As a mentor for the Field Practitioner Program of JTS’ Davidson School of Jewish Education, I began to understand the difference in perspectives of the generations currently involved in the field of Jewish education, the rabbinate and Jewish communal service. My long-time teacher, Dr. Lois Zachary, helped me to further understand the characteristics that tend to define the generations that now inhabit our planet. And somewhere in there, I came to understand that I was no longer the young upstart, but had become the veteran in the field whose knowledge had to be challenged (Dinosaur is just such a judgemental word, but perhaps the shoe fits, too).
The experiences led to reflections on 30+ years in the field, and a recognition that our generation did in fact change the Jewish world. And like all change, we managed to also pass along and, in some cases create, a whole new set of problems to pass along to the next generations to figure out.
Mission accomplished: During my career, I’ve seen the first American woman rabbis, woman cantors become more mainstream, the beginning of Orthodox congregations accepting women on some level as spiritual leaders, an explosion of study opportunities for Orthodox women, the birth of Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (who’da thunk?), significant movement in halachic circles to address the inequalities in traditional Jewish divorce.
Challenges remaining: The next generations need to move communities to become more ready for women as rabbis and cantors in the A-list synagogues and as educational leaders in day schools across the ideological spectrum.
Mission accomplished: Our generation successfully advocated for a social change agenda that emanated from a Jewish place. We understood working for peace, protecting the environment, and safeguarding human rights as extensions of biblical and rabbinic teachings.
Challenges remaining: The next generations will need to reconnect the social change to the Jewish teachings. Every activist who comes from a Jewish family knows that what they’re doing is an expression of tikkun olam, but could they read those words if they saw them in Hebrew? A role of future rabbis and educators will be to rebuild the link between the actions, the values that underlie them and the texts from which we learned the values.
Mission accomplished: My generation saw youth trips to Israel and study experiences in Israel expand from being limited to rather exclusive groups to becoming mainstream and available to all. Youth groups, Zionist organizations, expansion of numbers and types of programs, Israel savings plans and, most recently, Birthright Israel have all contributed. Overall, the relationship of American Jews to Israel has matured. Israel is viewed as a real place,
complete with social challenges and political corruption. We recognize that the Israel that we liked to look at as our little child, full of chalutzim/pioneers, has grown up. And many organizations are recognizing that reality, realigning their Israel approaches in a way that sees Israel not as a needy child, but as a real partner in the continuing adventure of the Jewish people.
Challenges remaining: We have still not figured out how to handle disagreements. Far too many American Jews took to the streets and picketed publicly against Israel’s decision to disengage from Gaza. But how should we handle our disagreements, whether they are about religious pluralism, security, or whatever the next big issue will prove to be?
Mission accomplished: To be fair about it, my generation was the one that really created this as an issue. That many Orthodox leaders were among the founders of Jewish Theological Seminary or the fact that Mordecai Kaplan could be a JTS-trained rabbi, rabbi of an Orthodox congregation, involved in the founding of the Young Israel movement, and the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism (while on faculty of JTS) are both facts of now-ancient history. My generation practically invented the angry language of the dialogue between the movements and their adherents. Oh, we did have a few attempts to bridge the gaps: Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and the CLAL organization that he created, Gesher programs in Israel, Academy for Jewish Religion as a transideological rabbinical seminary, and Wexner and other leadership initiatives. But my generation also included the failure of an experiment with cross-denominational conversions (Denver) and the book tour for One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues that Divide Them that had to be cancelled because of pressure exerted on one of the authors by his community.
Challenges remaining: Figuring out this complex issue and all of its components: conversion, Israeli policies, and just plain civility of one Jew towards another. The next generation needs to get Orthodox Jews to quit calling themselves “religious” (at one point, the Orthodox Union had the audacity to print on their envelopes that they are “the voice of the religious Jew), as if Jews of other movements were not “religious.” It also needs to get Reform and Conservative Jews to reconsider how to present themselves in ways that are not self-deprecating (“I don’t go to services, I’m a Reform Jew”…yes, I’ve really heard people say that). Perhaps the answer will prove to be the further development of a post-denominational Judaism.
Day School Education
Mission accomplished: Day School education exploded in my generation. In Orthodox circles, it became sine qua non. Conservative and Reform day schools grew in number and became acceptable as an option. Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education helped to move day schools from mom & pop operations to becoming serious players on the communal scene
Challenges remaining: How are we going to pay for all this? And, if day school education is demanded by Orthodox community, are day schools prepared or able to do what is needed to accomodate students with special needs?
This is a very short list of a generation’s accomplishments and of challenges to the next generation of Jews and of Jewish leaders. If you’re reading this, you could probably write your own list very easily (and perhaps you should). These represent my concerns as I both look back and look forward.