I recently had the privilege of listening to Professor Ron Wolfson give several talks to my community about his new book, Relational Judaism. Professor Wolfson’s thesis, as he explains here, is that Jewish institutions are failing us, and hemorrhaging affiliated members as a result, because they focus on “transactional Judaism” rather than he what terms “relational Judaism.” Transactional Judaism connotes a fee-for-service approach in which institutions offer programs, activities, services, and schools, in exchange for money. Instead, Wolfson argues that institutions and their leaders need to focus more time, energy, and financial resources on building face-to-face relationships, micro-communities, and programming with a relationship-generating component built in.
There is a lot of wisdom in Wolfson’s book, and I commend it as critical reading for all Jewish professionals, from rabbis to federation leaders to school principals. Making synagogues more welcoming of visitors, taking the time to meet parents of students or JCC members one on one, and cutting back on committee meetings will make Jewish institutions of all sizes and locations more vibrant and personal. But as I read through the case studies in his book, and heard him speak, I kept feeling a sense of disquieting disconnect: the Jewish world he describes in his book does not equate with the Jewish world I experience out in the hinterlands of Connecticut.
There are two different worlds of Judaism in America today. There are huge Jewish demographic presences in the big cities (New York, LA, D.C., Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami, and a few others) and their surrounding suburbs (the Valley, Westchester, areas in New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia), where the variety of religious expression and opportunity is incredibly rich, perhaps richer than ever before in the history of the Jewish Diaspora. Here, relational Judaism can be a huge benefit to large synagogues and other organizations that have lost their personal touch. Relational Judaism can serve as an effective way to re-vivify places that have grown cold, sterile, and indifferent. Larger federations can and should hire Jewish concierges to help steward new members of the Jewish community and existing members passing from one life stage to another (e.g. post Bar/Bat Mitzvah or new empty nesters) to various organizational presences and opportunities. Synagogues with multiple clergy should deploy them in more interactive ways, such as having a rabbi meet religious school parents in the parking lot to ameliorate the nefarious “drop off” effect or creating an alternative Friday night service in congregants’ homes.
But, as I told Professor Wolfson, I remain unconvinced that relational Judaism can work in small communities where resources are so scarce that institutions spend most of their time just trying to run basic programs and keep the lights on. On Shabbat morning, the rabbi of a small synagogue—who is the only clergy—cannot simultaneously greet people who come in during services and lead the congregation in prayers. When the religious school director is also a teacher, in order to make the budget work, he or she cannot both teach students and engage with parents post-drop off or pre-pick up. A federation that cannot sustain its local day school or JCC does not have the funds to hire a concierge, and communities here are so territorially sensitive that it is not clear a concierge could even work.
I should add at this point that I remain committed to the vision that relational Judaism espouses. To me, the issue of relational Judaism’s application to smaller Jewish communities leads directly the broader question of the future of these communities as presently constituted. I think we need to begin having far more candid conversations about merging older institutions and achieving economies of scale that enable the kind of vibrant, personal, creative Jewish expression that millennials—and many other Jews—crave. Where I live, there are four Conservative synagogues and two Reform synagogues within 20 minutes of one another. None have more than a few hundred members; some have far less. These synagogues are competing with one another for scarce members, replicating administrative and other staffing costs, and fragmenting rather than unifying the Jewish community. This is crazy! Imagine what kind of places they could be if they came together: imagine how spirited and uplifting services could be if several hundred people showed up each Shabbat, and how many opportunities there could be for multiple minyanim; imagine how many friendships could be created in a religious school with 100 students rather than 4 schools with 20-30 in each; imagine how large and effective a bikkur holim (visiting the sick) society could be established to reach out to those in need within our communities; and on and on.
As you probably know, this kind of community-wide view of local institutions is highly implausible today. Donors want the organizations they have supported to remain open in their current forms, even if doing so is short-sighted. What we truly need is the leadership and courage of our community leaders, in small Jewish communities across the country, to engage donors and other local decision-makers in the process of re-visioning the future of these communities. Perhaps through a relational approach–engaging these decision makers in one to one conversations and small group meetings–we can plant the seeds for the growth of relational Judaism in communities both large and small.
“Nevertheless, we followed the advice from every magazine editor who told us that rankings matter: if you want people to pay attention, you need a scorecard. The Rabbis needed standings.” In that one quote can be summed up so much of what was misguided about the annual rabbi rankings list Newsweek published for the past 7 years. Michael Lynton, Gary Ginsberg and Abigail Pogrebin in an article in The Forward explained why they were discontinuing the annual Passover tradition and that one quote is the one that struck me the most.
Every year I felt uncomfortable with the list of “top rabbis in America” and it was always difficult to pinpoint exactly the source of that discomfort. However, reading that the founders of the list initially wanted to highlight the “broad diversity” of the American rabbinate but the only way to do so in the magazine world was to make it a scorecard illustrates for me so much of what is at fault in the way we view our clergy. Do we rank them on how entertaining their sermon was? Do we score them on their clothing style? How many times they appear in a Google search?
When we transform our rabbis into only entertainers and quasi-celebrities we come to forget much of the heart of the rabbinate: the one to one interactions; the Torah shared and the relationships developed and sustained. It is about diligently and patiently bringing about positive change, goodness and Torah into the small part of the world that the rabbi lives and works in. This rarely would receive the accolades of a national ranking but this is the essential work.
Rabbis don’t belong on scorecards, whether from Newsweek or from anyone else. When we close the score books and open our hearts that is when the real work of our clergy can earnestly begin.
As someone who has written articles about issues impacting the Jewish community for publications like The Huffington Post, The Denver Post and The Boston Globe I have heard the following complaint several times: “Why do you need to take our internal problems and advertise them to the non-Jewish media? Why do you need to air our dirty laundry to the world?” I have often thought that this particular complaint was a curious one. It has recently once again come up as one of my dear teachers and mentors wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times on what many consider to be an internal Jewish communal issue.
There are several layers that need to be unpacked within that particular sentiment. First of all, the notion that Jews have only recently taken their issues to the non-Jewish or secular media is not true. The polemics around the birth of Zionism, the rise of Jewish denominations in Germany and a plethora of other issues have been debated in the presses of the general media and in the halls of world parliaments. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), the Orthodox rabbinic leader of the community of Frankfurt fought for Orthodox communal independence from the Reformers in the Prussian Parliament, as just one example of many.
Secondly, a significant desired impact of debate around important topics is to influence the hearts and minds of people. In order to do so one needs to reach those people. Jews have for quite a long time not confined themselves to only reading Jewish publications. More Jews read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times than The New York Jewish Week and The Jewish Advocate (even though they are both excellent publications). If you want to influence public opinion amongst fellow Jews one needs to reach them where they are and for an increasing number of Jews they are not to be found perusing the pages of their local Jewish weekly.
In an era of instant communications and where “internal” Jewish publications like Hamodia or even websites published in “private” Jewish languages like Yiddish can be translated in a moment with Google Translate there is no such thing as private only for the community news and public general media. We fool ourselves when we think that our communal conversations on Jewish blogs, Internet forums and community websites are for our eyes only.
Lastly, and perhaps this strikes at the heart of the issue, we ought not be afraid of arousing either state sponsored or mass popular anti-Semitism in our society. Numerous high profile Jews have been arrested and charged with large money laundering schemes and political corruption that has been splashed across the front pages of every major newspaper in the country and not one anti-Jewish riot, thank God, was initiated because of it. To the contrary, when we seek to cover up our issues and hide them that is when appearances of conspiracies begin to surface. Openness and transparency are important values in our culture and we should not run away from those values.
As a synagogue rabbi, I feel as if we have been running a religious marathon for the past month. since. After the majesty, power, and spiritual rigor of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, building a sukkah, celebrating eight days of Sukkot (along with the under the radar holiday of Shmini Atzeret that no one understands), and partying through Simhat Torah, I admit to a little religious exhaustion. I am sure that, for some of us, there is no end to the amount of time we want to spend praying in communal settings. But I get the sense that, for many of us, we are all shul-ed out. Our spiritual and ritual reservoirs are depleted, and the thought of setting foot in synagogue anytime soon is anathema.
So now what? We have nearly two months before we can start talking again about how weird it is that Hanukkah will occur before Thanksgiving this year. We have almost a month before we can start debating the propriety of Jews celebrating Halloween. So where should we put our religious-cultural energies?
Well, it just so happens that our political system has gone completely batty since we left 5773. Our political leaders are so dysfunctional that, today, the federal government has been shut down. Why? Though cable news outlets and partisan websites will try to spin the shutdown in different ways, the facts are pretty simple: the leadership of the House of Representatives, including the Jewish Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, refuses to introduce a bill to fund the federal government without simultaneously trying to stop or at least delay the implementation of Obamacare. The actions of the House—re-litigating a law that was already passed by Congress, signed by the President, affirmed by the Supreme Court, and re-affirmed by the American people when they re-elected President Obama—are reprehensible and demand condemnation. Were there no side effects to shutting down the government, the actions of the House leadership could be dismissed as childish. But at a cost of millions of dollars daily, with hundreds of thousands of now-furloughed government workers, shutting down the government because you are mad that a law is going into effect is fiscally and morally irresponsible. As Republican Representative Devin Nunes recently put it, “It’s moronic to shut down the government over this.”
Obamacare, which gives millions more Americans access to health insurance, also is a Jewish issue. Many Jewish legal texts speak the necessity of the community providing access to health care for all. For example, the Talmud teaches that “a Torah scholar should not live in a community unless that community has available medical care.” (PT Kiddushin 4:12 [66b] and BT Sanhedrin 17b). Moreover, “doctors are required to reduce their fees for the poor. Where that is still not sufficient the community should subsidize the patient.” (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah, 249).
I think it is time for the Jewish community—clergy and laity alike—to start agitating for common-sense political actions that are deeply steeped in our tradition and that should resonate morally for all of us. We—especially those of us who live in Republican districts—should demand that our representatives pass a simple budget without partisan gamesmanship so that the government reopens. We also should demand that the House pass the Senate’s immigration reform bill, another piece of legislation that is so central to the Jewish narrative of being strangers in foreign lands. And we should demand that Congress pass gun control legislation that imposes more stringent background checks and gun lock requirements.
There are many issues which we, as diverse individuals with diverse viewpoints, can and should disagree. On intervention in Syria, for example, I would strongly caution any Jewish leader from claiming a mantle of Jewish consensus. But where there are issues that are integral to our moral sensibilities—health care, immigration reform, and gun control among them—we should be bold advocates. We should amplify the chorus of the reasonable over the din of the extremists who seek to hold American politics hostage to their radical agendas. Let’s take those spiritual investments of the past few weeks, the existential grappling and the communal celebrating, and channel them into transforming the world in which we currently live into the kind of world we want it to be.