Jewish Megatrends

by Rabbi Sid Schwarz

This past week saw the publication of my new book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (Jewish Lights). It is an ambitious title but if the book does what I hope it will do, it will provide some guidance to hundreds of Jewish communal institutions and thousands of Jewish professional and lay leaders who care deeply about the future of the American Jewish community.

Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, who co-chairs the Jewish Public Policy Institute based in Jerusalem, writes in the book’s Foreword: ” No one is better positioned to provide this novel analysis and prescription than Sid Schwarz. (He) has held senior positions in Jewish communal organizations, was the founding rabbi of an innovative and flourishing Reconstructionist synagogue (and) founded a highly successful national institution, PANIM, bringing thousands of young American Jews to Washington training them with a unique methodology using Judaism and Jewish values, to become change agents on the political and social issues facing our country and the world”.

My first book, Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews can Transform the American Synagogue (Jewish Lights, 2000) was a result of twenty-five years of thinking about how to do synagogues differently. It started with a course I was invited to teach at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College by Ira Silverman (z”l) soon after I was ordained. Some ten years later, as the founding rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation (Bethesda, MD), I had the great privilege of working with a community that was open to risk taking and thinking outside of the box. Adat Shalom became an ideal laboratory for me to experiment freely in the realms of religious worship, social action, lifecycle events and community life. When I decided to step down from that pulpit, I wanted to better document how and why the congregation was as successful as it was in attracting Jews who would not otherwise be inclined to affiliate with a synagogue. I undertook a study of three other congregations, one from each of the major denominations of American Jewish life to create a composite of new paradigm synagogues that had the ability to attract next generation Jews. I called the new paradigm, the synagogue-community. Ever since the publication of Finding a Spiritual Home I have worked with dozens of synagogues and hundreds of rabbis to help transform synagogues into places that challenge the mind and touch the heart of Jews.

In Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World (Jewish Lights, 2006) I set out to articulate the history, theology and sociology of the Jewish engagement with justice, service and social responsibility. My laboratory for this work was PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. I founded PANIM in 1988 to bridge the gap between the fields of Jewish education and Jewish public affairs. Over the course of more than 20 years PANIM became a training ground for young people, educators and rabbis to inspire activism, leadership and service in the context of the Jewish community and the larger world. Our tools were Jewish texts, Jewish values and the role model of Jews that came before us who played leadership roles in many of the progressive social causes of the 20th century. It became clear to me that PANIM was creating a new framework for contemporary Jewish identity, one that integrated serious Jewish learning with a commitment to heal a broken world.

I am not unaware of how many Jews seem uninterested in Jewish life nor do I take lightly the studies that show rising rates of assimilation and intermarriage. Yet I served as the rabbi of two different congregations for eight years each and I worked with thousands of young people through PANIM programs. Week in and week out I was able to see how Judaism could excite the passion of Jews. Judaism was neither seen as irrelevant nor as a burden but rather as a framework to make life more meaningful and a source of wisdom that helped people navigate the most challenging issues in their personal lives and in society.

In Jewish Megatrends I build on my previous two books. I attempt to paint a picture of the challenges that the Jewish community faces as it tries to adapt to a new social landscape and a new generation that comes with a very different set of assumptions and expectations than any generation that came before it. I have taken that which I found “works” and shaped it into a four-part prescription of what I think needs to be the new playbook for any Jewish institution that hopes to speak to the next generation of American Jews.

I then reached out to some of the top leaders of different sectors of American Jewish life and asked them to react to my prescription. Does it sound right to you? What are you seeing in your particular sector of Jewish life? To what extent is your sector adapting to the dramatic changes taking place in American society? What are the most exciting innovations that you are trying and what makes them work? What emerges is not only a portrait of a community in transition but also some clear patterns of how we can effectively engage the next generation of American Jews.

It is true. Some established institutions are stuck in old paradigms and are becoming increasingly irrelevant. But a handful of established institutions are taking bold risks to re-invent themselves. And then there are an amazing array of relatively new organizations and initiatives, many led by and aimed at the next generation. They are not only worth watching but they are worth our investment of time, attention and financial resources. I believe that over the course of the next decade there is a unique opportunity for a cross-fertilization between the established institutions of the American Jewish community and the robust innovation sector of American Jewish life. If each side recognizes the value of the other and commits to a program of collaboration, I believe that we are on the verge of a renaissance of American Jewish life. My hope is that Jewish Megatrends contributes to that conversation and that collaboration.

Over the next few months I will be in ten cities to bring the message of Jewish Megatrends to the larger Jewish community. In the first week of the book’s publication I presented at the national convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and in six different venues in the greater Los Angeles area. I am also in conversation with several executive directors of Jewish Federations who are eager to use the insights of Jewish Megatrends to effect change in the way their communities use their resources to engage the next generation of American Jews.

The time for hand wringing is over. There are concrete principles and clear methodologies that will help the Jewish community plant the seeds for a Jewish community that is more vibrant and more compelling than that which exists today. Follow my blogging on the progress of the Jewish Megatrends national tour at rabbisid.org and feel free to be in touch with me to explore ways to bring Jewish Megatrends to your institution or community.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz is a senior fellow at Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and a past Covenant Award winner for his pioneering work in the field of Jewish education.