JCCs as Architects of the Jewish Future (TM)

The Oshman Family JCC evening program of rapid-fire tap dancing and swingin’ music with Rhythmic Circus. Photo courtesy Rhythmic Circus.

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 20“The JCCs as Gateways to Jewish Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Zack Bodner

At the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California, our vision is to be “the architects of the Jewish future™.” We know that this a bold, almost audacious, statement. However, we are convinced that the Jews of tomorrow will not “do Jewish” the same way the Jews of yesterday did. And we fear that if we don’t help them do Jewish another way, we risk them abandoning Jewish life altogether. That’s why we believe it’s our core responsibility to architect compelling Jewish experiences and programs that will make Jews want to embrace more “doing Jewish” in their lives.

Perhaps I should back up. You may have noticed that I talk about “doing Jewish” and not “being Jewish.” That’s because I believe our challenge is not so much about nurturing “Jewish identity,” as it is about “inspiring Jewish journeys.” It’s about creating a life of meaning and connection through Jewish values and rituals, Jewish learning and tradition, the Jewish past and the Jewish future.

If you were Jewish at the turn of the 20th century, it defined everything about your identity. It defined what you ate, where you lived, what you wore, who you interacted with, what you did for a living, how you spoke, who you married, etc.

If you are Jewish today, you may consider it to be just one small piece of your multi- faceted identity… and maybe not even an important one. You could be Jewish and it wouldn’t tell me one thing about where you live or where you’re from; who your friends are and what your job is; what you look like or sound like; what you eat or what you believe; how you feel about Israel or how you spend your Saturdays.

At a time when thought-leaders like Yehuda Kurtzer say, “We are all Jews by choice,” the quintessential question we must answer is: why should Jews make this choice today? And if they do bother to make that choice, then what exactly does it mean to “be Jewish” today?

By and large, JCCs around the world are already more inclusive in their acceptance of “who’s in,” than simply utilizing the Biblical definition, e.g. having a Jewish mother, as our barometer. In many of our JCCs, we embrace those who take on aspects of Jewish life whether or not they undergo a rabbinic conversion. If parents are willing to schlep their kids to Jewish summer camp, if they light Shabbat candles, if they sing Hanukkah songs, if they make a Passover seder, etc., then they are one of us. We count them as members of our Jewish family.

And even if they don’t do those basic things, guess what? They are still welcome to be members of our community. Their children can still attend our preschools, camps and afterschool programs.

And beyond being a fitness center for our diverse communities, everyone is welcome to join us at our Jewish holiday celebrations, participate in our Tikkun Olam volunteer projects, and enroll in our Hebrew classes. They can join our trips to Israel, watch our cultural arts performances, hear thought provoking lectures, participate in multi-faith events and even help build our sukkahs.

So what exactly is a Jew today? We believe turning Jewish into a verb is more appropriate – in which case, how do we “do” Jewish? Or more pointedly, how do we make “doing Jewish” more meaningful, relevant and joyous today?

At a time when Jews and non-Jews today can find meaning and connection in a yoga group, a Soul Cycle class, a book club or even at Burning Man, we need to show people that they can also find meaning and connection through an organized Jewish community.

So what does “being an architect” look like? Well for us, it means truly living our four core values:

Welcoming – To be a place where people of all ages, faiths, backgrounds and religions feel comfortable. At a time when there is more and more polarization, JCCs can be a safe space for people with a variety of opinions. We can stand for pluralism and diversity, as we do with our multi-faith Shabbat dinners, multi-faith Passover seders and multi-faith potluck dinners. In fact, in the aftermath of Charlottesville, 200 people of diverse religions joined us for a “Potluck for Peace.”

Jewish – To be a place where people can experiment with their Jewishness and not be judged the way they might in some other Jewish institutions. That may be an alternative Yom Kippur experience for Israelis or a new Lag B’Omer celebration that we’ve named “Burning Mensch” or a Yom HaShoah commemoration in people’s living rooms – all innovations we are designing at the OFJCC.

Collaborative – To be a place that amplifies the exciting work that other groups and individuals are doing. We can provide a space for those budding organizations that don’t have a home; we can provide micro-grants to people trying out their own DIY rituals; we can partner with others to be a laboratory where our members are exposed to new ideas.

Pioneering – To be a place willing to take risks. Maybe it’s because we are in the heart of Silicon Valley, but we have an ethos of “moving fast and breaking things.” So we are willing to experiment with new models of Diaspora-Israel relations like our annual Zionism 3.0 Conference. We are willing to experiment with new ways of reaching those who don’t come to us, by bringing the mountain to Mohammed with our JCC Without Walls programming. And we are willing to be a fiscal sponsor to cutting-edge organizations that need a kick start.

Jewish Community Centers may just be the best gateways for Jewish peoplehood because no other institution in the world reaches as many Jews on an annual basis as our JCCs. And, if you also recognize that no other institution in the world brings as many Jews and non-Jews together in an intentional Jewish setting as JCCs, then we have an absolute imperative to embrace every opportunity to encourage others to do Jewish.

As architects of the Jewish future™, we are creating the framework of innovation for Jews and non-Jews to live more meaningful lives through doing Jewish at home, at our JCCs and as an inclusive community.

Zack Bodner is the CEO of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California. Before taking the helm there, he worked for AIPAC for 14 years. He has a graduate degree in philosophy of religion and theology, and writes a regular blog for the Times of Israel.