Rabbi Kerry Olitzky Creates ‘Playlist’ for Changing Tunes of Synagogue Life

PlaylistJudaismWhat we call the Jewish community is really the minority, not the majority. I’m puzzled why the Jewish community has been satisfied with reaching the minority.”

by Debra Rubin

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is an optimist.

While other Jewish communal leaders worry about dwindling rates of affiliation, Olitzky points to the creation of 600 Jewish start-ups in the past decade. “I’m very optimistic about the American Jewish spirit,” he says.

Olitzky does, however, worry about “a dearth of adaptive leadership:” leaders who not only recognize that the American Jewish community is in a period of transition and that the communal institutions as they exist today – synagogues, JCCs, federations – may not exist tomorrow, but are also willing to reinvent those institutions.

That’s why Olitzky wrote “Playlist Judaism: Making Choices for a Vital Future,” recently published by the Alban Institute. With chapters such as “Turning the Synagogue Inside Out,” “The Marketplace of Ideas,” “Intermarriage as an Opportunity, Not a Problem,” “Don’t Forget the Boomers,” and “Leading the Jewish Community into the Future,” the book focuses primarily on synagogues.

Olitzky’s aim, he writes in his introduction, is “to assist synagogue leaders in reshaping the synagogue so that it can reclaim its vital role in American Jewish religious life.”

The executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing Judaism to the unaffiliated and intermarried, and author of several other books, Olitzky tells JNS.org that he has always been interested in Jews “on the periphery, as opposed to people in the core.”

Olitzky says he is “way on the inside of the American Jewish community,” but has “a profound empathy for people on the outside.” Given the high number of Jews who aren’t institutionally affiliated, he says, “What we call the Jewish community is really the minority, not the majority. I’m puzzled why the Jewish community has been satisfied with reaching the minority.”

The author uses the notion of “playlist Judaism” to explain that, just as the music listener “wants to control his or her listening habits” and now has the option through iTunes and the like of buying individual songs rather than albums, the individual Jew “doesn’t want the Jewish institution to create his or her Judaism.”

“People do not want the things that meet their needs bundled with other things that they don’t think meet their needs and thereby be forced to buy the entire package,” Olitzky writes.

The author sees American Judaism as in transition, with those in their 20s and 30s “the first generation of fully American Jews” who are “far enough away from the trajectory of the immigration experience that they are part of the American fabric.”

No longer do many American Jews make their choices in terms of “what is good for the Jewish community,” says Olitzky, but rather they make choices about Jewish life based on what’s good for the individual.

As a result, the self-described futurist says that some institutions may no longer be needed. “I don’t worry that many of these institution will be sunsetted,” he says, pointing to the Jewish hospital as a no-longer-needed institution. The first Jewish hospital was founded in 1850 in Cincinnati to treat itinerant Jews who were refused health by other facilities, and also provided a place for Jewish interns and residents to train, he says.

With Jewish hospitals no longer needed for such a purpose, many were sold with the proceeds used to create foundations that support both Jewish and non-Jewish causes, says Olitzky.

The synagogue, too, he says, no longer has its original raison d’etre. “For their parents, the synagogues represented a claim on American soil as citizens. For the millennials, the synagogues are just buildings that serve a Jewish communal and religious purpose,” the rabbi writes.

“If synagogues continue to focus on the needs of the institution rather than on the needs of the individual, they will lose their dues-paying members and eventually become financially unviable,” he writes.

In “Playlist Judaism,” Olitzky advocates “public space Judaism” – holding holiday-related and other Jewish content events outside of Jewish institutions – and also gives examples of novel synagogue models. He points, for instance, to Ikar, a 500-plus family unit nondenominational “alternative synagogue community” in Los Angeles with “free-form worship,” which includes a drum circle, a commitment to community engagement (the congregation worked with an interfaith coalition to bring about changes in the city’s towing and impound policies, which targeted immigrants), and as of yet has no building of its own.

In Boston, Temple Israel’s Riverway Project is geared toward the millennial generation, with a focus on worship, intensive Jewish text study, and social action activities and events held outside the synagogue building, in an area where younger Jews are more likely to live.

While he’s not certain exactly what shape the Jewish community will look like in the next generation, Olitzky is certain that 21st-century Judaism is in an era of transition. “We don’t know when this era will conclude,” he says. “The only thing we can be sure of is when the transition concludes, the Jewish community will not look anything like it did before.”