You Shall Pursue

September 14, 2012

Jewish Community: Specialists, or Generalists?

Filed under: Jewish Communitty, Spirituality — marleyweiner @ 2:10 am

This is the second time I am responding to something that PunkTorah has written, but this man speaks truth. While hopefully we as a Jewish community are more attached to our communal institutions than to Chipotle, I think this post makes an important point about how we as a society have shifted around religion, and how we might be able to draw people back into engagement with the Jewish community.

Fifty years ago, the synagogue and the JCC was the be-all end all of Jewish social engagement. Because of discrimination and the nature of social organization, Jews needed to socialize with other Jews, which made affiliation more or less the default.

However, things have changed. The current generation is one of niche specialists. We look for the organizations that are meeting our needs in the most immediate and effective way, and then flock to those organizations. We use social media to create the sort of programming and events that are meaningful and engaging to us. And we are cheerfully vocal when an institution or event does not meet our expectations. The only way to cater to that level of expertise is to specialize.

However, we are also a generation that believes in lateral engagement and active participation. Once we find something that appeals to whatever need we are trying to fill, we will actively add our input, give of our time, and help to steer the conversation in new and exciting ways.

This does not mean that I am advocating for different organizations to create “programming silos” so that a person has to reach from one unconnected Jewish organization to another to get their various needs filled. If anything, serving today’s specialist culture demands even more communication. Rather than a centralized institution that is one thing to all people, I envision different smaller organizations with different mission statements, leadership, etc. coordinating and cooperating to make sure that awareness of different programming is shared. One institution focuses on adult learning, another on meaningful prayer experience, another on Jewish arts, another on Social Justice, and yet another on childhood education. Each organization would necessarily be smaller, more streamlined, and have the ability to operate independently to serve its one or two mission goals.

The best Jewish example that I can think of this is Hadar. Hadar has two branches, the minyan and the yeshiva. While the population and leadership overlaps quite a bit between the two groups, they are independent of one another in a lot of ways. The yeshiva focuses on excellent Learning opportunities for young adults, and also provides an “open yeshiva” for people of all ages that is VERY well attended. While they offer davening during study hours, their primary function is not as a provider of services. The minyan, in contrast, offers traditional egalitarian services for anyone who wishes to attend, primarily people in their 20s and 30s. They offer some limited Shabbat lectures after services by community leadership, but they do not offer a religious school or other extraneous services. In order to serve these two needs, services and Jewish Learning, Hadar has two branches that take a laser-like focus on each part, and both the minyan and the yeshiva are well attended.

In recent weeks, I’ve been reading a lot of Kaplan. He advocated for geographically run and funded Jewish communities that would allow community members access to any of the local organizations. I don’t think that this is practical for any number of reasons. Competition is almost always too deeply entrenched in our communities, and people’s increased mobility means that they are far less likely to buy into any one community for forty or fifty years. However, communication (if not co-funding) across different Jewish organizations has the possibility to make sure that people are being directed to the communal services that they need most. The trick is training our Jewish professionals to understand that someone who you refer out will remember your kindness and helpfulness, and they may come back when their needs match your mission more closely, or refer friends and loved ones to your organization.

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