Jewish Communities of Meaning: An Emerging Trend
[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 26a – “Building the Jewish People – One Community at a Time”- published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
By Sid Schwarz
The social economy today is such that a person with a good idea can, without too much difficulty, use the organizing power of social media to gather Jews (along with their non-Jewish partners and friends because it is rare for the younger generation to be exclusive in the way previous Jewish generations were) to do, just about anything
I have spent a considerable amount of time over the past 20 years in the synagogue transformation space. I currently direct CLI, a two-year fellowship for rabbis on visionary thinking and change management. On our website, we curate a monthly synagogue innovation blog which includes some truly transformational ideas that are re-imagining synagogues for the better.
But notwithstanding the work that I do to help transform synagogues into vibrant spiritual communities, I am persuaded that, in the future, synagogues will no longer be the only platform where American Jews will experience Jewish life. This is why in 2015, I helped to launch Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network, whose objective is to identify, convene and build capacity among a growing network of new models of Jewish identity and community.
The premise of Kenissa is that, even as legacy Jewish organizations continue to lose market share, there is a growing ecosystem of new organizations and communities that are capturing the interest of next generation Jews who long for contexts of meaning that can enrich their lives. And while many Jews will find such experiences outside of Jewish contexts, a large percentage of Jews are more than open to having those experiences delivered in a Jewish key. I advanced this idea in an extended fashion in my 2013 book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future.
The Kenissa initiative, an outgrowth of the book, has allowed us to support the emerging network of Jewish communities of meaning that are attracting Jews within one or more of the following six thematic frameworks:
Chochma – engaging with the wisdom and practice of our inherited Jewish heritage;
Kedusha – helping people live lives of sacred purpose;
Tzedek – inspiring people to work for a more just and peaceful world;
Kehilla – creating intentional, covenantal communities that bind people to one another and to a shared mission;
Yetzira – the human ability to imagine/invent/create ideas, science, art and culture. Shomrei Adama – Pursuing a lifestyle that is ecologically responsible and sustainable, including new communal living arrangements.
These frameworks will be familiar to anyone who is actively engaged in Jewish life. Synagogues, JCC’s and even Federations, could likely categorize many elements of their respective programs into one or more of these themes. These legacy organizations helped to define Jewish life in the 20th century and they were the primary institutions that shaped the Jewish identity of American Jews during that time. Today, however, with some rare exceptions, those same institutions are having a hard time attracting next generation Jews to their programs. The decline in membership at JCCs and synagogues and the dropoff in the number of donors to Jewish Federations has led to much concern on the part of the stewards of the organized Jewish community.
But one would be misled about the future trajectory of Jewish identity in North America if your only metric happens to be membership in legacy Jewish organizations. The social economy today is such that a person with a good idea can, without too much difficulty, use the organizing power of social media to gather Jews (along with their non-Jewish partners and friends because it is rare for the younger generation to be exclusive in the way previous Jewish generations were) to do, just about anything.
In fact, since 2016 Kenissa has been identifying and convening new models of Jewish identity and community and inviting them to be part of a national network of creatives who can learn from each other, partner with one another, and acquire the tools, skills and strategies to be successful entrepreneurs.
We have found that many of the entrepreneurs themselves tend to be bnai bayit, young people who benefitted from Jewish youth movements, camps, day schools, Hillels and trips to Israel. Yet they did not want to partake of their parents’ version of Judaism. Typical of millennials, passion for their respective projects grows out of their ability to own and re-mix Judaism in their own, unique generational and cultural idioms. Not surprisingly, the projects that they are launching attract next gen Jews in ways that much better funded legacy Jewish organizations cannot hope to do. Each represents a relatively new organization or community that is attracting Jews who might otherwise never affiliate with or even walk into a Jewish legacy institution.
There is certainly a narrative out there, supported by data, that suggests that Jewish life is in decline. Having worked closely with Jewish social entrepreneurs and their organizations for many years now, I see a very different story. Our database now lists close to 400 organizations that have been created since the year 2000. Many of them are attracting Jews who never previously had an association with any Jewish organization. On our website, you can read about how each community of meaning has succeeded in attracting people to their program. Despite the fact that most of the organizations we work with are small and under-resourced, legacy Jewish organizations have much to learn from these start-ups.
In the next phase of our work, we will be exploring how to build partnerships between these emerging communities of meaning and legacy Jewish organizations. Each could benefit from collaboration. Stewards of Federations, synagogues and JCC’s should not try to co-opt these entrepreneurs and their organizations. They should provide financial support, organizational expertise, mentorship and then … prepare to do a lot of listening. The Jewish community is being reimagined in exciting ways. Pay attention.
Jewish life is not the only dimension of our culture that has experienced a flip from top down to bottom up. We are living in a “maker” culture – people want to have a hand in shaping the very culture that they consume. There are many who will bemoan the weakening of Jewish institutions, the decline in affiliation rates with the organized Jewish community and the departure from longstanding norms regarding everything from intermarriage to gender identity to the relationship with the State of Israel. This is not the Judaism of the last century; it is the Judaism of the 21st century.
I think that it is cause for celebration, witnessing the ways that Jews are engaged in the redefinition of Jewish identity and community.
What a difference a few months make! Our lives and the way we engage with institutions has been radically altered. And, at least from the vantage point of the U.S., it does not seem likely that we will return to our pre-Covid reality for at least six months, and perhaps, for a year or more.
The Kenissa Network continues to be active with weekly blogs, occasional webinars and periodic collaborations between Kenissa organizations because of the relationships that got built at nine national gatherings we held over the past five years. Yet other parts of our plan are on hold. Specifically, for the last two years, we hosted senior executives from about 20 of the largest Jewish Federations in North America. We wanted them to see, first hand, what we had been seeing: a group of social entrepreneurs, passionate about Jewish life, who were devising new ways of exploring Jewish life and community and attracting a good number of next Gen Jews to their programs. The vast majority of the organizations we invited were not known to the Federation professionals, even though most of them held the “engagement” portfolio for their respective communities.
Since “seeing is believing,” our plan over the next several years was to loop back to the Federations that sent us their senior staffers and to begin exploring with each community what it might look like to pro-actively reach out to these younger, edgier organizations and to explore some combination of collaboration, seed funding, skill training and/or cohort based leadership development. We had clearly succeeded in making the case for this agenda and the next few years were going to be our opportunity to advance this agenda, community by community.
This part of our plan is now on hold. These very same Federations are faced with trying to save their legacy institutions from imploding. Buildings sit vacant, fundraising is way down, valuable professional staff are being let go or drastically cut back. Ironically, many of the organizations in the Kenissa Network may prove to be more nimble than legacy institutions with budgets exponentially larger than their own. It may well be that as the Jewish community is forced to re-assess everything from scratch, they may find in the robust network of Jewish start-up organizations, new ways of manifesting the heritage of a 4000 year old tradition.
As a senior fellow at Hazon, Rabbi Sid Schwarz directs both the Clergy Leadership Incubator and Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network. He is the founding rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD, where he continues to lead services and teach and he was the founder and president of PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, which he led for 21 years. He is the author of Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future. His other books and articles can be accessed at http://www.rabbisid.org/.
eJewish Philanthropy is the exclusive digital publisher of the individual Peoplehood Papers essays.