Perceptions and Priorities, Past and Future

If perception is the reality we act upon, our conscious or unconscious perceptions are critical in determining how we go about repairing the world. Yet as often as not, people talk past each other because they don’t realize how differently they see the world. We can find a lot of examples in contemporary Jewish life.

Think of how two very different kinds of news stories sometimes get confused with each other. One is a “trend” story, which typically brings together several different instances of a recurring phenomenon. It draws attention to events that may not seem important by themselves, but that together point to a change in behavior, values, or institutions. The other is sometimes called a “man bites dog” story. When a dog bites a man, the saying goes, that’s not news, but when a man bites a dog, that’s news. It’s the bizarre, atypical story whose strangeness makes it worth telling.

You may not think the two have much in common, but that depends on the eye of the beholder. To one viewer of the news, a story about Twitter messages during a disaster may sound like a rare practical use of an otherwise frivolous medium. To another, it will fit a larger narrative about the growing practical value of social media not only for bringing emergency relief but also in everyday life. That discrepancy is the reason there is a steady stream of stories whose message is, “Twitter is here to stay. Really. It’s not a faddish game or a hip accessory – it has real impact and will continue to.” Those stories are aimed at the person who thinks he’s hearing a “man bites dog” story, with the message that it’s actually an important trend, not a freak happenstance.

In the same way, the daily realities of American Jewish life can be read in two ways. Take one trend that looms large, the decline in affiliation among the young. Some may see it as temporary, a short-lived phenomenon that can be countered by changing our institutions and creating new ways for Jews (and sometimes non-Jews) to get involved. Others see it as a permanent change, a generational shift where little value is found in affiliation per se and where encounters with Jewish life take place on discrete, self-selected occasions. These understandings have radically different implications for policy.

If the drop in affiliation has identifiable causes that can be remedied, our institutions can expect to maintain their functions at the same level for the indefinite future; they just need to program more responsively. Synagogues can plan on staying as large and as relevant as before if they articulate a new vision, add new styles of worship, or introduce new kinds of activities. Federations can expect to occupy their traditional role if they open themselves to more innovation and devote more resources to issues like the environment and social justice. On the other hand, if Jews born after 1980 tend to construct a “do it yourself” Jewish identity that relies very little on communal institutions, it would make no sense to plan for the future as if today’s institutions will play as large roles as they have in the past, because their constituencies will be much smaller.

Phenomena like independent minyanim, the explosion in Jewish innovation, and the emergence of a New Jewish Culture can also be read both ways. Do they herald a new era of Jewish involvement through new different communal organizations? Or will the comparatively small number of participants in these kinds of activities remain small? Again, the answer has huge implications for communal policy-making.

No one knows the future, of course. We’ll be better prepared for it, though, if we say out loud what we expect and make our plans accordingly.

Bob Goldfarb, a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy, is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. A long-time consultant and researcher, he lives in Jerusalem and can be reached at bob [at] jewishcreativity [dot] org.