Jewish Future is Here A New Vision of Identity and Community
Jewish Future is Here
Table of Contents Executive Summary i Education and Communal Transformation 1 Imagining Jewish Life in the 21st Century: A Fictional Vision of the Future 15 Notes 21 Acknowledgements 22 About the Author 23
Executive Summary WHAT IS THE PROBLEM ADDRESSED? The American Jewish community faces a number of significant challenges as it confronts the rapidly changing culture of the 21st century. Some of the key issues are: 1. A growing sense of indifference and complacency 2. Jewish illiteracy and high levels of ignorance 3. Declining membership in Jewish institutions 4. Fractured communities 5. Shrinking and aging donor base Jewish identity has changed dramatically over the past 60 years. However, the institutional Jewish community looks and functions much as it did 60 years ago. Jewish identity in the 21st century is fluid — change and dynamism have become the defining characteristics of Jewish identity in America. The 20th century American Jewish experience could be described as the “institutional epoch” of Jewish history. To be a Jew in America in the 20th century you had to belong, to be a member of an institution. The shared belief that Judaism is primarily a religion with multiple denominations has shaped the educational Jewish community in America. Most other aspects of Jewish identity — culture and the arts, literature and language, philosophy and history, and a distinct set of values to name but a few — were considered to be trivial and receded into the background. But in the 21st century, American Jews construct lives of meaning by seeking out and choosing what engages them in whatever domain they find it.
As the primary vehicle for transmitting Jewish identity, Jewish education plays a critical role in shaping the Jewish community. However, Jewish education is almost exclusively delivered in institutions that are identified as primarily religious in nature. Therefore, there is a significant gap between the breadth of ways Jews find meaning and build lives of meaning and the infrastructure of Jewish education in America. WHERE DO WE GO? A PROPOSITION: If Judaism is more than a religion and American Jews find meaning in multifaceted ways then we must build an educational infrastructure that reflects both the breadth and dynamic nature of Jewish identity of American Jews in the 21st century. HOW WILL WE SOLVE THE PROBLEM? Based on 3 core principles, we need to create a different kind of Jewish community. Those principles are: 1. Jewish identity is more than religious in nature. Therefore, Jewish education must offer far more than religion if it wants to engage Jews in the fullness of their heritage. In addition, American identity in the 21st century is imbued with the principle that we as Americans have the inalienable right to make choices, and therefore creating a multifaceted educational system will enable Jews to make informed and educated choices about their Jewish identities in ways that they are unable to do in the system that exists today. 2. Individual institutions and organizations cannot provide the breadth and depth of resources needed to engage American Jews. Only by constructing an educational system that works collaboratively across institutions and
organizations, and that is responsive to the dynamic nature of Jewish identity, can we hope to transform the experience of American Jews and engage them on a far deeper level than the current system allows. If Jewish heritage is multifaceted, then the Jewish educational community must be multifaceted. 3. If a significant purpose of the Jewish community is to perpetuate itself based on the belief that Judaism adds something not only to one born into the group, but to the culture of the United States, then the mission of the American Jewish community must be primarily educative in nature. This requires a shared commitment by all institutions and organizations, donors and volunteers to create a broad set of dynamic and engaging learning experiences for Jews of all ages, across the life span, and at all levels of knowledge and commitment. The paper you are about to read makes a case for transforming the American Jewish community based on the 3 core principles articulated above. In addition, we offer some specific details of what such a system would need in order to be successful. While we do not mean to suggest this is the only way to turn the tide of a failed educational system, we do embrace the notion that without the basic principles underlying the structure and providing a firm foundation for transformation, whatever we might create will be fragile and vulnerable to the changing nature of Jewish identity, Jewish affiliation, and membership in our community in the years to come. Finally, we offer a fictional portrayal of what such a community might look like from the perspective of a family that just moved in. It is not meant as an exhaustive vision, just one way these principles might be played out on the ground in a community.
Education and Communal Transformation Over the course of 3,000 years, in response to the challenges that Jews have faced, the Jewish community has adapted, transformed and re-invented itself, allowing us to survive and even to thrive. The current challenges facing the American Jewish community â€” an increasing resistance to institutional membership, a growing sense of indifference and complacency, Jewish illiteracy, fractured communities and a shrinking donor base â€” are significant, but survivable if we transform the community once again. The infrastructure of the community looks much as it did 60 years ago. However, the identity of American Jews does not. The question is: how can we create an educational infrastructure that reflects what it means to be a Jew in America in the 21st century? In this brief monograph we will offer a new vision of Jewish identity and Jewish community in the United States. For millennia, Judaism was defined by a diverse set of experiences that reached far beyond what we understand to be religion today. It involved prayer and rituals to be sure, but it also encompassed art and philosophy, language and history, and a distinct set of values that informed the daily lives of Jews. Today in America, the majority of Jewish institutions are focused almost exclusively on Judaism as a religion, frequently compartmentalized from our daily lives; for some people relevant on the Sabbath, for most only on major holidays and in recognition of life cycle events. This compartmentalization does not seem to be effective at engaging people throughout their life span. By rediscovering a broader understanding of Jewish identity, one that is experienced as enriching our lives as Americans, we could build an educational infrastructure that is more exciting and engaging than the one we have today.
In addition, we must develop ways of making the most valuable resources available to the maximum number of people. For too many Jews, membership in a sub-community (for example membership in a congregation or a JCC) constitutes the totality of their Jewish affiliation severely limiting their exposure to the rich resources that exist in most Jewish communities. In this new paradigm, membership in the sub-community will function as a portal to a larger cooperative community. Institutions will be structured in ways that enable and encourage them to share resources, thereby maximizing the use of outstanding talent. Such a shift would enable us to see beyond the walls of institutions and organizations, opening up creative ways to bring together different entities in collaboration with each other and the community as a whole. For both financial and ideological reasons we must pool our resources and create a community infrastructure in which collaboration between institutions and organizations, and the sharing of human resources, is the norm. Finally, Jewish education, broadly understood, must become the core mission of the American Jewish community. If we begin to think that the purpose of a Jewish community is to embody a unique or culturally distinct set of values, then the mission of the communal endeavor must be to inculcate those values into its members.1 Each discrete program, institution and organization would work co-operatively to educate community citizens. As the most basic and fundamental Jewish value, education would be the driving force undergirding the communal structure itself. This is not simply a plan to replace Hebrew School or to more effectively educate children, though it does encompass both goals. Our ability to create meaningful educational experiences for ourselves, our children and for future generations will succeed only if Jews of every age are actively engaged in nurturing their
own Jewish identities and, in turn, become active citizens, supporting a strong Jewish community.
The Tapestry of Jewish Identity Our vision of a Jewish community is grounded in an expanded understanding of Judaism and Jewish identity. Imagine, if you will, Jewish identity as a tapestry, a great weave comprised of innumerable threads, colors and patterns founded upon a set of value concepts and grounded deep in the history of our people. The tapestry includes religious belief and practice, in addition to art, philosophy, history, music, languages, traditions, and a distinct set of values that form the foundation for a community, to name some of the components. If we broaden our understanding of Jewish life and experience to embrace the entire tapestry of Jewish identity, it could enliven and enrich us far more deeply. The tapestry in its fullness offers American Jews a path to meaning that transcends the self and a destiny attached to something beyond the individual. The more connections or touch points we can find in the tapestry, the more it speaks to us and the more we experience a sense of attachment and meaningfulness. The modern manifestation of this tapestry is unique, as each historical manifestation has been unique. Jewish life in America has the capacity to flourish in ways that are only possible because we live at this time and in this remarkable place. The degree to which we feel connected to the tapestry and empowered to make our own contribution to it, to add our own pattern, color and design, is the degree to which Judaism will continue to be a vibrant part of our lives. For most American Jews, the definition of Judaism is akin to other kinds
of religious traditions. This reflects a deeper problem facing the American Jewish community: when asked, the great majority of American Jews define Judaism as a religion with a particular denominational interpretation of prayer, life cycle events, and the study of sacred texts.2 But studies show that the actual beliefs and practices of American Jews indicate few behaviors that correspond to a strong religious identification.3 While many of us feel as though Judaism is far more than a religion, to a significant extent, the institutional Jewish community does not reflect this broader understanding. This tension — between how we define Judaism and how we personally experience it — often leaves us detached and disinterested in the institutional Jewish community. The American Jewish community has created an infrastructure that cedes most forms of education and identity building to institutions that are perceived to be primarily religious and denominational in nature. This means that although many Jews have a sense that their identity is more than a religion, they do not have the education, or even the lexicon, to articulate what that means to them. Until quite recently, it was normative for American Jews to belong to Jewish institutions, primarily houses of worship but also JCC’s, and other membership organizations. But in the 21st century, this notion of institutional membership has become passé, and people tend to want to make choices to suit their immediate needs and concerns. In this dynamic culture, the notion of membership has become antiquated and is seen as limiting. A la carte opportunities will become the norm in the near future — whether or not we want that to be the case — jeopardizing the institutional Jewish community which is financed by membership driven revenue streams. This is not in any way to suggest that community and religion are not central to Jewish identity. Rather, religion does not exhaust Jewish identity
and we have yet to create an infrastructure that truly supports the breadth and depth of what Jewish identity has been for millennia. We believe, however, that America is an environment in which the full tapestry of Jewish life could create opportunities for powerful and deeply meaningful experiences for our people both as Americans and as Jews. In order to communicate that effectively, we need to approach Jewish education and engagement in a very different way. Religion requires a set of beliefs leading to action with a particular set of behaviors. However, American Jews have been raised in a culture in which freedom of choice is the sine qua non of their values and we cannot expect that religion as a coercive force will successfully engage most Jews today.4 As long as being a Jew is primarily understood in religious terms, it threatens our sense of autonomy. So how can we engage Jews?
Education, Enculturation and Experience John Dewey, the father of modern American education, offered the most salient insights into what successful education requires. “The [learner’s] own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education. Save as the efforts of the educator to connect with some activity which the [learner] is carrying on his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without.”5 This is axiomatic: that which is meaningful and exciting to the learner must be the beginning of the educational process. In order to resonate with learners, what is being taught must connect to some deep and essential part of their inner selves. Isa Aron, Professor of Education at Hebrew Union College, argues that the “knowledge, skills and even values and attitudes will only remain in an individual’s active memory when that person’s culture affords him or
her the opportunity to exercise them.”6 Such learning is only retained if it has resonance beyond the classroom. Aron uses the term “enculturation” to describe a process which “is both more holistic and more serendipitous; it is also more enduring” than traditional classroom learning.7 This is the exact opposite of the compartmentalization that characterizes so much of Jewish life in America. Far too often we create educational experiences that implicitly and explicitly reinforce the notion that Jewish identity and American identity are separate compartments, separate experiences and that there is a chasm between “real” life and Jewish life. Therefore, to have an impact on American Jews, we must demonstrate how that which is most meaningful to them in the general culture can be enriched by their Jewish heritage. In the 21st century in the United States, we must recognize that we cannot legislate belief. We must create educational experiences that are deeply meaningful and compelling to Jews as Americans. Jewish education divorced from American cultural experience becomes precisely the “pressure from without” that Dewey warns us against. Learners must generate their own connections between the content of their Jewish education and the contexts of their lives, an endeavor which usually leads to frustration and failure. Much has been written about experiences that do seem to have a profound impact on participants. They are: Israel trips, summer camps, and day schools, saying kaddish and multi-session adult learning. We suspect that part of what is so powerful in the Israel experience, as well as day schools and summer camps is that there is a far broader set of experiences that participants can connect to, as well as seamless touch points of Jewish identity that are not compartmentalized. Mourning the loss of a loved one by saying kaddish that first year brings both spiritual meaning and emotional support within the context of a Jewish community. Jewish experiences in
America need to expand Jewish life, making it broader than any modern notion of religion alone can offer. In addition to religion, there is community and culture, history and language, philosophy and art, and a powerful set of culturally distinct values. Jews could experience multiple connections to their identity, spread over a far broader set of touch points. Everyone would feel a part of the whole while still maintaining his or her unique place and story. We must be able to embrace experiences that are proven to be transformative in multiple domains â€“ Jewish activities that are value laden, connected to Jewish heritage, and at the same time relevant to modern American culture. Two examples of this can be found in numerous communities today: Service-learning, or the study of Jewish values that are then acted upon in service to the Jewish or the general community and then reflected upon, is one of the most effective means of engaging Jews today. It is an approach to Jewish life that encourages people to learn in order to do. In the doing, participants feel the power of a tradition, a heritage and a set of values that enhance their own lives as well as the lives of people around them. Similarly, philanthropy education programs have a consistent impact on participants. A group of people is brought together, typically with a small amount of funds to distribute, and then taught a set of values tied to their Jewish heritage that guides their search for worthy recipients and weaves an ongoing connection to those values. Often viewed as a program that impacts teenagers, philanthropy education is a model that is effective with multiple age cohorts. Truly meaningful Jewish education cannot simply be about learning ideas, prayers and rituals, but must entail learning towards doing, towards action, for it is in acting out a set of values that participants find deeply meaningful attachments to their heritage. The more ways one can find points
of connection, the more an individual feels the power and meaningfulness of the activity. By offering both the education piece that is meaningful to us both as Americans and as Jews, along with the “values-in-action” component, we are empowering people to act out of a set of values that have great meaning and purpose to them both as Americans and as Jews. Judaism is designed to be lived, not just “learned about,” and the vibrancy of Jewish life is most fully realized when one lives out of a set of values and beliefs. If we can place Jewish educational experiences that involve the entirety of the Jewish tapestry at the core of our communal endeavor, then perhaps we can build institutions that will energize, excite and create deeply meaningful experiences for many more Jews. This does not mean watering down or taking the path of least resistance. Rather, it is about the simple fact that being Jewish is much more than religion alone. We are selling Judaism short by limiting it and we are losing Jews who are disinterested in what has been a narrow understanding of it.
Institutions and Infrastructure We are blessed with a tremendous set of resources in the Jewish community today. Rabbis and congregations have a great deal to offer. If one looks back at the last 60 years of American Jewish communal history, it is the synagogue, the Hebrew school and rabbinic leadership that have sustained and nurtured Jewish identity and enabled us to continue to play a significant role in the American cultural landscape. Of course, religious institutions are not the only resources that communities have.
Many communities have day schools, which, generally speaking, have tremendous Judaic resources but only serve a small portion of the community. Most communities also have JCCs, access to summer camps, adult education programs, Judaic faculty at local universities, independent minyanim, youth groups, private tutors, event planners, independent institutions, and hundreds of initiatives. To be sure, there is still plenty to be created, but what if the center of education was shifted to the community? What if the wider Jewish community began working together to offer a vast and deep set of complementary experiences for Jews, affiliated and unaffiliated alike? What might we create? Professionals: In our vision of a new community structure, professionals connected to institutions (sub-communities) would not work in isolation from one another but could collaborate across institutional boundaries. Why? Because members of sub-communities whom professionals serve will also be members of the collective community and will have the opportunity to learn and nurture their identity in multiple domains. Therefore, educators will need to work across institutional boundaries to ensure that community members have access to the breadth and depth of opportunities that the community can provide. This will require a set of master teachers: those individuals who have the ability to weave together Jewish value concepts, Jewish tradition and heritage with American experiences, and who can inspire their learners to want to be engaged in living those Jewish values. We will need to nurture expert educators who have the knowledge and ability to engage people across the life span. Congregations, day schools, summer camps, JCCs, youth groups and other organizations have many outstanding educators. However, the current structure is one in which such talent is isolated in many different institutions, spreading it too thinly across the community.
Typically people are educated within a single institution and therefore are rarely exposed to the great talent that exists in the larger community. The sad truth is that the current structure requires too many educators, many of whom are not capable of inspiring people and engaging them in meaningful experiences. This problem could be eased by facilitating the opportunity for rabbis and master educators to teach in multiple domains, together with other master educators. Developing and investing in a network of master educators will create a powerful incentive for talented people to live and work in a community and it will enable the best educators to be employed in a more full time capacity by the community. In order to take advantage of the full array of opportunities available, the community will need to create a new professional position: an Educational Concierge. These professionals will be responsible for getting to know each individual and family. Some of the Educational Concierges will be connected to a particular sub-community while others will be employed by the community at large. They will be fully informed of all of the educational opportunities available in the community at large, both through regular interactions with professional colleagues from around the community and through access to an online resource that is kept up to date on a daily basis with accurate information. Web based platform: The future of Jewish education is partly dependent on our ability to utilize technology to bring the best and the brightest teachers from around the world into the classrooms and homes of Jews everywhere. Creative interactive Jewish learning experiences are too hard to find on the internet today. We must also take advantage of an ever flattening world, in which resources can be shared across a community or even across a country.
If one Jewish community in the United States is able to create an excellent online resource, in whatever form it might take, then other communities need not re-invent the wheel, but should be able to take advantage of it. Community itself is now being re-shaped by social networking, and we need to understand and utilize such technology to create vibrant Jewish experiences in America today. While social networking cannot replace face to face encounters, it does in fact have a significant impact on the way people communicate, learn and create community. In short, social networking can greatly enhance human interaction. The Jewish world is far behind this revolution in community building. Funding: Programs, courses and experiences will need to be offered on an a la carte basis or as part of an annual fee. The annual fee could be structured such that it includes some free programming, membership in the system at large, and discounts for everything else. The money would follow the learner, so that the money one person pays into the system would be divided amongst the programs and institutions that the person engages in over the course of a given year. That would allow funds to be distributed throughout the system. In addition, the a la carte fee available for each and every program would encourage those for whom institutional membership is a barrier to participate in high quality Jewish educational programming. Institutions could offer multi-tiered fee structures, basing the cost of membership on the services one wants in a given year. We would expect that this could be a hardship for some institutions over the short run. However, if we can significantly increase the number of people engaging in Jewish activities, then over the long term more money, more donors, and more overall participation would be the likely outcome. Consider this in light of the declining membership and donor base in most American Jewish communities today. Clearly the overall finances of
the system need to be studied by business leaders and entrepreneurs in order to analyze the impact of different funding models.
Collective Impact Changing the way individuals engage with the Jewish community and the way the institutional community engages with individuals are challenges that no single intervention can resolve. We have offered one vision of what such a solution might look like. Getting to this solution, or any other, is a difficult task requiring a carefully guided process. The concept of “collective impact” suggests that multiple stake holders can change their behaviors in order to solve a large scale and complex social problem. Collective impact is best used to address an adaptive, rather than a technical problem. “…adaptive problems…are complex, the answer is not known, and even if it were, no single entity has the resources or authority to bring about the necessary change.”8 There are five primary conditions that are necessary in order for such a process to be successful. They are: the creation of a common agenda; shared measurement systems which include agreement on the way success will be measured and reported; mutually reinforcing activities such that each participant (individual, organization, institution) contributes to the process which it excels at; continuous communication including the development of a shared lexicon; and a backbone support organization comprised of a small number of highly trained individuals who can effectively lead the process.9 This new initiative must be a coordinated system in which multiple institutions, organizations, programs and initiatives all work together co-operatively to solve the problem of low rates of both engagement and education. Whether by utilizing the collective impact concept, or another
strategy, the institutional Jewish community in America has a stark choice: respond to the changes in Jewish identity and community either after the fact — after membership and donor rates are so low that many institutions fail — or proactively, and re-think its structure, revenue streams, and the way Jews are engaged. But what is undeniable is that change is here.
Conclusion: A New Evolution in Jewish Life After the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai and they heard the divine voice and saw the lightning and smoke around the mountain, they built the golden calf. God responded by giving them the “mishkan” (portable Tabernacle) and exiling them into the desert. Over a 40 year period the Israelites transformed themselves from a rag-tag group of ex-slaves into a People. After the politicalreligious leadership of the ancient priesthood had been corrupted by money and power, Rabbinic Judaism emerged. The greatest and most influential Jewish text, the Talmud, evolved as a direct outcome of the destruction of the Second Temple and the dispersion of the Jewish People. From medieval philosophy to Jewish mysticism, from the rise of Jewish denominationalism to the creation of the first Jewish state in 2,000 years, we are a People that adapts and changes – we transform ourselves. And we do so by learning from the past and creating a new future. Each epoch that we have mentioned is marked by the creation of new and exciting texts and institutions that formed the foundation for the future communities that were created. This value that individuals, communities and a whole people can, by learning from their past, evolve into something greater – lies at the very heart of our heritage and our tradition.
American Jewry has seen breathtaking successes, built magnificent edifices and helped to make the world a better place for itself, for Jews throughout the world, as well as for oppressed people around the globe. It has been a critical partner with Israel in helping it to evolve into a modern democratic state that is a haven for all Jews as well as an economic powerhouse. There were two powerful and lasting Jewish communities after the destruction of the second Temple, one in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) and the other in Babylonia. Today, the Jewish populations of Israel and America combined comprise 85% of world Jewry. It is time to establish our rightful place as the full partner with Israel in creating vibrant and compelling Jewish experiences for Jews throughout the world. Jewish life must take place both within and beyond the walls of the institutions. Jewish values and traditions must be interpreted in ways that make our lives as moderns richer and more meaningful, and they must transcend the narrow definition of religion that has come to characterize our understanding of Judaism in the modern period. As the 21st century unfolds, we must take full advantage of what the American Jewish community has achieved. Building on our extraordinary successes, it is time to take another step forward to transform ourselves once again, and by doing so strengthen Jewish identity and expand Jewish communal affiliation throughout the world. Let us find ways to create cooperative communities in which our major investments are in the best resources that are shared across institutional and organizational boundaries. Let us move beyond our primary affiliations with organizations and institutions and find a way to embrace community as a whole. When we do that, we will have many more Jews involved in many more Jewish experiences and we will achieve the goal of transforming Jewish life and creating a new future for world Jewry.
Imagining Jewish Life in the 21st Century:
A Fictional Vision of the Future
The Weiss family – Josh, Wendy and their children Laura (15) and Jake (12) – had just moved into their new home in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a suburb of Washington D.C. Worn out from unpacking, they were both surprised and relieved to receive a “Welcome Box” from a Jewish Federation representative on their first night. In addition to a delicious (and kosher) dinner for four, the box included what at first seemed to be a paper catalogue, but turned out to be a box holding a thumb drive. Curious (and a little bored: as of yet they had no internet or cable service set up), the family inserted the thumb drive into a laptop and settled in to see what it contained. The program opened with a flourish of music and colors, which morphed into a title: “The 2015 Catalogue of Everything Jewish in the Greater Washington Area” and the tagline “The Doors of the Jewish Community of Greater Washington Are Always Open.” Virtual doors on the screen opened to reveal a digital catalogue with everything you could ever want to know about Jewish institutions, organizations and initiatives. It had a section on private tutors for individualized learning from bar and bat mitzvah training to text study to learning Hebrew. It also had a whole section of activities that were connected to serving the community, both Jewish and non-Jewish. As they watched, the Weiss’ were almost overwhelmed by this dazzling array of ideas, locations, programs and people, all geared towards the same goal of helping them connect to and express their Jewish heritage in whatever ways they might find most meaningful and appealing. As the Weiss family began to become part of their new community they saw and experienced how the images in the digital Jewish catalogue were brought to life by a myriad of creative and vibrant institutions and professionals. They
were contacted by the organization that administers the Co-operative and were connected to an Educational Concierge. This person was able to help them navigate what was being offered in the community and to make some choices about learning opportunities for themselves and their children. Her job was to get to know individuals and families on a very personal level and make them feel truly welcomed and embraced by the community. The Educational Concierge had a special role in welcoming new people to the community. She would not only connect with the Weissâ€™ early on, but in addition she would work with them over the course of their lives, meeting with them several times per year, helping them shape a set of learning experiences that would speak to their particular needs and interests. She told them about the opportunities that the community offered both within and beyond traditional institutions. The Educational Concierge explained that the Co-operative worked with many different organizations and institutions throughout the area. Most of the congregations were affiliated with the Co-operative in some way, along with JCCs, local Hillels, summer camps, social service agencies, youth groups, independent organizations, museums, theaters and national agencies with offices in the area. It also had a special fund to seed and nurture exciting initiatives. The Co-operative utilized technology extensively, creating social networking groups and developing interactive learning modules for a whole range of different things, and offering online courses â€“ some of them live webinars and some courses that you could engage in at any time of the day or night. It rented two public spaces: one near the Weissâ€™ house and one in Northern Virginia, attracting a diverse population of families and individuals. Some of these families were interfaith, some were not, but all had expressed reluctance about institutional membership. So the public spaces had made connecting feel safe for many people. The key was accessibility and acceptance,
so that whether you were elderly, were someone with special needs, lived or worked in the far reaches of the community, or your professional work made it impossible to participate in person, everyone had a rich variety of opportunities for learning. As more institutions and organizations participated, the programs expanded dramatically. Each year the Co-operative started home-based learning groups matching families and individuals in the same area and stage of life. Word of mouth spread quickly – great teachers and no value judgments; whatever you want to do or not do; no questions asked. There were a series of community blogs and chat rooms and social networking sites that in turn created a number of community groups. The community had grown rapidly over the course of the first years of the Co-operative and it was reaching people that had been reluctant to engage with the Jewish community of the past. People could participate in any activity on a pay-as-you-go basis or become “partners” (annual members) which offered substantial discounts for many of the programs. In addition, becoming a partner offered them a voice in helping to shape the catalogue for the coming year, as all partners were invited to planning sessions that took place each fall. A high school classmate (and soon BFF) of Laura’s, Jennie Lander, invited her to join a Jewish theater troupe at the local JCC, igniting in Laura a new-found passion for theater. Jennie and Laura had met shortly after the Weiss’ moved to the area. Her family had reached out to the Weiss’ as they lived just a few doors down on the same street. The Landers had lived in the community for just over 10 years. The parents, Brooke and Jon, had not been involved in the Jewish community when they first arrived. But Jennie had gotten involved in the theater troupe and over time Jennie’s involvement had drawn her parents into the larger community. It had started with a weekend at the local camp at which
all of the parents with kids in any kind of a theater troupe in the Co-operative were invited to attend. At a certain point just before the end of the weekend the parents were asked to make a commitment to do something back home that would enable them to stay connected to what their kids were doing. The Landers agreed to host an initial meeting of a group that would read the work the kids were performing and discuss it. Brooke was not Jewish, though she had agreed to raise their children with a Jewish identity, so she reached out to the Cooperative for help in organizing the first meeting. Their Educational Concierge helped the family navigate the programs and institutions within the Cooperative, connecting them to people who were welcoming of interfaith families. The Educational Concierge became a very important friend and opened doors that they simply didn’t know existed. The Landers encouraged the Weiss’ to try a few different programs that the Co-operative was offering in the area. By the time Laura asked if she could join the theater troupe, the Weiss’ were already comfortable with the Co-operative and were very supportive of her interest. After her third year of involvement, Laura traveled to Israel with her theater troupe. They joined up with other teens their own age involved in theater in Israel and developed a number of friendships that lasted long into adulthood. Josh and Wendy learned that Jake could prepare for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah ceremony by spending a year working on his passion, environmental issues framed by relevant Jewish learning, followed by a two-week intensive “Torah reading boot camp” at a retreat center. This plan was far more appealing to both Jake and his parents than the traditional Hebrew School program they had expected to follow. Josh and Wendy sampled from a smorgasbord of Jewish learning options – many of which were held in private living rooms, bookstores, cafés and other appealing locations.
After a few years, their Educational Concierge suggested that Josh and Wendy organize a neighborhood group that was comprised of people interested in how Jewish identity might inform and enrich their interests in environmental issues. There was a couple who belonged to the modern orthodox congregation a few miles away, yet had not had much interaction with Jews outside of the orthodox community. There was a single woman who worked for the government and was very involved both professionally and personally in environmental issues and there was a gay couple who lived close by and who had two adopted children. They had never participated in any Jewish activity in the past but were both very active environmentalists. Their older daughter had become friends with Jake Weiss in school and the parents had developed a friendship with Josh and Wendy. They were very reluctant at first, but over time they became part of the core of the group. Those 18 people developed enduring friendships and together studied with a teacher that specialized in travel education. They traveled to the Amazon Rainforest with their teacher to explore and study the Jewish value of caring for the environment. Some of them joined the board of the Co-operative. Others joined the Jewish Federation and some joined congregations. A number did not join any additional institutions or organizations, but they continued to meet as a group and celebrated life cycle events, shared joys, and helped each other through the difficult times. For the first few years they were in the community, the Weiss family enjoyed a variety of “a la carte” opportunities. Then a point came when they decided to become “partners” by purchasing an annual membership, which offered them significant discounts for programs and classes, allowing them to connect and give back on a deeper level to the community which had given them so much (even Laura, now deeply involved in her university Hillel, retained strong feelings of connection to her home Jewish community.) It also offered them less
expensive ways to connect to congregations, which had developed multi-tiered fee structures. The costs varied depending on how often you wanted to go and what features you were looking for. This enabled the Weissâ€™ to connect to multiple congregations depending on what they were looking for at any given point in their lives. They realized that making the choice to become partners would facilitate their ability to enjoy everything Jewish Greater Washington had to offer.
Notes 1. We believe that every great culture has a distinct set of values. While the individual values may overlap between one culture and the next, the way the values are understood and the way they are experienced by members of the community makes the set of them distinct to that particular group. 2. Leonard Saxe, U.S. Jewry 2010: Estimates of the Size and Characteristics of the Population, Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies; December, 2010 pg. 8. 3. National Jewish Population Survey 2000, Section II Jewish Connections, or the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: US Religious Landscape Survey. 4. For a fascinating analysis of this topic, please see The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar. Hachette Book Group 2010. 5. John Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed School Journal vol. 54 (January 1897), pp. 77-80. 6. Isa Aron. 32 Tikkun vol. 4, No. 3. 7. Aron, Ibid. 8. Kenia, J. & Kramer M â€œCollective Impactâ€? Stanford Social Innovation Review Winter 2011. Pg. 39. 9. Ibid, pp 39-42.
Acknowledgements This work is the outcome of a collaboration that I have been engaged in with JoHanna Potts over the past five years and reflects our perspectives on the American Jewish community. I would like to thank the entire staff and the Board of Directors of the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning. In particular, I would like to thank JoHanna Potts, Barry Krasner and Dr. Meredith Woocher for reading and re-reading every draft of this monograph and always offering thoughtful and insightful suggestions. I also want to thank Adva Priso, David Lewis and Jessie Nathans for production and design.
About the Author Dr. James Hyman is Chief Executive Officer for the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning. Dr. Hyman has served the Jewish community in a variety of roles for over 25 years. Prior to joining the Partnership, he served as Director of Education for the Mandel Foundation, North America, developing new initiatives for Foundation programs and partnerships in Jewish communities throughout North America. Formerly, Dr. Hyman was Director, Leadership Development Program and Adjunct Professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. At the New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Dr. Hyman was CoDirector, New Teacher Initiative: Mentoring New Teachers in Jewish Day Schools. Dr. Hyman received an MA and PhD from the Department of Religion at Stanford University, and an MA from The Institute for Contemporary Jewry of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr. Hyman is also an ordained rabbi. Dr. Hyman lives in Potomac, MD with his wife, Jessie Nathans, and their two children.
The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning The Partnership is a team of innovators leading a way forward for the Greater Washington Jewish community. Our collaborations provide thousands of learning opportunities for whole families or anyone of any age interested in exploring core Jewish values and culture. Programs bridge arts and faith, balancing innovation with tradition. We provide unique online resources, ground-breaking professional development for educators, and partner with JCCs, congregations, schools and social service agencies to help expand and deepen their reach. 12230 Wilkins Avenue, Rockville, MD 20852 Telephone: 240-283-6200 Fax: 240-283-6201 Email: email@example.com Website: www.pjll.org Copyright ÂŠ 2012 by Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning. No portion of this work may be reproduced in any form without the prior written consent of the publishers.