Statement on Jewish Vitality: What does a Compelling Vision and Strategy for the Future Require?

The vitality of American Judaism will depend on nurturing talented and thoughtful people

By Daniel Lehmann

I have a great deal of respect for many of the signatories to the Statement on Jewish Vitality recently released. However, in many ways I think it reflects 20th century thinking about Jewish vitality when we need to be thinking in 21st century terms. I don’t disagree with all of the particular recommendations that are outlined in this strategic proposal. Day schools, summer camps, youth groups, Israel programs, and young adult communities are critical to a vibrant Jewish future and are require additional resources to fully leverage their potential. Much of my career has been devoted to these conduits of Jewish learning, living and growth. And yet, we need to look beyond the tried and true to see what is emerging at the horizon’s edge. From my perspective, core elements of a visionary strategy for the future of American Jewish life are noticeably and regrettably absent from the statement.

If we are to enhance and expand the engagement of younger Jews in Jewish life, Jewish educational institutions and Jewish organizations will need to embrace important characteristics of current culture, which include:

Spiritual content: Judaism is not just about identity or peoplehood; it is foremost a spiritual tradition that seeks to deepen our connection to the sublime and transcendent. Jewish education can help people unlock treasure troves of spiritual insights and practices that can uplift, inspire and ignite the soul. Jewish education and Jewish organizational life needs to be more comfortable affirming spiritual aspirations and sharing spiritual resources with Jews and non-Jews alike. Opportunities for spiritual experiences and learning that deepens our connection to the Divine are key to generating a more vital Jewish future. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in an essay entitled, The spirit of Jewish education, “The significance of Judaism, therefore, does not lie in its being conducive to the survival of this particular people, but in its being a source of spiritual wealth, a source of meaning relevant to all peoples.”

Global activism: Judaism and Jewish education should help people become more active and thoughtful global citizens. For many, especially younger Jews, Jewish life is too internally focused in an era when the global challenges and opportunities are ever-present and accessible. Can we teach and model a Judaism that inspires us to take an active role in pursuing social justice around the world as well as in our own communities? Judaism should re-assert itself as a global religion, concerned with more than just our own survival and serve as a catalyst for people to work toward a more sustainable and equitable world.

Plural identities: As the sociologist Peter Berger has written, pluralism, rather than secularism, is the most defining feature of our contemporary society. Judaism should meet people at the intersection of diverse identities and communities. We need to build Jewish communal structures and educational experiences that celebrate multiplicity and cultivate the capacity to live between and beyond the dichotomies of Jew and non-Jew, conservative and liberal, male and female, gay and straight, religious and non-religious, Israel and Diaspora, affiliated and non-affiliated.

Experimental ethos: The direction of Jewish education and Jewish life should not be pre-determined from the top down. We are living in an age in which knowledge and know-how are increasingly de-centralized and spring up from wells of energy and creativity that lie just beneath the surface. We need to invest even more in incubators that generate new ideas and draw from talent that exists beyond the organized Jewish community. Creativity and experimentation will have to be the focus of our educational and institutional missions if we are to build a more robust Jewish future.

Communal context: Jewish life and learning take place in intentional communities that are built on face-to-face interactions and genuine care for the well being of others within the community. Smaller communities built on strong affinities are becoming more compelling and should receive support. Weaving together networks of micro-communities, making our larger communal discourse more open and reshaping organizational structures and decision-making processes to reflect our shared democratic values will be crucial factors in attracting and sustaining people’s involvement in Jewish life. Building upon the success of our Israel programs we can and should foster communities that cultivate loving connections between Israeli and American Jews.

Digital access: American Judaism and Jewish education will need to enter more fully into the digital age. Our phones and other digital devices can be portals to Jewish wisdom and provide even greater access to resources for Jewish life. We need more Apps that open up digital opportunities to pray, learn and converse with other Jews and facilitate Jewish communal action. American Judaism will have to learn to speak more fluently to digital natives and create laboratories for digital Jewish living.

The vitality of American Judaism will depend on nurturing talented and thoughtful people who can weave these elements into an American Judaism capable of producing deep resonance and compelling quality.

Daniel Lehmann is President of Hebrew College.