Member Poaching Part 4: So What Now?

Since first posting about this issue, I’ve discussed some of the problems I see in the American Jewish scene regarding engagement, leadership, membership, education, community models, and the like. Of course, it’s easy to pick nits without actually suggesting solutions.

So here are the ideas I’ve been thinking about.

And of course, hackneyed though this point may be, there is no silver bullet.

Jewish Education

Starting with Jewish education, the current model that exists outside much of non-Orthodox Judaism does not work. For too many children, and for too many families, the supplementary school model (which is what “Hebrew School” is called in more formal educational circles) is a drudgery of grueling sessions learning to make out Hebrew letters and vowels and maybe learning some prayers in order to perform well during a bar or bat mitzvah.

Unless Hebrew just really speaks to a child’s soul, that’s not going to create Jewish engagement.

What will? While I like the idea of social action/community service as a way to shake up the traditional model of education toward bar or bat mitzvah, that isn’t distinctly Jewish. Plenty of high schools require volunteer experience before students can graduate.

So I think it will have to be a mix: social action will have to be tied to sources of Jewish provenance that make sense for the children, the congregations they belong to, and the children’s and parents’ values. And that means bar/bat mitzvah education will be more time-intensive for educators. But it will also be more meaningful and have a better chance of creating meaningful connections between bnai mitzvah and their Jewish identities.

That education will also, for many, focus much less on “learning Hebrew.”

That education will also, for many, focus much less on “learning Hebrew.” I’m not sure that’s as big a problem as we might think, because let’s face it–what supplementary school kids learn now doesn’t exactly match up to really learning Hebrew.

Jewish Organizations

Jewish organizations will also have to change. I think Prof. Wolfson has written a bit that starts down this road in his Relational Judaism, but I don’t think he goes far enough or is willing to really rethink Jewish organizations enough.

Prof. Wolfson is right that Jewish organizations need to do better at reaching out to new potential members. But that’s not really enough–that’s just doing better at marketing. Jewish organizations–synagogue, educational agencies, social service agencies generally–will need to figure out what Jews want and how to deliver on those desires.

The modern Jewish community will, gradually, begin to look like the rest of the American population. We will have more diversity. Jewish community organizations will fail if they do not begin to figure out how to deal with special needs children. They will fail if they do not figure out how to genuinely welcome interfaith families.

Jewish community organizations will fail if they do not begin to figure out how to deal with special needs children. They will fail if they do not figure out how to genuinely welcome interfaith families.

There are no easy paths to these ends. In fact, these will not be ends. Improvement is a process, not a product, and successful improvement will be the result of continuous feedback loops between organizations and community constituents.

Improvement will also be a result of recognizing that stakeholders in the community will not only want to contribute money, but time. Many of Jewish organizations aren’t prepared to handle the DIY ethic shared by so many younger members of the American Jewish world. That, too, will have to change unless Jewish community groups want to alienate large portions of the next generation of Jewish leaders.

The Synagogue

The synagogue will also need to change. I’ve already let on in this series that I think the high-cost, centralized rabbinic model is flawed in many communities, and that we will need to make more training and ordination options available to willing clergy.

But I also think we may see increased decentralization of synagogue-like groups–e.g., havurot–that may benefit from sharing educational work. There are even some larger synagogues that do this–the Indianapolis Jewish community is a somewhat impaired version of this.

Belief

This may be the toughest nut to crack–not because of where I think the typical American Jew sits on the ideological spectrum, but because of what people are willing to admit to in public.

The American Jewish community is interestingly reticent about saying what it thinks. Dissent is muted on a number of issues: Israeli politics, American foreign policy, American domestic policy, and statements of faith. To grow–to be able to encompass the broad range of Jewish viewpoints–we will need to create a more open environment for dialogue.

In particular, I think we need a vocal, growing Humanistic Jewish movement to push the edges of the debate.

This last point is where I think we need vocal smaller movements. In particular, I think we need a vocal, growing Humanistic Jewish movement to push the edges of the debate.

Unfortunately, I think is where those of us in the Humanistic Jewish world will have the greatest difficulty, because what we do–the songs we sing and the language we use–is often very unlike what Jews in the rest of the Jewish world do. We will need to work hard to bridge that gap.

I think it can be done–but we’re going to have to work at it.

I’m ready. Are you?

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