Let the Courageous Conversation Continue

by Rabbi Aaron B. Bisno

This past May, I invited a courageous conversation about the future of Jewish organizational life generally and congregational life more specifically. (See: ejewishphilanthropy.com/its-time-for-a-courageous-conversation/

The response was overwhelming. I heard from both lay and professional leaders from across the Jewish denominational and political spectra.

To a person, the feedback was positive and encouraging, with many thanking me for stating publicly what has for so long been discussed privately (very often in parking lots immediately after an over-long meeting has ended). And while no doubt some readers were discomfited by the ideas I proffered, none argued with the central premise: in spite of the unsettling nature of the courageous conversation required, given the current state of affairs within our community, we can ill afford to dither another day before addressing ourselves to the reality at hand.

After all, the alternative to our working together to devise new solutions to the challenges we face is, perhaps, best summed up in the recent New Yorker cartoon, wherein one colleague says to another: “We’re ready to begin the next phase of keeping things exactly the way they are.” Given the resources, experience, and wisdom we have on hand, we can do better than that; indeed, we can’t afford not to.

After all, by now it ought be clear to anyone paying attention, that not a single one of our communal organizations can afford to put its proverbial head in the sand; and no Jewish leader worth his or her salt can deign to stand idly by. Hope is not a strategy.

Indeed, it is my contention that, if our congregations and other Jewish organizations (ie. agencies, federations and national movements) are to be successful in navigating the rocky shoals of the 21st century, those entrusted with leadership can do no other than to invite, engage and participate in an altogether bold, new conversation about the future of our community as a whole.

I dare say, the season upon which we are now embarked demands we take up such a courageous conversation as our community’s highest priority in the New Year . For as the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy declared, “the future does not belong to those who are content with today, [nor to those who are] fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects.”

Now, having thrown down this gauntlet, let us all acknowledge: this is no easy task.

Taking up a courageous conversation for the purpose of honestly addressing the reality at hand is easier said than done. After all, the Jewish community has made enormous investments in the way things currently exist. We have made outsized financial commitments to our infrastructure (physical as well as institutional) and (full disclosure) each & every one of our communal professionals (present company included) relies on the current organizational forms for his/her livelihood.

Further, for (small-c) conservatives, it can be heresy to base decision-making on the inevitability of change; and as the Jewish communal establishment has been charged and entrusted with transmitting wisdom and values from earlier generations to the next, even the most progressive organizations, movements and leaders among us are, by definition, in the (small-c) conservative camp.

But to deny that our future will necessarily be different than our past is either the height of naivete or it is to engage in magical thinking. And, with so much change afoot, for rabbis and lay leaders to continue doing what we have always done would be the height of irresponsible leadership.

However, absent a wider communal perspective and trapped as so many of us are in narrow, ego-centric worldviews, even our most capable communal leaders are too-often ill-prepared to appreciate that the ways in which our community is organized (the ways in which we do “shul-business”) are neither derived from Sinai nor foregone conclusions.

In short, in too many cases, what we lack is not courage (though, too often, this is in short supply); rather, what we lack is the ability to envision a new communal norm.

So, what do I seek in calling for a courageous conversation? Permit me to begin by explaining what I am not calling for.

Having not prejudged any outcome, I am not calling for organizational mergers, congregational or otherwise, per se. I appreciate that this early in the conversation, as soon as the idea of mergers is mentioned, many will hear that word to suggest sub-mergers and, fearing what any of us stand to lose, the conversation may very well end before it has even begun.

This said, however, at the very least, we ought allow how under the right conditions collaborations, partnerships and, even, mergers between like-minded entities could save money and buy time; but even more meaningfully, we ought concede that in merging operations, either in whole or in part, we may very well find we can meet the common goals of both organizations in ways that are of even greater benefit to the community at large. In spite of what some might wish to believe, sometimes it is possible that the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts.

Neither am I suggesting that a courageous conversation be a means of preserving any given building, program, rabbi or staff member at the expense of another; nor should our conversations be an excuse for discussing how to divest ourselves of the same. The matters every single Jewish community in the land must now confront are greater than any physical structure or single person; and thoughtfully planning for the future is so much more significant than ought be our present-day concern for either a bricks-and-mortar edifice or the felt need to preserve a given program or professional position, lest we diminish any one person’s status or bruise an ego.

This is difficult, I appreciate. But bottom line: If we are more concerned for our past than we are for our future, we’ve already mortgaged our children’s inheritance and just don’t know it yet. And as highly regarded and as beloved as any rabbi or staff person may be, on the Friday night after he or she is no longer on the pulpit (or in the office or at the end of the phone line), our community will gather for Shabbat as we always have and, come the new week, there will still be sacred work to be done.

Simply, a Jewish leader’s role – be that person a rabbi or lay leader, an executive or volunteer – is to help guide the community in keeping with the ideals and vision of Judaism, not to perpetuate what “has always been done” for the sake of maintaining institutional ego or personal bragging rights. And, of course, in time, a leader must know when to make way for those who will follow (cf. Moses and Joshua).

The challenge before us is clear. The more successful an organization becomes, the more difficult it is for its leaders to recognize when things must change. And over the last 100 years, the American Jewish community has enjoyed the greatest success in its 3,000 year history. By every measure, the American Jewish community hit the leather off the ball in the 20th Century; and now, let’s admit it, we’re simply “so 20th Century.” Therefore, change we must.

We are not able to support all of our congregations and communal organizations as presently configured; and we cannot continue to rely upon business models that no longer abide. Indeed, believing otherwise has become no small part of our problem.

The rub is that as recently as a single generation ago, it was appropriate, and even useful, for the Jewish community to have as many organizations, buildings and staff as we have today. But now into a second decade of a new century, what with every assumption and belief upon which our community was founded now challenged, it is simply no longer useful for us to think in terms of “my organization versus yours.”

At a moment of seismic communal challenge such as we are presently experiencing, we can ill afford to be more concerned respectively with what any one entity among us will lose than we are focused collectively on what is required of all of us to ensure the ongoing health, vitality and future of the Jewish community as a whole.

Therefore, the conversation for which I am calling is neither about preserving the past, nor finding a means to perpetuate the present. Not at all. A truly courageous conversation acknowledges the past as well as the enormous challenges before us, yet does not stop there. Rather, a truly courageous conversation encourages every segment of our community to join in being part of the new solutions our community so desperately needs now.

For these reasons, as the New Year approaches, permit me to propose that in each of our communities, those who care most about these matters: (1) set aside time to reflect on our hopes for our community, (2) consider why our respective agencies, congregations and organizations exist and what we hope to achieve thereby, and (3) discuss openly and boldly how we might work even more effectively as partners to create the best possible reality – for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren – we can imagine.

Recognizing the challenges before us, let the courageous conversation continue!

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