Rebuilding the Temple

by Yoram Samets

A New York Times article, “Small-City Congregations Try to Preserve Rituals of Jewish Life” (Dec.2) has spurred conversations about the future of small Jewish communities, and it stirred deep memories in me.

I came to America from Israel as a young boy. My family settled in a small upstate New York community and we were one of 75 Jewish families there.

Over the past five decades I have witnessed the end of Jewish community life in this town, and in many of the smaller communities throughout the Northeast.

And so while I appreciate the need to be proactively planning for the end of a community, I believe our focus needs to be on enhancing the passionate core within our existing communities, to avoid the further passing of others.

The danger for all of us is not seeing that what is happening in Loredo, Texas is also happening in Boston and every other community in America. We who care about Jewish community must be much more intentional about its future.

In general terms, being Jewish has shifted from a religion to a culture during the past 100 years. And at a time when there are fewer Jews in America as a percentage of the overall population, our Jewish culture continues to assimilate into and merge with the American culture.

That is a bleak trend for Jewish community and continuity.

The freedom we have come to love and expect in America is creating a new Jewish world of the future. The model with which we have been operating for the past 50 years needs to dramatically shift to lead us into new times.

Today we live in an overly segmented Jewish America. There are multiple Orthodox denominations, for example, and then the rest of us are also severely segmented by organized belief – Conservative, Reform, Humanistic, Reconstructionist, etc.

To be a thriving Jewish community of the future we need to remove the labels and be Jews. Our young people are living through an American Jewish lens, not the segmented lens embraced by movement leaders.

The thriving Jewish communities are those that embrace, celebrate, honor and include our differences. I haven’t been in a Reform synagogue that isn’t embracing more tradition. I haven’t been in a Conservative synagogue that isn’t embracing less tradition. As Jewish survivalists, we must understand the need for change.

One of the key Jewish influencers, holder of the culture, educator of our people, is Google. It is the temple of the future.

Google provides us with the biggest window into Judaism. And so the imperative on the local level is for our Jewish organizations to become the portal for their members’ Jewish perspective. Google informs our Judaism, but it does not create community.

At the local level we must fully create community, collaboration, connection, and communication.  These are the “4 C’s” for the future of American Judaism.

The New York Times article is a warning to us all.  Is this about tomorrow? There are endless efforts by leaders of national Jewish organizations to think and act for the future of the American Jew. Yet the solutions lie at the local level.

Our local leaders need to embrace the new normal, the world of bricks and mortar combined with the online world. We can no longer be bystanders while the biggest shift to our culture takes place.

Yoram Samets is the Founder of Jvillage Network in Burlington, VT. He is a frequent writer and blogger on using digital technology to grow membership and engage and build Jewish community.