Re-Inventing Jewish Community: a Response to Jonathan Woocher

by James Hyman

Jonathan Woocher is a passionate advocate for real change in Jewish education. There is little doubt that change is needed, and I fully agree with his beliefs that we have fallen behind the times and that Jewish education needs to innovate in order to catch up.

So while I agree that Jewish education needs to be reinvented, it cannot be done in a vacuum. I believe that there is a more fundamental challenge facing American Jewry and Jewish education today. Education is a reflection of the values and beliefs of a particular community. For the past 100 years, Jewish education has been situated primarily in synagogues, with a small percentage of the total population attending Jewish day schools. The resources that the American Jewish community invests in synagogue education are significant. This reflects a particular understanding of Judaism and Jewish identity: a belief that Jewish identity is exclusively religious in nature. We have been taught to believe that Judaism is a religion like other religions, and the Jewish community is a faith based community along side our Christian neighbors. That notion of Judaism as a religion is deeply ingrained in the very fabric of the infrastructure of the American Jewish community. In many ways our focus on a narrowly defined understanding of Judaism is the most powerful determinant of our educational system.

The challenge is in the fact that most American Jews today do not behave in ways that illustrate a deep seated belief in a narrow definition of Judaism as a religion. 80 years ago Mordecai Kaplan wrote “Paradoxical as it may sound, the spiritual regeneration of the Jewish people demands that religion cease to be its sole preoccupation.[1]” Kaplan was of course writing about Judaism as a Civilization. And even he agreed that religion should be the primary expression of Jewish life in America. I am not suggesting that Kaplan was wrong. On the contrary, fears of dual loyalty and concerns about integrating and being fully accepted into American society were very real challenges in the 1930’s. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, we built a community that reflected the basic belief that Judaism is a religion like other religions, and we created an institutional infrastructure that looked and felt like the Christian community.

Over the past 60 years the infrastructure of the Jewish community has changed little while American Jews have changed a great deal. We now fully embrace the most fundamental value of American society: as sovereign individuals we have the right and responsibility to determine our own destinies. This focus on the self has been derided by many within and without the Jewish community. But it is a profound and foundational value in American society and it is unlikely to change in the near future. Instead of fighting it, perhaps we in the Jewish community need to embrace it and understand how such a value might enhance Jewish life and Jewish community rather than destroy it. Creating a community that is more in synch with the values and beliefs of American Jews might be a good place to start. It would reflect a partnership between lay and professional members of our community. We would need to talk to each other and gain a better understanding of what is meaningful and engaging, and where a full expression of Jewish life might be able to play a significant role. This conversation would be a critical starting point.

So before Jewish education can be re-invented, Jewish identity and Jewish community must first be understood through the lens of the 21st century. From there, we need to create an infrastructure that supports this new definition. To be sure, religion will continue to play an important role, but it will not be alone. Jewish values, Jewish traditions, art and language, history and philosophy must become a part of how we understand Jewish identity today. Many will say: that this is what we already do – synagogues are involved in cultural aspects of Judaism, they work together to express a set of Jewish values within their synagogue community and beyond. In fact, the infrastructure itself is designed to appropriate virtually all meaningful Jewish actions in the name of religion. That is precisely why Kaplan’s warning was so prophetic: by making everything religion, religion itself will become stultified, and Jews will reject. But that is what we have in America today, and Jews reject it precisely because of its all encompassing nature. The infrastructure of the community must reflect a broader understanding of Jewish identity both because Judaism is more than a belief system and because we recognize that in their search to construct meaningful lives, American Jews will be engaged by a heritage that brings meaning to them as Americans. This change in our understanding of Jewish identity will provide the necessary groundwork that will enable Jewish education to blossom in a new paradigm, reflecting a more nuanced understanding of Judaism, Jewish community and Jewish identity for American Jews.

James Hyman, Ph.D., is Chief Executive Officer, Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.

[1] Kaplan, M. Judaism as a Civilization pg. 345.

This is a slightly modified version of the original posted article.