JFNA’s Remarkable Pivot, And Me

Naomi Less at FedLab. Photo courtesy JFNA.

By Rabbi Sid Schwarz

In the opening chapter of my book, Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews can Transform the American Synagogue (Jewish Lights, 2000), I share a vignette from a moment at the 1995 General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations (now called the Jewish Federations of North America or JFNA) that took place in Boston. The American Jewish songwriter, Debbie Friedman, who died all too young at the age of 59, was in front of a room of a couple of thousand delegates. She was teaching a song that has now found its way into hundreds of American synagogues – an alternative Hebrew/English version of the misheberach/prayer for healing. At the time, however, not many knew the song, certainly not the typical attendees of the GA. This was not a Reform Movement summer camp where thousands of Jewish kids learned to sing Debbie’s catchy songs.

The GA was a gathering place for the moneyed elite of American Jewry to network, plan and discuss the major issues of the day, from the security of the State of Israel, to the threat of assimilation to the funding of Jewish educational, cultural and social service agencies. They were not the singing or swaying type. Even if they were, it simply was not the culture of the GA. And yet, Debbie transformed the energy of the space in a way that only she could. The way she introduced the prayer touched people in a very deep way. That day, I witnessed hundreds of GA delegates rise to their feet, joining arms and swaying as they caught on to the melody of the prayer. I used the vignette to suggest that Jewish institutions, particularly American synagogues, were not sufficiently tapping into the desire of thousands of American Jews for a more spiritual expression of their Jewish identity.

I thought of this moment this past week when I attended FedLab in Washington D.C. FedLab took the place of the GA, which is usually held every fall in a different city in North America (and periodically, in Israel). For over 20 years, from the mid-1980’s until the early 2000’s, I never missed a GA. It was, for a long time, the place to meet anybody who was anybody in American Jewish life and to hear the big issues of the day discussed by leading thinkers and activists from within and beyond the Jewish world. I was not the only one who stopped attending GAs some time ago. Somewhere along the way, the GA lost its sizzle to all but the Federation insiders, both lay and professional.

I continued to be a loyal contributor to my local Federation and, in my public roles, continued to argue that a gift to the Federation was the tax one paid for the privilege of being a member of the trans-national Jewish people. As I built a national Jewish organization (PANIM) that sought to integrate Jewish learning, Jewish values and social responsibility, I recognized that the network of agencies that sent students to our programs were all part of the Federation system. I could not have done my work without the system that was supported by Federation fundraising campaigns. And yet the kinds of organizations that I felt were most closely aligned with my understanding of Judaism were not part of the Federation system. My domestic politics were too progressive. My love for Israel found expression primarily in organizations with a deep commitment to Zionism and religious pluralism and human rights. And the kind of spiritual community I tried to build as a congregational rabbi was decidedly non-mainstream. Our synagogue became a home for spiritual seekers, religious skeptics and pursuers of justice.

In my 2013 book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future I argued that the key to a vibrant Jewish future was for the organized Jewish community to give more attention, more funding and more shelf space to new models of Jewish life and community that were being created by Jewish social entrepreneurs. I have brought this message to dozens of communities around North America and, for the past five years, the work has taken shape through an initiative that I lead called Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network. Our Network of innovators now numbers well over 300 all across North America, proving that this is hardly a fringe phenomenon. These organizations and communities are attracting Next Gen Jews in ways that most legacy Jewish organizations are not able to do. The challenge is: How do we build bridges between these new expressions of Jewish life and the better resourced institutions that make up the organized Jewish community?

All of which brings me back to FedLab. I was already in conversation with Beth Cousens, Associate Vice-President for Jewish Education and Engagement at JFNA about how to make more Federations aware of the Kenissa Network and she was incredibly helpful in that regard. But imagine my surprise when she described to me the plan for FedLab whose goals seemed so similar to what we had been working on with Kenissa for five years!

I’d be lying if I did not admit that I attended the conference with some skepticism. Organizations do not change their styles overnight. But I was quickly won over. Beth and her team of facilitators (to my eye, all women, and all quite extraordinary) created a crash course in network theory and the art of innovation. Most of the sessions took place in small groups which were carefully curated so that, even as the majority of attendees were Federation lay leaders and professionals, each room had a critical mass of innovators who embodied the kinds of new Jewish organizations that are popping up everywhere. Every large session started and ended with a soulful Jewish song led by Naomi Less, the founder of Jewish Chicks Rock and now on the ritual team at LabShul in Manhattan. There were not many large plenaries but it was significant that at Monday’s lunch, attended by the approximately one thousand attendees, a short teaching and song was led by Isaiah Rothstein, a multi-racial, Orthodox, Jew of Color who is the Rabbi in Residence at Hazon.

My “Debbie Friedman” moment came in the final plenary when JFNAs new CEO, Eric Fingerhut, struck the perfect balance between assuring national Federation loyalists that their historic mission was still important but, simultaneously, announcing that we are entering a new era of North American Jewish life and that FedLab was a sign of things to come. Eric even came out from behind the podium and began singing a Hebrew prayer that asks God to bring us from darkness into the light. Eric did not exactly get the whole room standing, singing and swaying, but for the CEO of JFNA to reinforce the priorities and the gestalt of the previous two days was a strong message that the organized community must make room for a new way of engaging Jews.

Cultural change is slow. There will be resistance along the way. Institutions almost always default to stasis and there are a dozen ways that innovation gets thwarted, in ways both subtle and explicit. Every time Naomi Less started singing, I heard some person within earshot say something like, “Oh no; not again.” But the pivot represented by FedLab is a huge signal that forms of Jewish identity that have too-long been on the margins of the organized Jewish community are now being invited to come into the center.

It is a shechiyanu moment and not just for “me.” There are tens of thousands of Jews who are eager to access Jewish life if only we lower the barriers of entry, generously share resources and expertise with innovators and suspend our judgmentalism of them and their eclectic approaches to culture, spirituality and religion. If we can do that, the Jewish world will be better for it and so will we.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz is an author, activist and Jewish innovator who serves as a senior fellow at Hazon. He directs the Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network as well as the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI), a two-year fellowship for rabbis on visionary leadership and change management. He was the founder and president of PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values for 21 years and is the founding rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation (Bethesda, MD) where he continues to teach and lead services.