Re-Imagining Jewish Communal Life

Image by Stephanie Levin via gallery of graphics (see article)

By Rabbi Sid Schwarz

I have spent a considerable amount of my professional time over the past twenty years in the field of synagogue transformation. In my book, Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews can Transform the American Synagogue, I argued that the American synagogue was stuck in a model that developed in the two decades that followed World War II. That model – the synagogue center – was well suited for Jews who were moving into suburban neighborhoods and who found themselves living among Christians for whom church affiliation was a highly-regarded American cultural norm. Jews, wanting to be good Americans, built and joined synagogues and it fed an explosive growth of Jewish congregational life.

For a whole host of reasons (detailed elsewhere), that synagogue-center model is at risk today. The aging and shrinking of the memberships of those institutions is taking place across the country. There are synagogues that are thriving today but they have accomplished this by evolving into very different types of institutions. Books, articles and field work by the likes of Larry Hoffman, Ron Wolfson, Amy Asin, Hayim Herring and others have pointed the way for strategies that are far better suited to the 21st century Jewish community. In my own work with rabbis, congregational lay leaders and rabbinical students, I use the term “covenantal community” to describe the next stage of the American synagogue. The Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) is a two-year fellowship for rabbis who are being trained to bring elements of this new thinking into their communities and CLI’s monthly blog on synagogue innovation (which can be subscribed to at no charge) features some of the best ideas and most successful innovations happening in synagogue spaces across North America.

Notwithstanding the work that I do to help transform synagogues into vibrant spiritual communities, I am persuaded that, in the future, synagogues will no longer be the only platform where American Jews will experience Jewish life. This is why I helped to launch Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network, whose objective is to identify, convene and build capacity among a growing network of new models of Jewish identity and community.

The premise of Kenissa is that, even as legacy Jewish organizations continue to lose market share, there is a growing ecosystem of new organizations and communities that are capturing the interest of next generation Jews who long for contexts of meaning that can enrich their lives. And while many Jews will find such experiences outside of Jewish contexts, a large percentage of Jews are more than open to having those experiences delivered in a Jewish key. I advanced this idea in an extended fashion my 2013 book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future. The Kenissa initiative has allowed us to support the emerging network of Jewish communities of meaning that are attracting Jews within one or more of the following five thematic frameworks:

  • Chochma – engaging with the wisdom and practice of our inherited Jewish heritage;
  • Kedusha – helping people live lives of sacred purpose;
  • Tzedek – inspiring people to work for a more just and peaceful world;
  • Kehilla – creating intentional, covenantal communities that bind people to one another and to a shared mission;
  • Yetzira – the human ability to imagine/invent/create ideas, science, art and culture.

These frameworks will be familiar to anyone who is actively engaged in Jewish life. Synagogues, JCC’s and even Federations, could likely categorize many elements of their respective programs into one or more of these themes. These legacy organizations helped to define Jewish life in the 20th century and they were the primary institutions that shaped the Jewish identity of American Jews during that time. Today, however, with some rare exceptions, those same institutions are having a hard time attracting next generation Jews to their programs. The decline in membership at JCCs and synagogues and the dropoff in the number of donors to Jewish Federations has led to much concern on the part of the stewards of the organized Jewish community.

But one would be misled about the future trajectory of Jewish identity in North America if your only metric happens to be membership in legacy Jewish organizations. The social economy today is such that a person with a good idea can, without too much difficulty, use the organizing power of social media to gather Jews (along with their non-Jewish partners and friends because it is rare for the younger generation to be exclusive in the way previous Jewish generations were) to do, just about anything.

In fact, since 2016 Kenissa has been identifying and convening new models of Jewish identity and community and inviting them to be part of a national network of creatives who can learn from each other, partner with one another, and acquire the tools, skills and strategies to be successful entrepreneurs. We have found that many of the entrepreneurs themselves tend to be bnai bayit, young people who benefitted from Jewish youth movements, camps, day schools, Hillels and trips to Israel. Yet they did not want to partake of their parents’ version of Judaism. Typical of millennials, passion for their respective projects grows out of their ability to own and re-mix Judaism in their own, unique generational and cultural idioms. Not surprisingly, the projects they are launching attract next gen Jews in ways that much better funded legacy Jewish organizations cannot hope to do. Each represents a relatively new organization or community that is attracting Jews who might otherwise never affiliate with or even walk into a Jewish legacy institution.

We like to call the groups that we convene “emerging communities of meaning.” And in that spirit, Kenissa itself is constantly emerging and evolving. We started the project with a certain concept of how the themes cited above related to each other. But then we started to invite the participants themselves to re-imagine the themes and we invited them to create an original graphic. What resulted was a deluge of creativity that got everyone totally buzzing.

We have now posted on our website over 20 of these original graphics, with a brief commentary by the Kenissa Network member who created it. Each is, essentially, a commentary on the nature of contemporary Jewish life in North America and the aspects of the Jewish heritage that animate the Jewish community.

The graphics represent astounding creativity. Even as there continue to be rabbis, scholars and Jewish communal professionals who have the standing to write articles and books on the nature of Jewish life, we are living in an age when, increasingly, Jews with no official “standing” are defining for themselves the meaning of being Jewish.

Jewish life is not the only dimension of our culture that has experienced the flip from top down to bottom up. We are living in a “maker” culture – people want to have a hand in shaping the very culture that they consume. There are many who will bemoan the weakening of Jewish institutions, the decline in affiliation rates with the organized Jewish community and the departure from longstanding norms regarding everything from marriage to gender and the meaning of family. Yet there is also reason to celebrate the ways that Jews are engaged in the redefinition of Jewish identity and community. These emerging Jewish communities of meaning reflect exciting new energy that should not only be celebrated by those who care about the Jewish future but also financially supported.

So I invite you to visit the gallery of graphics to stimulate your own thinking about the nature of Jewish life. Ponder the graphic and its symbolism. Read the commentary by the creator of the graphic. Imagine how you would portray the relationship between the themes.

This is how we will re-invent Jewish life together.

As a senior fellow at Hazon, Rabbi Sid Schwarz directs both the Clergy Leadership Incubator and Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network. He is the founding rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD, where he continues to lead services and teach and he was the founder and president of PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, which he led for 21 years. His books and articles can be accessed at www.rabbisid.org.