It’s Time for a Courageous Conversation

By Rabbi Aaron Bisno

From January through March of this year, I had the privilege of traveling the country on a self- described sabbatical “listening tour.” In twelve weeks, I visited some of the American Jewish community’s most innovative congregations and minyanim and shared conversations with rabbis and lay-leaders recognized for some of the most innovative thinking, planning and programming in contemporary Jewish life. What did I hear? What did we speak about?

Across the country and cross-denominationally, there is a vital and transformative conversation underway. It’s an early conversation, to be sure, but it’s dynamic and bold; and already there is a strong sense the conversation is long overdue. To be sure, not every rabbi and lay-person is yet on board, but the most forward-thinking and creative Jewish leaders are actively participating in what professors at the Harvard Business School deem a “courageous conversation.”

What are “courageous conversations?” Simply, they are conversations that take place in a period of sustained uncertainty, wherein the most challenging and important topics are discussed forthrightly. After all, the reasoning goes, when reality gives way to a new normal, one cannot afford to shy away from talking about matters of ultimate import and significance. Certainly, we have reached such a time in Pittsburgh.

In recent years significant national Jewish institutions have shut their doors; others have merged or now pool resources; still others are exploring collaborative arrangements that would have been unthinkable only a short time ago. Long-held denominational loyalties are fraying, mergers between institutional bodies of our major Jewish Movements’ are being openly discussed, and new partnerships and paradigms are being explored and tested in nearly every Jewish community across the land.

As I listened to some of our nation’s most insightful rabbis and Jewish leaders discuss their dreams, as well as their concerns for the future, three common themes emerged. (1) The Jewish community’s infrastructure has been forever altered by late-20th and early-21st Century demographic, sociological and economic forces. (2) In a search for relevance and meaningful self-expression, a new generation of Jews with vastly different expectations than that of earlier generations is all but leaving the established Jewish community behind. (3) In spite of any present-day successes we may be enjoying, we fail to recognize the nature of our entire community’s circumstance at our peril.

Bottom line: We live in difficult and challenging times, and we are all in this together. Not a single Jewish institution is immune from these pressures, and therefore any success currently being enjoyed is necessarily temporary. And insofar as no single organization can solve its problems alone, like-minded Jewish leaders must insist we join together in common purpose.

Our most insightful and fearless professionals and lay-people appreciate these difficult truths. But how to proceed?

Let us begin by acknowledging that every expectation upon which Jewish life has long relied is now suspect. And as the assumptions upon which we have built our financial models, budgets and future prospects for sustainability are undermined; as new patterns of affiliation and new demographic and sociological realities redefine what we can expect going forward; and as every Jewish organization in our city is already grappling with what all this, coupled with such great economic uncertainty, will mean for our communal structure, staffing, and program priorities, the sacred ground upon which we have built our house is shifting beneath our feet.

Rabbi David Ellenson, President of the Hebrew Union College has noted, “More and more American Jews are indifferent to denominational labels … [and] will not hesitate to move among movements and individual rabbis as they engage their own personal religious and communal quests.” Therefore, he continues, “the tasks that denominational Judaism in America confronts are essentially identical: to make Judaism relevant, compelling, joyous, meaningful, welcoming, comforting and challenging to American Jews who have infinite options open before them, yet still ask that human needs for meaning and community be fulfilled.”

Clearly, were we to rebuild our community from the ground up, we would never organize our community in the ways it is designed today. Take religious education, as just one example.

Is there any justification for every congregation continuing with its own stand-alone school? Our curricula are essentially the same (even between denominations this is true; after all, Hebrew is Hebrew) and because we all employ senior staff to oversee our programs, maintain expensive physical plants and, in many cases, share the exact same faculty (employing them on consecutive days!), every congregation loses money on the arrangement. Of course, similar questions could be asked with regard to lifelong education, pastoral care, (even, egads!) worship, to say nothing of the high costs of communal affiliation, more generally.

Are we so committed to outdated paradigms and our own institutional egos that we would sooner perpetuate what Sigmund Freud referred to as the “narcissism of small differences” than partner with our neighbors for the betterment of our community as a whole?

We who care most about the future of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community can no longer afford to rest on our laurels. Nor, for that matter, can we risk hiding behind exaggerated distinctions among our rabbis and programs. We have too much in common and the immediate costs and long-term stakes for our sticking with the status quo are simply too high.

Just imagine what we could realize if we stopped competing with ourselves!

This is not to say breaking this pattern will be easy. Overcoming the challenges which beset each and every Jewish organization in our city will require every rabbi, professional and lay leader to put the communal good ahead of our respective (and collective) egos, so that rather than focusing on what any of us stand to lose, we might dedicate ourselves to that which augurs best for the ongoing success and ultimate survival of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community as a whole.

That’s what I hear, and that’s what I say. What are your thoughts? Let the courageous conversations begin!

Rabbi Aaron Bisno is Senior Rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.