UJAFed NY Explores New Ways to Belong to the Jewish Community

The rules of Jewish communal life have dramatically changed. Get used to it.

That was the primary message of a panel discussion at UJA-Federation of New York on March 2nd, “Belonging in 2020: The Nature of the Jewish Community of Tomorrow.”

With more than 100 people in the room, several dozen around the country watching a live stream on the web, and still more following a lively conversation on Twitter (using hashtag #J2020), four innovators talked about ways that such long-established institutions as synagogues can adjust to a younger generation whose experiences and expectations are far different from those who came before them.

“All the rules have changed. We’re not talking about small tweaks to the status quo; we’re talking about revolutionary change,” said Lisa Colton, founder and president of Darim Online, which helps Jewish nonprofits with digital communications, including a synagogue “social media boot camp” through SYNERGY: UJA-Federation of New York and Synagogues Together. “Individuals are empowered,” she said. “Organizations no longer have a monopoly on organizing.”

Colton and other panelists said that many, and perhaps most, of those in their 20s and 30s are now making their Jewish connections in their own ways, often outside of synagogues. She described the opportunities people now have as “a five-dimensional buffet,” but she said many Jewish organizations still position themselves and their programs in traditional ways that are outmoded. “We need to recognize the power shift that has happened,” she said.

Moderator Deborah Joselow, managing director of UJA-Federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal (COJIR), said the program was an outgrowth of intense, continuing conversation in the Jewish world about how the meaning of belonging is shifting and what response is needed.

Taglit-Birthright Israel was cited as the program that has most connected with younger people today and has had the most influence on their Jewish experiences. “Birthright represents the triumph of the big-tent definition of who is a Jew,” said Rabbi Daniel Brenner, founding executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT who now works on gender issues in Judaism at Moving Traditions. He spoke of the importance of the inclusion of Israelis, Russians, and many people with one Jewish parent, and how they felt greater Jewish belonging as a result of Birthright. Brenner also said Birthright had expanded the circle of Jewish friends for many people, and thus their sense of belonging.

When it comes to helping younger people connect, “it’s ultimately about relationships,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, founding director of Just Congregations, an initiative of the Union for Reform Judaism. He said social media provided “tremendous tools,” but most important was the building of real and deep networks. He cited writer Malcolm Gladwell’s account of how the civil rights movement was built on community long before computer-related social media existed.

Pesner said that some of the greatest current advances in the Jewish world are forged by entrepreneurial rabbis who are building networks, sometimes at synagogues and sometimes not. And getting a small group together, often over a meal or even in a living room, can be a powerful part of that, he said.

Rabbi Jennifer Krause, a writer and teacher who specializes in bringing inventive forms of Jewish learning to diverse audiences, referred to how, traditionally, the Jewish world has been seen as standing on three pillars: Torah, service, and acts of kindness. Now, she said, “We need to let people figure out what the pillars are for them.”

Many in the audience were from synagogues, Hillels, and other Jewish organizations. During a Q&A session, many said they were looking for ways to better connect with younger people in an age where bricks-and-mortar institutions no longer have as many built-in advantages.

Colton praised groups that have started to make shifts to help people find the sense of connection and meaning that belonging now and on into 2020 will involve. But, she added, “Get used to this rate of change. Be nimble. You’re in a permanent beta stage.”

The program was organized jointly by UJA-Federation’s Wiener Educational Center, COJIR, and SYNERGY.