The Establishment is Not an Idol

by Liz Fisher

At this week’s Jewish Futures Conference, Rabbi Laura Baum led a text study on Abraham and his bravery in smashing idols. At our tables, we were instructed to confide in each other: What are the idols in the Jewish community? What “idols” would you smash? Esther Kustanowitz has already blogged some of the responses. Others can be found by searching #jewishfutures on Twitter.

As an educational exercise, this conversation was terrific. It got people talking. It broke up the formality of the room. Rabbi Baum pushed us, and gave us space to vent their grievances. I was grateful to her for doing so.

But as a metaphor, idol-smashing falls apart for me. The idols mentioned – JCCs, synagogues, b’nai mitzvah, Federation – fall into the general category of “the establishment.” Those things are not idols. Idols are worshiped with blind devotion. Idols are shells. Idols have no meaning. Idols are empty, and always were.

There is no question that the establishment needs to evolve. There are institutions that should say goodbye and gracefully close shop. There are others that should change the way they do business. There are new institutions that need to be brought into the fold. But the establishment doesn’t need to be smashed.

Let’s take the federations. Do they need to include more diverse voices at the planning table? Yes. Do they need to realize that people under the age of 50 are actual leadership, not young leadership? Yes. Do they need to realize that the Jewish-Russian-American communities are partners, not recipients? For sure. But I’m not ready to smash the services those resources provide for the Jewish community in the United States and around the world.

The synagogue? Yes, we need to move programs out of the building. Yes, we need to create relevancy. Yes, many pieces of the congregational school model are broken. Yes, there is a desperate need for congregations to understand the power of the web and social media. There is no question that we need to re-envision the membership and business model. And yet, at NEXT, when we polled Taglit-Birthright Israel alumni in the New York area about their needs, what was at the top of the list? High Holiday tickets. The synagogue has been home to the Jewish community for hundreds of years. I, for one, am not quite ready to smash the place where I was first called to the Torah, where I was married, where my children were taken into the Covenant, where people coordinate meals for those in need.

This kind of discourse is divisive. During the conversation, Rabbi Ilana Garber tweeted: “Remember folks, rabbis need to be part of the #jewishfuture too.”

It’s not helping anyone to create an “us and them” – the “us” being the twitterati and innovators, and “them” being rabbis, Jewish communal professionals, and the “establishment.” The young, hip innovators are not alone in having creative ideas. They aren’t the only ones thinking about how to build community. The establishment folks are thinking about this, too, and they are in the institutions where most of our children are learning – the institutions with the resources and capacity to help us all move forward.

To me, these are the empty beliefs: The belief that we “cool kids” are somehow different; the belief that we need to wipe the slate clean and start over from scratch; the belief that no one over the age of 40 can possibly create Jewish relevancy in the modern world; and the belief that we are the first people to ever worry about the Jewish future. We alone do not hold all of the solutions.

You want to smash some idols? Have lunch with someone on the other side of the fence. If you consider yourself an innovator, call up the most “establishment” person you can think of and invite them for a conversation. If you spend most of your time in the establishment, call an innovator and do the same. And let me know how it goes.

Liz Fisher is the Managing Director at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. Reach her by using @liz_fisher or