Dreams, Not Communal Schemes: A Response to Bob Goldfarb’s Article, “Adapting to Change Through Action”

By Dr. Steven Windmueller and Rabbi Hayim Herring

First, we want to thank Bob Goldfarb for continuing a much-needed discussion around the possibilities of planning collaboratively and proactively for our Jewish community. We expect that people will interpret articles like ours (“Rosh HaShanah 5778: Challenging Ourselves and the Jewish Communal System,” published in eJP on September 14, 2017) through the lens of their own aspirations about the Jewish future, assumptions about possibilities and limitations around collaboration, and our ability to better anticipate the future.

That is why we wish to restate that we do not believe that it is feasible or desirable for some self-appointed group of leaders to design a grand architectural plan to foster a thriving Jewish community, an idea that Goldfarb implies we offered. Additionally, we recognize that competition and collaboration happen among rivals. For example, Apple and Samsung have been fierce competitors and friendly collaborators – often at the same time. A contemporary understanding of the Jewish community would re-envision strategic alliances that form around certain issues, and may then to disband or morph into competitors at other times. Leaders can facilitate ongoing dialogue among differing ideological factions when possible (for example, secular – religious; anti-BDS Zionists – pro-BDS Zionists), not necessarily with the expectation of reaching consensus, but with the goal of eliminating destructive ad hominem attacks on individuals and maintaining differences with civility or derekh eretz. Holding “irreconcilable views about ethical values and the demands of justice” requires a new set of skills that enable leaders to help others live with tension. And leading with this tension, while difficult, can generate many creative options that neither opposing side on an issue will think of on its own.

Finally, we take issue with the language of “moving past the failed pipe dream(s) of transforming the indifferent.” Clearly, there are sharp demographic declines occurring outside of the Orthodox Jewish community. And even with more strategic thought and mobilization of resources after the 1990 NJPS it is unclear how affective “interventions” that would decrease the intermarriage rate would have been. But leaving aside our personal views about intermarriage and indeed marriage of any kind today, Goldfarb appears to contradict himself when he claims that the innovative start-ups know best how to attract young Jews, while also complaining about “giveaways to the unaffiliated.” It is precisely because of farsighted leaders with vision – to cite just a few examples, the founders and funders of Mechon Hadar, taglit-birthright Israel, PJ Library, Avodah, Moishe House, ROI Community – who are reaching these “unaffiliated” Jews that Goldfarb views as dubious investments.

By certain measures, we are a community in decline, by others, we are a community in transition, with plenty of opportunity to flourish and we believe grow. However, as we move forward, there will not be only one vision of what it will mean to thrive Jewishly. Data are not destiny, and initiatives like those that we cited above only highlight the need for more dreamers who inspire others to think broadly about unimagined possibilities of deep Jewish expression, while also investing in proven strategies that work for increasingly smaller segments of the American Jewish community.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR; his writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.

Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is an author, presenter and organizational futurist, and C.E.O. of HayimHerring.com which “prepares today’s leaders for tomorrow’s organizations.” ™ His latest book, Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World, co-authored with Dr. Terri Elton, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2016.