Creating True Jewish Community is Not Elusive

By Allan Finkelstein

Many Jewish agencies, be they federations, JCCs or congregations speak of “building Jewish community.” Yet, in more than 40 years of work in the fields of Jewish endeavor, I believe that finding true Jewish community is elusive, and something that all of us in the Jewish communal world have struggled to do, even as it remains the essential core of our missions. Resident camps – environments focused solely on creating community with all of the right natural elements – do this best. But elsewhere, it remains a struggle, reaching this oft-stated communal goal. As I near my own retirement, I reflect frequently on this unfinished business of Jewish life.

That is, I did so until my son went to Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles. He needed to truly “recover” in many ways, and felt comfortable doing so in a Jewish setting. I had no idea what we were about to experience! I already was familiar with Beit T’Shuvah from when I had worked in Los Angeles in the early 90s, but then it was a “start up,” a place I knew of because of its inspirational founder-Harriet Rosetto, and her now husband, Rabbi Mark Borovitz. I thought they were dreamers – because they were! But now I know better. Their dream is the reality of a unique and moving house of recovery – where Jewish community itself is the setting for everything else to happen. There are other recovery programs, other 12-step groups, other therapeutic environments. But there is none like Beit T’Shuvah. They successfully build community. And they do it every single day. They tap into the best of each individual and shape a unique and very effective program where each person “…recovers his /her passion and discovers his/her purpose.” It is a model that is worth emulating and one that organizations should learn from and seek to adapt to their own unique missions.

How do they consistently achieve this goal that other agencies seem only to strive toward? They don’t stand on ceremony, or get caught up in inter-agency politics and meaningless turf battles. They have created a therapeutic environment for recovery that is built on a strong Jewish community core. It’s real and it’s palpable. It begins with daily Torah study and grows from there. Harriet and Mark set out knowing the problems they wanted to address and, perhaps, what they wanted to create, but the details were not necessarily in place. Beit T’Shuvah’s evolution into a major congregation, a career center, a marketing agency, a phenomenal music and arts program, and more, has happened organically. But all of this would not be possible if not for the strongly stated and ever present focus on Jewish community.

All of our Jewish institutions could learn from this well-kept secret. Beit T’Shuvah’s website says “Our model, based on authenticity and wholeness, can be applied not solely to treatment centers and family units, but also to any community organization that is willing to look within.“ If we stay true to our purposes, and focus on our internal assets, and make no excuses about our Jewish purposes, perhaps Jewish communal life itself might “recover” from years of unnecessary inter-organizational battles, destructive language, and concerns about who controls what. In Harriet’s words, “there is a way to change culture and create Jewish communities that invites people to bring all of themselves, reveal rather than conceal their blemishes and secret struggles, and connect with one another.”

As I am about to move on to the next chapter of my professional life, I am certainly grateful for my son’s finding this incredible place, and I feel even more privileged to have re-discovered Beit T’Shuvah and its ability to teach me, and all of us how to “do” Jewish community in an organic, meaningful and successful way.

Allan Finkelstein is president and CEO of JCC Association, the continental leadership organization for the Jewish Community Center Movement, which includes more than 350 JCCs, YM-YWHAs, and camp sites in the U.S. and Canada.