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  • Writer's pictureSara Zober

A New Jewish Paradigm for the 21st Century

I‘m afraid we’ve reached the end of what we always knew to be true. The Jewish community in America has faced a distinct turnabout in safety and mobility over the last 10 years, and we are not the only ones. While we have enjoyed amazing growth and philanthropy, institutional Judaism is quickly becoming irrelevant due to many factors (many, of course, out of our control). This is the moment where we need to be willing to let the old world go and embrace a new paradigm that is being born. Like the generation of Israelites who wandered through the wilderness, we need to let old thoughts and ideas die and prepare our youth with new skills to go into the Promised Land.

The Old: Competition and Scarcity

Both institutionally and interpersonally, two factors have ruled the American Judaism of the 20th century: competition and scarcity. Many laypeople would be shocked to hear it, but there exists not just among congregations but also between individual rabbis a mindset that competition is a show of strength. While in placement to find our congregations, many of my colleagues with whom I’d studied for the five years prior, refused to answer questions about where they were interviewing, what they’d done to prepare, and refused to share resources. “No offense,” they would say, “but I don’t want to give up my leverage.”

Congregations do this as well, when they run tiny and competing programs rather than collaborating, when they whisper the word ”merger” as if it’s a death sentence, rather than a chance to collaboratively build something better. Even within movements, American Jews of the 20th Century were fond of talking down about the other synagogues in their area, as if that somehow built up theirs. Congregational affiliation was more about identity than about community - after all, most Jews only darkened the door of the building a fraction of the time.

Scarcity, due likely to the rippling physical and psychological horrors of the Holocaust through the subsequent generations and a dizzyingly new-found wealth and prosperity post-WWII, became the defining narrative of American Jewish life. This was crystallized for my parents’ generation after the Yom Kippur War, which became proof that all our mid-century blessings could be snatched away from us at any moment. The narratives post-1967 were all about preserving Jewish prosperity and blessings by hardening our lines. Israel can do no wrong. Interfaith marriage is a threat to communities (though interfaith families are grudgingly welcomed if they have children). Reform rabbis cannot date or marry non-Jews. Two competing Reform seminaries in New York and Cincinnati merged, and the post-war boom continued even institutionally as everyone panicked about having enough.

This softened a bit into the 90s and beyond, but the scarcity mentality shifted to one of finances and education. Reform Jews became acutely aware that despite touting ”informed choice” as our byline, our laypeople (and indeed, many of our rabbis) were profoundly ignorant of some of the basics of Judaism. Institutionally, we shifted to prioritize Hebrew and text education, placing an emphasis on rabbi as professional (and soon cantor and educator as professional too). We prioritized our own commentaries, publishing, and text studies. In doing so, we didn’t so much address the average Reform layperson’s thirst for knowledge, but we bolstered the knowledge of our elites in the hopes that some would trickle down.

Being socioeconomically more wealthy than most other religions, our congregations trucked happily through Y2K until the 2007-8 recession, which was the first major bump for many. Religious school and part-time staff took a hit, day schools and preschools in large cities suffered, and the movement itself contracted a bit. But scarcity had hit all of America, and we could thank our lucky stars that we were still better off than most. Many congregations felt the pressure ease in the 20-teens, and while there were plenty of mergers and synagogue closures during this time, most congregations felt on even footing until the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, which upended the whole social order.

The pandemic threw into our faces a concept that we dutifully ignored when the Tree of Life shooting happened in 2018: that this country is not as exceptional as we thought. In the face of real scarcity and danger, much of the Jewish world fell apart. It became clear that each congregation was on their own, and rather than working together, alliances fragmented, congregations alienated their leadership, and the central infrastructure of the movements froze. Abandonment became the primary feeling ruling the American Jewish community, regardless of their stance on the pandemic: the movement abandoned the congregation, the congregation and its leaders abandoned their congregants, and all-around the brit that once held us together shattered. Leader burnout, volunteer burnout, and a crumbling of both movement scaffolding and institutional scaffolding resulted.

American Jewish congregations and their leaders have been set adrift in a hostile political landscape on a planet that is burning faster than the scientists can predict.

The New: Collaboration and Abundance

Which brings me to the solutions, as I see them. First, the days of competition are gone as surely as the days of free market capitalism and continuous growth. It is collaboration that will see us safely through our geopolitical and domestic political issues, and it is collaboration that will allow American Jewish communities to thrive. There is so much that we inefficiently replicate and remake the wheel in congregation after congregation. These things, from payroll to bookkeeping to HR to education, should be consolidated and democratized.

There is no reason why each congregation should have to hire a bookkeeper, a web developer, a payroll specialist, a tech supervisor, etc. For large congregations with the money to do so, those roles are a boon to customizing what they offer, and they have my blessing to spend their money there. But for your average small or mid-sized congregation with up to 2 clergy, there is no reason not to have a central, movement-based clearinghouse for such things. Small congregations are especially drowning in this new world of servers and ShulCloud, streaming and SEO. This central back office would also allow the movement itself to enforce and support better oversight and prevent some of the abuses (financial and interpersonal) that are running rampant in our congregations. Small congregational rabbis (such as myself) could go back to being rabbis and not have to also be tech guru and budget balancer on top of the rest of our jobs.

As for our professionals, we need to change the culture both of the academy and our professional organizations from one of competition to one of collaboration. When all of our professionals have access to good resources, we are stronger as a movement. When our professionals know that they can ask a colleague to help them compensate for a weakness, they feel safe reaching out before they make a mistake. Competition is antithetical to being part of k’lal Yisrael, and we need our movements, institutions, and professional organizations to start shouting that from the rooftops and enforcing it in communal spaces.

There is enough for everyone. Large congregations should be encouraging their donors to help sponsor small congregations, rather than giving more money to giant organizations in Israel. The movement should be putting their money and efforts in distributing the abundance that exists to everyone. We should have central, movement-sponsored digital and in-person places where we can go to learn, find out new ideas, talk with one another, keep one another accountable, and help each other grow. These places should be accessible to all and democratized.

There are many ways we can go about doing this, and we need to involve as many constituencies as possible in creating this new paradigm, because it has to work for all of us. The era of 20th Century Haves and Have-Nots needs to end, and it needs to start with our movement, which purports to be an or l’goyim, a light unto the nations.

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