impact… and, I would argue, a positive impact… on the character and direction of American Jewish life. Over the past 50 years, the community has changed in some significant ways as a result of the attitudes, ideas and initiatives fomented by this motley group of 20- and 30-somethings. Synagogues changed: they created havurot, not quite the commune-like structure of Havurat Shalom in Boston, but a real effort to down-size and make the synagogue more intimate. Communal priorities changed: after the student take-over of the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in 1969, Jewish education and identity catapulted to the top of the communal agenda. Prayer changed: people started praying like they meant it… with kavannah/intentionality often accompanied by Shlomo Carlbach’s niggunim and later with Debbie Friedman’s prayer songs. And attitudes changed: feminist theology and spirituality, together with pressure for gender equality, transformed the face of American Judaism.

Now, this is all very well and good, and we can all pat ourselves on the back, but why is this relevant to today’s ceremonies? Let me suggest three reasons:

  1. First and most important… Because the work is not over. Major changes are needed in some critical areas of American Jewish life in order to stay relevant and compelling.
  2. Second, I bring this up to remind ourselves that, as my wife likes to say, “The way things are is not the way they have to be.” While change is inevitable; creative and adaptive change is a human invention… We can make it happen.
  3. And third, I raise this now… davka because this is not the 60s. The Jewish community in the first decades of the 21st century has very different structural, organizational, generational and psychological challenges than it had in the middle of the last century. And we need very different thinking to address these challenges.

The work is not over… change is possible…and we need a new generation of leaders who are attuned to the underlying ethos of the times…

The Jewish community needs leaders who can help us keep up with the changes coursing through modern society… whether technological or sociological.

The Jewish community needs leaders who can create anew or re-engineer the Jewish organizational infrastructure which is no longer working for the next generations emerging onto the scene.

The Jewish community needs leaders who can make Jewish life a more competitive option to the myriad attractions and distractions of contemporary secular culture.

The Jewish community needs leaders who can renegotiate our emotional attachment to Israel, in light of ever changing present-day realities.

The Jewish community needs leaders who can actualize the global Jewish shtetl and give contemporary meaning to “Kol Yisroel arevim ve’b’ze.” (All Israel is responsible for each other.)

The work is not over… and the Jewish community needs you, our graduates! Our Millennial graduates!

It’s interesting that in the Millennial generation, the old socio-political dichotomy of the 60s and 70s… with the stogy Establishment, on the one side, and the Baby Boomer counterculture, on the other… doesn’t exist anymore. In the 60s, these were adversaries with very different world-views and values, and the Baby Boomers had to mount a full-scale assault… a revolution, in the terminology of the day… in order to get the Establishment to even recognize them, let alone, relinquish some of its power to them. Sometimes the assault was literal, like the March on Washington in 1963, the public burning of draft cards, the protests outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, Woodstock… and in the Jewish world, the student take-over of the General Assembly, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, and the creation of alternatives to mainstream institutions… havurot instead of synagogues, the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education instead of the Bureaus of Jewish Education, Breira as an alternative voice on post-1967 Israel, Response magazine as an alternative voice to Commentary, the Jewish Student Press Service as an alternative voice to what passed for Jewish journalism… There wasn’t a Generation Gap; there was generational warfare.

But that dichotomy doesn’t exist today… not in the broader society and not in the Jewish community. The Boomers and the Millennials, far from being adversaries, actually have a lot in common. Millennial kids generally like their Boomer parents… they still listen to their music, they still have dinner and go to the movies with them… some even still live at home with them. If there’s a generation gap, it’s not in world-view, it’s in technology. If there’s a critique, it’s not about the need for change, it’s about the pace of change.

So too in the Jewish world. The counterculture has been replaced by social entrepreneurs… and the establishment has been replaced by legacy organizations. But these are not adversaries.

They are not adversaries… however, they do tend to occupy different spaces and operate in different orbits. The legacy organizations have their national conferences (the JFNA General Assembly, the URJ Biennial, the JCPA Plenum…)… and the start-ups have theirs (Slingshot Day, the ROI Summit, the newCAJE conference…). The legacy organizations have their news outlets (JTA, the Forward, the Jewish Journal…); the start-ups have theirs (Heeb Magazine, Tablet Magazine, Jewcy…). The legacy organizations have their preferred social media, primarily Facebook; the start-ups have theirs, primarily Twitter.

So while they are not antithetical to one another, they unfortunately have very little to do with each other. I say that it is unfortunate, because in spite of their differences, they are actually allies and need each other. They are both contributing, in their own ways, to what Jumpstart has termed the “Jewish Innovation Ecosystem.” Both legacy organizations and new social enterprises are looking for innovative ways to keep the Jewish brand alive… looking for ways to apply Jewish values, wisdom and world-view to the challenges facing today’s Jewish community.

They are not adversaries; they are allies. And they will only succeed if they work together to build alliances of innovation and change based on their common objective… an American Jewish community that can help Jews… whether affiliated or unaffiliated, whether in-married or inter-married, whether for a two-state solution or against a two-state solution… an American Jewish community that can help Jews spiritually, intellectually and culturally navigate and negotiate the challenges of the contemporary world, both internally and externally.

This is where you come in. You, our graduating students. You can be the bridge between these two reluctant allies. You, our graduating students, are in the unique position of understanding the motivations of both, of having your feet in both, and, therefore, of seeing where linkages and partnerships can be forged. Whether you are in the rabbinate, education or nonprofit management… Whether you end up working for “legacy organizations” – like federations, JCCs, camps, Hillels, advocacy groups, defense agencies, synagogues and schools – or for start-ups, incubators or social enterprises, your unique role is to ask the meta-questions and bring together the strongest and most creative elements in both spheres to address them: What is the best way to provide Jewish education in an age of Google Search and MOOCs? How do we take the cacophony of special interest organizations and turn them into a chorus of renewal? In an age of virtual community and global community, are there new ways to think about Jewish community?

Whether you end up working for legacy organizations or for start-ups, your most valuable skill will be to leverage your relationships to create synergies… to help established organizations adopt social enterprises and social entrepreneurs as their R&D departments… and to help promising start-ups affiliate with more established organizations in order to gain the sustainability, strategic management and infrastructure that they can’t achieve by themselves.

We are beginning to see some examples of this synergy… and its impact:

Locally, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles has, for a number of years already, been providing significant sized “Cutting Edge Grants”… some to startups and some to established organizations… but all of them designed to push innovation in the LA Jewish community.

On a national level, JTA, which describes itself as The Global Jewish News Source, but whose initials actually stand for Jewish Telegraphic Agency (a decidedly last century creation, if there ever was one), has expanded its media empire by incorporating, Kveller, and Jewniverse… all Millenial creations.

And on an international level, the [American] Joint Distribution Committee is spawning an intrapreneurial venture entitled Entwine which is attracting young Jewish professionals to its global and service learning agenda.

These are just beginnings, but they are showing the power of bringing legacy organizations together with newer social enterprises to create a truly all-embracing Jewish Innovation Ecosystem. Relationships can be developed. Linkages can made. Entrepreneurs can become intra-preneurs. Creative and adaptive change can happen. And you… our graduates… our nonprofit professionals, educators and rabbis… can make it happen. Whether you find yourselves in legacy organizations or in young start-ups, you must be the connectors… because you have the skills, education and perspective to forge the partnerships that the American Jewish community needs to face the difficult, but exhilarating challenges ahead.

So, don’t worry about your “youthful cluelessness.” Have “courage,” go forth and make the connections. Because we’re depending on you. Kan y’hi ratzon.

Richard Siegel is the outgoing Director of the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.