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March 26, 2009 - Image 42

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2009-03-26

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A Time To Innovate

New York/JTA


rofessor Jonathan Sarna recently
wrote an article titled "Lessons
from the Past:' encouraging the
Jewish community to hold onto its core
values in spite of the current economic
downturn. He recommended maintaining
our emphasis on innovation and creativity,
re-engaging smaller donors and increas-
ing transparency within our organizations.
Gary Wexler commented that if Michael
Steinhardt, the mega-philanthropist, had
put forth the recommendations, "by now
the BlackBerrys, e-mails, instant mes-
sages, phones and blogs would have been
buzzing, the committee meetings set, the
professionals sent scurrying and the com-
munal electricity popping:'
While I am not Michael Steinhardt, I
believe that Sarna's message is an impor-
tant one.
Based on my own experience serving
the Jewish community, one of Judaism's
greatest strengths is its ability to evolve to
fit the needs of its diverse community. The
Jewish community must not lose sight of
this core value simply because the stock
market has fallen.
Judaism has always been a tradi-

tion of multiple perspectives.
Historically, it has been said
that the Torah has 70 faces.
Today, with countless ways to
define oneself as Jewish, the
number of Jewish perspectives
has multiplied exponentially.
With the evolving face of
America at large, it is no sur-
prise that the Jewish communi-
ty also has ever corresponding,
shifting needs. Talented, inno-
vative individuals have stepped
up by creating organizations
and projects, and pushing a
culture of change that serves these evolv-
ing needs. For example, when Hillel was
no longer relevant for students on college
campus, Richard Joel revitalized and re-
branded Hillel, re-conceptualizing the role
it could play for students on campus; Joel's
vision for Hillel was the reason I signed
onto the leadership of Hillel.
When traditional synagogue com-
munities were not meeting the changing
needs of young professionals seeking a
place of worship and community, leaders
such as Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, Rabbi Rachel
Nussbaum and many others around the
country created open and inclusive inde-

Appealing To

New York City/JTA


ver the past 15 years, we have wit-
nessed the phenomenal growth of
independent minyanim.
Today, there are more than 80 that are
not affiliated with any movement. But
many of their members grew up in the
Conservative movement, went to Camp
Ramah, were active in United Synagogue
Youth and studied at Solomon Schechter
day schools.
Some of the minyanim, in fact, are led
by Conservative rabbis. Although some
of their religious services may seem
to be different from those in United
Synagogue congregations, they gener-
ally are Conservative Jewish services
attended by Conservative Jews — outside
a Conservative synagogue.
To compound the challenge, many of
the more committed people who were
inspired by our movement have chosen
to identify with Orthodox congregations,
not because of the ideology but because
they seek others who share their commit-


March 26 2 2009

pendent minyanim serving as
community centers of prayer,
education, social action and
culture for contemporary Jews.
As I write in my recent book,
Hope, Not Fear, many Jewish
leaders have bemoaned the
phenomena of younger Jews
not joining traditional Jewish
institutions as a sign of decline
in North American Jewish life.
The fact that young Jews are not
affiliating in the "traditional"
way indicates there is something
wrong with our institutions, not
that there is something wrong with our
youth. We have to let go of the old ways of
defining what it means to be an "involved
Jew" and begin to look to the kind of
involvement that today's Jews are seeking.
Innovation has the power to bring about
hope and renaissance within the Jewish
community. New ideas infuse life into the
Jewish community and empower Jews of
all ages to become personally invested in
Judaism. It does not take an established
organization or a reputable name to come
up with a unique and relevant Jewish
initiative. In fact, smaller start-up organi-
zations are often better equipped to inti-

mately reach local, niche communities in a
way that larger organizations cannot.
Within the last 10 years, more than 300
Jewish organizations have been created to
serve what they see as unmet needs with-
in the Jewish community. Despite their
diverse agendas, it is inspiring to see all of
these organizations working to make the
Jewish community a better place. Together,
these organizations serve the multiple per-
spectives of our unique Jewish community
and each represents an important piece of
our collective Jewish identity.
The diverse needs of Jewish commu-
nity will continue to evolve in the future,
regardless of the state of the economy.
While it is important for those in the posi-
tion of influence, like Michael Steinhardt
and I, to encourage innovation, it is up to
all of us, as members of the Jewish com-
munity, to make sure that these creative
leaders have the support they need to be
We need to make sure that the bleak
economic forecast doesn't diminish our
optimism for a bright future within the
Jewish community. ❑

Edgar M. Bronfman is president of the Samuel

Bronfman Foundation.

Young People

ment to the very ideals that we
say we hold dear. They bought
into what we said we stand for
— but they do not find it in
our synagogues. So they seek
This movement did not hap-
pen by chance. As Rabbi Jack
Shechter discussed in "From
Conservative to Orthodox
— and Back?" (Conservative
Judaism, Winter 2008/2009),
these people made concrete
decisions to live the Judaism
that we inspired them to live —
outside Conservative Judaism. They live
precisely as we told them to, but paradoxi-
cally they practice their Judaism outside
our movement.
They perceive that there is no place
for them and their Judaism in the
Conservative synagogue.
If we want to grow in numbers and
strength, if we want to inspire passion and
commitment, we have to welcome those
Jews who live our values and ideology out-

side of our synagogues to do it
inside our synagogues instead.
We often juxtapose the words
"congregation" and "synagogue"
as if they were synonymous,
but they are not. A synagogue
is a building. In Jewish life, a
congregation is a community of
people that uses the synagogue
for prayer, study and social
Usually the synagogue is
home to only one congregation.
But what would happen if we
were to expand our thinking
to inspire synagogue leaders to accept
alternative congregations that live within
Conservative values and Halachah to share
a single synagogue home and in so doing
enhance themselves and Conservative
Let us invite individuals or groups
of whatever size who want to practice
Conservative Judaism differently than we
do (as long as it is done within the fences
of Halachah) to do it in our synagogues.

Let us convey this message: We invite
you to be part of our synagogue. We
understand that there are aspects of
our approach with which you don't feel
comfortable. We welcome you to our com-
munity and we'll find a way for us to live
together, under one roof.
And then we have to be willing to
engage in dialogue. We must be open to
the conversation, and perhaps to neces-
sary compromise.
Yes, there are financial implications. Yes,
there may be a diversity of style. But discus-
sion, compromise and openness can help not
only our partners but also us to grow.
The time has come to realize our poten-
tial to influence and inspire Jews with our
meaningful approach to Judaism. But to
do that, the pluralism bound by Halachah
that engages us must exist not only
between synagogues and congregations
but within them as well. ❑

Rabbi Jerome Epstein is executive vice presi-

dent of the United Synagogue of Conservative


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