Memory: Back in my youth, students came to the school I attended a day after their parents had been on the front page of the local newspaper for criminal wrongdoing. We spent the day ignoring them, feeling badly that they were caught in a situation not of their making. But we knew that a wrong had been done.
We also knew to feel terribly about other scandals in which Jews were implicated – whether it was “white collar” crime or violent crime. When we read the newspaper (back in those days, it’s how we learned the news), our eyes went to the Jewish-sounding names to see who had embarrassed the Jewish people and how. Berkowitz, Ruby, Goldstein, Mezvinsky…We felt a sense of shame that a descendant of Abraham and Sarah could behave in these ways.
To be truthful, some of the shame my generation felt about Jews behaving badly had to do with being a first or second generation American Jew. My Judaic teachers growing up were mostly immigrants to this country. They had fled Europe just before or after the Nazi era. Or they had left Israel during times of economic hardship. They were proud Americans. They were also forever indebted to the United States, feeling that the country had accepted them as citizens who were nonetheless aliens in a foreign (and, frankly, Christian) country. And, as immigrants often do, they tended to feel a bit at risk. So the message that came through their teaching was: you (at age 15) represent the entire Jewish people in the United States. Your behavior directly impacts our safety in this great country. So stay on the straight and narrow, and be sure to express regret and consternation when one of your fellow Jews does something bad.
At the time, we joked about that message, but in hindsight, there was wisdom there: All Israel is responsible for one another (Mishnah).
Dr. Karl Menninger, in a memorable book, Whatever Became of Sin, alluded to how, in a world of moral relativism, society can lose sight of what is absolute wrong. Sadly, that spirit has infiltrated Judaism today. I’m no longer shocked to see Jews explain away acts of Jewish terrorism (which, admittedly are not commonplace, but do occur). Jewish felons were “railroaded” by the system, say defenders of some Jewish criminals. We were even treated recently to scenes of singing and dancing in celebration of a felon being released from prison (and yes, it is possible that he received a longer sentence than usual for the crime for which he was convicted, but it doesn’t change the reality of that crime).
As a rabbi and Jewish educator let me be absolutely clear: Felonies are wrong. Defrauding is wrong. Routinely hiring undocumented immigrants and having them work and live in poor conditions is wrong. When one does so as a Jew, it is what we call a chillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name publicly. When one does so in the act of providing for the needs of observant Jews like myself, it is unconscionable. Period.
Just to get things out of the way, I fully expect negative comments to this piece. I’ve already been told (after 36 years in the rabbinate and in Jewish communal service) that I’m a self-hating Jew or that I hold Orthodox Judaism or Jews in general to an unfair standard (isn’t holding one’s self to a higher standing the point of Judaism?). Here’s the thing: I deeply respect those who disagree with my opinion. All I ask is that those who disagree commit themselves to respect for mine.
Personally, I am happy for any family reunited after incarceration. If you’re the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Nelson Mandela or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, your release is cause for public celebration. But if your crime was not of those types, celebrate humbly with your family this Shabbat and commit yourself to a life as a law-abiding citizen who will work hard to be a credit to our people.
As a rabbi and Jewish educator, part of my job is to both comfort people at difficult times and to challenge and teach them how to face the future. Both are difficult for me this morning, living in a country that is seriously divided. As CNN reported yesterday, 58% of voters indicated that they would be “scared” or “concerned” if Donald Trump were to win the election http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/08/politics/first-exit-polls-2016/index.html. I have no words of comfort for those 58%, nor do I have words of exuberance for those celebrating the election.
What I do have, and offer as a rabbi and Jewish educator, are prayers and aspirations for the future I would like to see, and that our communities would most benefit from. My prayer list:
- For President-elect Trump to have the humility and critical thinking to seek out and bring on board the best people to be his partners and advisors. May he move away from his belief that “I alone” can lead change or that “I know more than the generals”, and instead surround himself with the people who will help him to lead
- For those who thought that Donald Trump was giving a green light, either passively or actively, for hatred and bigotry (including anti-Semitism and racism) to crawl back under the rocks from which they came, and for our country to make progress towards being a society that doesn’t hate
- For members of the Senate and House of Representatives, in which his political party holds the majority, to step forward with integrity and without regard to party lines, to fulfill the important role of checks and balances that will keep the executive branch from any possibility of overstepping
- For the wisdom that President-elect Trump and the Congress need in appointing Supreme Court justices and other judges that will not lead the national backwards in regards to issues what we’ve moved forward: women’s rights (including the right not to be harassed), reproductive / choice rights, LGBTQ rights, and other freedoms that have been guaranteed in recent years
- For a system that will improve or replace the Affordable Care Act and continue to provide health care for those who have been covered and who need to be covered
- For President-elect Trump to break his campaign promises:
- To prosecute or jail Secretary Clinton – She has served her country well, and has endured more than enough investigations, none of which found her guilty of anything deserving of prosecution. We have a justice system; It did its job. Move on.
- To require allies (including Israel) to repay all foreign aid. It’s called aid for a reason, and serves a strategic purpose.
- To ban all Moslems from entering the country. It’s a really, really bad precedent.
May our incoming president be a force for good in our country and across the world. And let us say: Amen.
Earlier this month, a dozen of the leading educational directors from synagogues across Broward County, FL joined in this year’s opening meeting of their network, housed and staffed at Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education. Joining with us was a representative of Jewish Federation of Broward County, who challenged the group with the following: What is the best way for the community to invest its money to build the reach of synagogues’ educational programs?
It’s a huge enough question, yet it only touches on part of the challenge that we, as a community face. For many in our Jewish community, the question isn’t “where in the Jewish community should I connect?” but “how does connecting with a Jewish community add value to my, and my family’s life?” This question is not unlike the questions raised by the best-selling author, Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone, bemoaning the decline of communities and their attraction. We can curse the darkness, blaming this decline on generational factors, synagogue and organizational dues, the online world, financial considerations and more. But, as one of our insightful educators pointed out, we have also failed to recognize that the nature of what a community is (or should be) has changed drastically.
Based on recent writings and research that I’ve perused, I would like to humbly suggest that we, who are invested in Jewish communities, consider the following as part of a plan:
• Stop and listen to the folks that you would like to engage. Do it before jumping into action with marketing and outreach. Can they identify something missing from their lives? What are they asking for that we aren’t providing? What are the causes that do engage them? What are the things they will leave their digital lives for? Are you noticing generational differences in these answers? Once you get answers, identify how you can change your community in ways that meet the needs of today and tomorrow.
• Welcome everybody. We’ve opened the doors to community, but we need to continually open the doors even wider. Are you sure that your organization doesn’t put obstacles or fail to meet the needs of the broadest possible number of participants? Can everyone find programs and a chevra (smaller, more intimate community) within your community: Singles, childless adults, empty nesters, LGBTQ members, Jews of color, non-Jewish members of families in which there is a committed Jew? You don’t need to be everything to everyone, but we do need to work together as a community to identify where everyone has a place and offer opportunities to those who may not find their place in our own chevra.
• Put membership on the back burner. I still remember with astonishment the synagogue welcoming committee that came to my door in one community and handed me membership forms and information about cemetery plots (!) before asking us whether we needed anything in our new home. Create value and relationships first. Do the ask much later.
• Bring resources, people and organizations together. The competition is not between one synagogue or Jewish organization and another. The competition is between Jewish organizations and opting out entirely. Recruiting? Join forces with other synagogues and organizations. The people opting out aren’t interested in the subtle differences between one brand and another. They want to know why they should be engaged at all. Let’s band together and show them what a Jewish community can do for them and for their world.
Community building is not on its face the goal of a Jewish educational organization, but in reality it is what we do. Yes, we offer an incredible variety of educational programs, opportunities to grow and work with other Jewish professionals to expand access to learning in Broward County, but what we really do is make sure there is a place for every learner in our community. For those that are curious about the basic, for those that are looking for something more advanced, for teens who aren’t sure what they are looking for – we are offering them a chance and a place to learn and connect. We are offering them a chance at community.
Let’s band together and show what a Jewish community can do for all Jewish people and for their world.
Judaism is a wonderfully odd thing. Those who want their religion to be more rationalistic can find a home in the thought of Maimonides, the Lithuanian yeshiva world or the Reform movement. If you like your Judaism with more of a mystical bent, Hasidism, some Sephardi schools of thought and Renewal might work for you. It’s a big tent, with plenty of room for you.
It is particularly in that mystical group, though, that Jewish folk religion finds its most fertile ground. People who hang their hats there are not as bound by the need for extreme rationality and are fine with what others would refer to as “magical thinking.” Some of the most ingrained Jewish practices grew in the mystical, Hasidic and Sephardi world (and were opposed by the above-mentioned rationalists). For instance, hakafot with dancing on Simchat Torah and tashlich on Rosh Hashana were practices the Jewish public wanted, even as the rationalist rabbis opposed them. To this day, the rationalists are appalled by kapparot (or kapores, as they are more commonly known), decrying pagan and other roots. But not only has the practice not gone away, it seems to be growing. Not cutting the hair of boys until they turned three years of age was rarely encountered outside of some Hasidic and Sephardi circles just 25 years ago. Today, it’s found surprising popularity beyond those limited groups. And even the rationalists among us can’t leave Israel without a red band on their (ok, OUR) arms, regardless of knowing that the woman who tied them on us purchased the string at a plain old fabric store.
In the old countries, folk practices were often localized. They were spread by traveling merchants (indeed one theory behind Rabbi Gershom’s Ashkenazi decree against polygamy was that it was in response to travelers who encountered and tried to adopt polygamy on the road). But the cross-pollenation of practices and ideas took time to travel.
In today’s connected world, Jewish folk practices spread like wildfire. When I see what to me is a new Jewish practice, I invariably try to track down its origin. More often than not, the person who has just posted the latest and greatest Jewish practice has no idea where it came from.
These days, my Jewish social media is blanketed with folk practices that I had never heard of: Baking challah as a “segulah“, a type of transfer of positive energy, often on behalf of an ill person. Schlissel challah, challah with either a key hidden in it, or in the shape of a key, again as a segulah. These, as well as the earlier mentioned customs, were largely unknown outside of Chasidic and mystical enclaves in places like Jerusalem, Tzfat or (l’havdil), Brooklyn.
Is the proliferation of folk traditions and practices good or bad for the Jews and for the world? The answer is probably: both.
What’s good about it: Well, frankly, some of the traditions are just plain interesting, and they do capture our attention and get us thinking. Also, in a world that spins out of control, these practices give us the sense that we can do things that make a difference. They’re rituals, and studies show that rituals can be healthy for us emotionally.
The bad news: These practices blur the lines between what is “authentically Jewish” and what is a folk practice (assuming that such a line ever existed…). People who perform them often do so mindlessly, without meditating on their value. And, when the action doesn’t have the desired impact (for example, when baking magic challah doesn’t result in a person’s healing), it can diminish a person’s belief in all Jewish ritual.
Lesson learned: Nobody, not Maimonides, not you and me, not even the Reform folks, are going to do away with folk religion among our Jewish people. What we need to do is to constantly ask the questions: Why are you doing this? Where did this practice originate? Are you sure this is a legitimate Jewish practice? And when the answer often is: I don’t know, we need to take a deep breath and appreciate that these rituals reflect the fact that being Jewish is nothing more or less than the Jewish people’s attempts to figure out what the universe wants from them.
When I chose a traditional pattern of observance back in the day, I was looking for community and for meaning. I found both. Unbeknownst to me, what came with as part of the package was a new vocabulary. This post examines of the more troubling entries of the lexicon: “Off the Derech.” The word derech in Hebrew is a path, a way, or a street. In parts of the Orthodox community, it is used to refer to an individual who was observant by Orthodox standards and has since become less observant or completely non-observant.
Why it’s a troubling phrase:
- The phrase assumes that there is one “way” to be an observant Jew. Not only does it dismiss any type of Judaism that is not Orthodox, it also oversimplifies even traditional types of Judaism. There is not and has never been only one “way”. Biblical Judaism had competing temple sites. Talmudic era Judaism had Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and other groups, all observant in one way or another. It also had the “schools” of Hillel, Shammai, and more. Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews were so different that the Shulchan Aruch, which codified Jewish practice, couldn’t unify all practice. A few hundred years ago, the Hasidic and non-Hasidic Lithuanian Jews differed so much that the Lithuanians excommunicated the Hasidim, even though both were ostensibly observant.
- It oversimplifies each individual’s decision about how to be observant. If a person attends synagogue on Shabbat but uses a cell phone to stay connected, is s/he “off the derech“? If an individual no longer keeps every nuance of the Kosher laws, but becomes a vegetarian, is s/he “off the derech“? If a person no longer strictly observes Shabbat but moves to Israel and becomes an IDF (Israel Defense Forces) member, defending the land and people of Israel, has s/he gone “off the derech“? Choices, especially spiritual / religious ones are more complicated than a simple “yes/no” option.
- It is insulting to the individual involved, and, contrary to whatever a person who uses the phrase might tell you, it is absolutely meant in a derogatory way.
- It’s totally judgemental. If you want to judge another person, you’ll need a law degree. And even with one, judging another person’s brand of religion is just not something you want to be doing. Because let’s face it, some of our people just got finished swinging a live chicken around their heads and smashing willow branches on the floor. So you don’t want to “do what is hateful to you” to another person. Know what I’m saying here?
So, yes, this is a part of the OrthoJew Speak lexicon that I refuse to adopt.
What is a Jewish person who has chosen to leave Orthodox observance, then? A Jewish person.
A lot is being written and said about the recent passage of a Knesset motion that, among other things, will reaffirm that Israel is a Jewish and a democratic state.
For the uninitiated, Israel is a complex nation. It is founded on Jewish values and principles as well as on democratic values and principles. By definition, that results in some contradictions. What does Israel’s Declaration of Establishment mean when, in 1948, it declared itself clearly to be a “Jewish state”? Israel has wrestled with that concept and will continue to. Unlike America, there is no wall of separation between the secular state and religion. Religious authorities – and not just Jewish ones – have some governmental authority and support. Freedom of religion is clear in Israel, yet some rabbis and Jewish religious movements are not given the same authority and support that other religious groups have.
In short, it is a wonderful, messy, Jewish state that also has citizens of many other religious and cultural backgrounds. What Knesset attempted to do was to reaffirm the Jewish character of the state and to take another step towards articulating what that means.
For those of you who have read the headlines, but not the fine print, Knesset approved some principles that now need to be further clarified for a future statement of law. These are the principles (my appreciation to the folks at the Israel Consulate in Miami for passing them along) that Prime Minister Netanyahu drafted:
Defining the State of Israel as the national state of the Jewish People, and anchoring the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
The Land of Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish People and the place of the establishment of the State of Israel.
The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish People in which the Jewish People realizes its right to self-determination in accordance with its cultural and historic heritage.
The right to realize national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.
The State of Israel is democratic, based on the foundations of freedom, justice and peace in light of the visions of the prophets of Israel, and upholds the individual rights of all its citizens according to law.
Symbols of the State
The national anthem is Hatikvah.
The national flag is white with two sky-blue stripes close to the margins and a sky-blue Star of David in the center.
The national emblem is a seven-branched menorah with two olive branches at its sides and the word ‘Israel’ below.
All Jews are eligible to immigrate to the country and receive citizenship of the state according to law.
Ingathering of the Exiles and Strengthening Links with the Jewish People in the Diaspora
The State will act to gather the exiles of the Jewish People and strengthen links between Israel and Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
Assistance to Jews in Distress
The State will act to assist Jews in distress and in captivity due to their being Jews.
The State will act to preserve the historical and cultural heritage and tradition of the Jewish People and to enshrine and cultivate it in the country and in the Diaspora.
All educational institutions that serve the Jewish public in the country will teach the history, heritage and tradition of the Jewish People.
The State will act to enable all residents of Israel, regardless of religion, race or nationality, to preserve their culture, heritage, language and identity.
The Hebrew calendar is the official calendar of the State.
Independence Day and Remembrance Day
Independence Day is the national holiday of the State.
Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs Remembrance Day are the official remembrance days of the State.
The regular public holidays of the State of Israel are the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays on which no worker shall be employed except under conditions to be defined by law; members of recognized faiths shall be entitled to rest on their Sabbaths and holidays.
Jewish law shall serve as a source of inspiration for the Knesset
If a court shall consider a legal question that requires a decision and not find an answer in legislation, precedent or clear inference, it shall render a decision in light of the principles of freedom, justice, fairness and peace of the heritage of Israel.
Maintaining the Holy Places
The Holy Places shall be guarded against desecration, any other damage and against anything that is liable to infringe on freedom of access by worshippers to the places that are holy to them or on their feelings toward those places.
Infringement of rights
There shall be no infringement of rights according to the basic laws except by law that befits the values of the State of Israel, that is designed for a worthy purpose and which does not exceed that which is required.
Israel faces an existential dilemma. Jews with any resources whatsoever, are not facing limitations on where they may live. While anti-Semitism has reared its head in recent years around the world, Jews feel safe in most lands in which they are concentrated. And there are easier places to live than Israel. So why have an Israel for the Jewish people? And why would Jewish people choose to live in Israel? I would argue that it is to provide a living experiment for Jewish values and even for Torah and Mitzvot: To demonstrate whether it is possible in today’s “real world” to live in accordance with at least some, if not all, Torah principles. And also to articulate where it might not be possible and to determine where and how adjustments are to be made.
In the final analysis, the ability to use an approach of what Gidi Grinstein refers to as “flexigidity”, balancing tradition and continuity with change and innovation, is going to be what moves Israel forward.
For many years, I was taught all the reasons that our biblical ancestor, Jacob, was supposedly not a cheat. “He didn’t defraud his father, Isaac, to get the blessing. He had already bought it”, “He didn’t really say ‘I am Esav your first born’. He really said ‘I am me. Esav is your first born.'”
These interpretations are a narrative of sorts. But I’ve come to understand that they are an interpretive narrative, not the original biblical one. In the biblical narrative, as written (peshat in Hebrew), Jacob is, to use the vernacular, a bit of a creep. He purchases a birthright from Esav as Esav is coming home famished. He flat-out lies to his dying father. He disguises himself as his brother. When, many years later, he meets up with Esav again, he works at their reunion to build trust. Then, as Esav departs, Jacob promises to follow, and instead, sneaks off in another direction.
Jacob’s trickiness is punished, measure for measure. His father-in-law tricks him, substituting Leah for Rachel at Jacob’s first marriage. And Jacob’s sons, Simon and Levi, become tricky. They reach out to the people of Shechem, suggesting they become circumcised as a step towards peace, and instead slaughter the people as a punishment for the seduction or rape of Dinah, their sister.
And so, thousands of years later, the Jacob of trickiness, rather than the Jacob to whose God we pray, is reflected in the recent news story of Orthodox Jews, arrested for bank fraud, conspiracy to make false statements to lenders, aggravated identity theft, and theft of public money http://www.lohud.com/story/news/crime/2014/11/13/fbi-arrests-mortgage-welfare-fraud/18961127/. In case the story of Jacob doesn’t give an excuse to those wishing to express anti-Semitic feelings, this recent news story does so.
It would be easy to say, as many have, that this case is the tip of the iceberg, at least in a relatively insular segment of the Jewish community. And perhaps there are other cases to come.
But as embarassing as it is to be connected to these people as co-religionists, I believe that the dissonance of the story is the descrepancy between what is the norm among committed Jews and what actually occured. In other words, this is the exception that proves the rule.
In over 35 years of serving the Jewish people, the vast, vast majority of fellow Jews that I encounter (Orthodox or not, religious or secular) are law-abiding men and women. The vast, vast majority are people who work hard in order to support themselves and their families. The vast, vast majority are ethical in their dealings with other human beings. The vast, vast majority do something in their day-to-day existence to try to make their communities and their world a better place.
It is frustrating and embarrassing to be grouped with these individuals and with the sneaky part of Jacob’s history.
But it is an honor to be grouped with the vast, vast majority of the Jewish people and with that part of Jacob’s story that transcended his early nature.
1983. The author was in Atlanta, GA serving in his first full time Rabbi / Jewish Educator position. As part of a synagogue renovation project, the synagogue’s school building (which once served as the state’s Ku Klux Klan headquarters!) was being restored after having been abandoned years earlier. The synagogue had been founded in the city of Atlanta. In 1946, it followed the move of Jews to suburbia. Consistent with the architecture of the time, the bima was an elevated stage several feet above congregant seating and positioned several yards forward from the front row of seating. The bima was illuminated by several spotlights, which easily raised the temperature to 10 degrees higher than that in the seats below.
During the renovation project, the senior rabbi and I questioned whether the bima could be moved closer to the congregants, or even to a location that would be nearer to the center of the seating, to be more consistent with an increasingly participatory approach. The answer given by the architect was that, to do so, “you would have to dynamite the bima, since it was built in solid concrete.”
Fast forward to 2007. I was no longer the Jewish educator embarking on a new career, but now sat with an energetic, bright Jewish educator embarking on her career. As I finished telling her the above story, she stopped me and said, “That’s it! To be successful in this work today, we have to blow up the bima!”
Today’s American synagogue model grew up in the post World War II era. The architecture of synagogues moved the attention from the center of the synagogue to the front, reflecting the idea that the “action” was going to take place on a stage, with paid lead actors (rabbi, cantor) performing from in front of and above the congregation, who would be participants, not leaders.
At the same time, the economic model of the synagogue was built on membership dues, which in turn relied on Bar/Bat Mitzvah, which in turn relied on synagogue “religious schools” to provide the financial means of keeping synagogues going (which also devalued both the educational program and the Bar/Bat Mitzvah).
Fast forward to 2012, and the (Jewish) world has changed, and the relationship of Rabbi to Community Member has changed with it. Today, only a fraction of Jews look to their rabbi as a sole authority on their spiritual or religious life and practice.
I propose that the model for the Rabbi / Community Member relationship must change to that of a Coach / Client relationship. In that relationship, the rabbi still is the scholar, but his/her role is not to try to impose one particular type of Jewish practice, as much as to set out options for people, and then empower them to set their Jewish life paths.
To make that happen, a few things need to occur:
- Rabbinic training needs to continue a move that has already progressed away from growing rabbis as authority figures and towards growing rabbis as coaches or spiritual mentors. Conversations between rabbis and community members sound more like “here are some possibilities that Judaism provides for your life” rather than “this is what Judaism demands of you”.
- Synagogue services must loosen up and move the “action” back to the Jews in the Pews rather than on the frontal bima. Among the ways to make that happen are interactive text studies during services, Storahtelling type theatre to supplement Torah reading, even Tweetups during services for those congregations that permit use of technology on Shabbat.
- We need to worry less about the rules of the service and more about how services help people to move spiritually. Fundraisers talk about “move management” as donors are developed. We need “move management” for Jews on their spiritual journeys. Judaism is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Rabbis need to have discussions (and not merely sermons) that say “you’ve added X to your life; How do you think Y would work as a next step towards deepening your spiritual journey?”
- Congregations and their rabbis need to not be limited by physical walls or by the walls of membership. There is an economic challenge to opening the doors, and some very creative communities are already trying to figure out how to keep congregations viable as these changes occur. But as the Jewish world has seen from examples such asSukkah City and Dawn. To use Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ expression, we must break down the synagogue’s walls.
- Community members and rabbis need to talk to one another. It’s no longer good enough to have families on membership lists that rabbis only talk to on holidays or when there is a life cycle event. Rabbis need to have conversations with each family or individual during the year that say “How can I or Judaism be of service to you in your life?” And the meetings don’t have to be in the “rabbi’s study”. They can be at Starbucks or over a corned beef sandwich at a deli [that’s right, we like a good corned beef sandwich, too].
How will your rabbis and your community members join in leading change?
Over the past 30+ years, I’ve listened to North American Jewish teens (and some international ones, as well). Like their adult counterparts, they kvetch about their rabbis and synagogues. But their gripes are different, and worth some attention (which isn’t to say that adults’ grips aren’t). Here’s some of what I’ve heard over the years, from my youth director days, my congregational rabbinate and education era, my camp and experiential educator gigs and my time in Jewish educational organizations:
“My rabbi doesn’t really care about teens. He’s all about the adults who pay dues.”
“My synagogue wants the kids in the building, but on its terms.”
“My congregation gives financial assistance for teens to participate in Israel programs, but only those of its movements’ youth group.”
“I love the tunes that I learned in camp, but the rabbi and cantor refuse to introduce them into services.”
“The rabbi seems more concerned about keeping the synagogue in business than about my Jewish growth.”
“I don’t find the rabbi easy to approach.”
“I feel ostracized because I belong to a community-wide Jewish youth group, rather than the synagogue’s youth group.”
This is just a short list of what I’ve heard from teens. And to be honest, more than one of the above statements were true of me and of synagogues that I led early in my career. The rabbis’ and synagogues’ concern for institutional survival is understood. And, as my friend and colleague David Bryfman has pointed out, teens (unlike younger kids) don’t add money (or membership) t0 synagogues. If anything, they cost synagogues money, when they invest resources in youth.
Forget for a moment the current debate as to whether the American synagogue is in trouble. It is certainly in flux, as Hayim Herring and others have pointed out. And for a moment also, let’s agree that the expectations placed on synagogues and on rabbis are too broad. It is unreasonable to expect that any individual rabbi can be everything: a scholar, a spiritual leader, a fundraiser, a community builder, a great speaker, a relationship manager, a teacher, a marital counselor, a spokesperson for the Jewish people, an expert on Israel, and, on top of those, a talented youth worker.
More important to me personally is not the state of the synagogue and rabbinate, but the state of Jewish youth, who often state that they do not “fit in” to the synagogue they grew up in, or find it difficult to connect with their rabbi in a meaningful way. And what is also important is that teens, like most of us, want to have meaning in their lives and, on the whole, welcome adults (yes, including rabbis) who are capable and prepared to meet them in the teens’ place of comfort (physical as well as emotional safe space). What’s a Jewish community to do? Here’s my idea:
Let’s create the field of a Youth-Oriented Rabbinate. A small number of synagogues have such positions, as do some day schools with “rav bet sefer” positions, but often the colleagues who occupy them use them as stepping stones to “bigger and better things.” I’m recommending that we don’t build a field merely on the “young rabbi” who works with “young people” for a few years right after rabbinical school. I’m proposing a true career track.
The second part of my proposal is to locate community youth rabbis on neutral turf, funded and housed outside synagogue walls. JCC’s, Federations, summer camps and community youth organizations are a few places that these rabbis could work within. Moving them out of the synagogues assures that their roles will not be to “sell” the synagogue’s or movement’s particular programs.
The third part of my proposal is to train these Youth-Oriented rabbis. There is much to be learned from youth ministries that function in Christian denominations, as well as from a few successful synagogue, JCC, summer camp and youth group models. Training has to include the obvious skills: counseling, coaching, education, technologies, arts, music, human development. It also has to include what every youth professional needs to know: pop music, sports, the latest TV shows, social media and anything else that is a part of youth’s lives.
I’m ready to walk the walk. I challenge any foundation or organization to create a Community Youth Rabbi position and to invite me to apply. Can’t scare me…I have 30+ years of working with Jewish teens under my belt, and can readily name others who’ve done the same. Unfortunately, because of the lack of a serious career track, much of our work with teens has been incidental to our “day jobs”. Let’s get serious about our Jewish youth.