The Jewish Community: What Are We For?

by Deborah Fishman

Ownership. Denominations. Lay leadership. Shuls. These were just some of the “idols” the table I hosted at Monday’s Jewish Futures Conference shouted out in a visceral reaction to what concepts the Jewish community “worships” – should be smashed. (Esther Kustanowitz reports on the idol smashing, sparked by keynote speaker Rabbi Laura Baum of OurJewishCommunity.org.)

There is, of course, something liberating about smashing idols – or even just about voicing out loud (or on twitter) what is frustrating us or holding us back. Yet a different point stuck with me from another keynote speaker, Courtney Martin: “We’ve gotten really good at expressing what we are against on the internet, but we aren’t so good at articulating what we are for.”

I believe this observation has important implications for “community and the cloud” (the theme of this year’s conference) and the Jewish future. You can surely, for instance, rally people together, online and/or in person, around being against any of the proposed “idols,” and there were indeed some popular ones. Doing so might create a network or even a community of those who develop relationships through discovering this commonality.

But what about the Jewish future? What are we “for” that is really worth not only preserving but also nurturing and growing for generations to come? Martin went on to say that what we need is more “imagining and utopian thinking,” and I believe she’s right. Here in the present, it’s easier to say we should simply cast off whatever isn’t working than it is to truly and honestly examine what is happening, what made it that way – and where there are tiny kernels of change that just may take off and lead us all forward. Are we prepared and do we have the courage to take those bold bets on which kernels, if nourished, will yield a better future?

Alongside the story of Abraham and the idols, I think we need to look at Abraham and his journey to Canaan. G-d tells Abraham not just to leave Haran, but to go to “the land I will show you” where he will be a great nation and a blessing.

Creating a vision of what the Jewish future could be takes perception to see trends; creativity, innovation, and imagination to dream up how those patterns could play out; and persistence to shape what is here now into what is coming next. This is not easy. It does not need to mean ignoring or condoning the “idols” of our community. But if you smash those idols without giving deep thought to what vision you want to rise up in their place, you miss out not only on opportunities to build from the values and lessons that informed the past, but also on the opportunity to really lead the Jewish community where our passion, creativity, and vision dream we should go.

Will you come along? What’s your vision?

Deborah Fishman, Network Weaver, is the Director of Communications at The AVI CHAI Foundation. She blogs at HaChavaya.blogspot.com, where this is cross-posted.