Sunday, March 6, 2011

Membership: What Does It Mean to be in the Jewish Community?



Last week, UJA-Federation of New York offered a panel discussing "Belonging in 2020: The Nature of the Jewish Community of Tomorrow". The program provided a great opening for continued discussion about an important topic. It's worth checking out the part of the video that carries the remarks of Lisa Colton of Darim Online (http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/13041001 for the whole event). I can take a pass on the part in which a rabbi announces that she doesn't have a Facebook or Twitter account and proceeds to denounce the culture of lashon hara that permeates some of the online culture [by the way, it also permeates real life conversations, but I didn't get the sense that she'd sworn off those]. I am also doubtful as to whether the assertion made my another speaker - that Birthright Israel has changed the nature of Jewish affiliation - can really be proven.

Back to Lisa's points: Belonging to the Jewish community is not about paid memberships, it's about relationships. And in today's world those relationships are supported by online tools that we use to build and sustain those relationships. In support of her point about the irrelevance of paid memberships, it's worth taking a look at the presentation by Patrick Aleph & Michael Sabani at last year's Jewish Futures Conference (http://www.jewishfutures.net/conference-video), in which they challenge the common assumption, accepted by researchers, that Jewish engagement and membership in the community is solely based on the payment of money to a Jewish organization. Although synagogues, JCC's and Jewish Federations continue to cling to that model, groups like Chabad, some independant minyanim, and on online communities such at Punk Torah are showing degrees of success at working outside the paid membership mold. There may be "nothing new under the sun": all of these ventures owe something to the Havurah movement of 30 years ago.

Another interesting and accurate point, made by David Bryfman in his tweets on the event: the future is now. The program's title might be "Belonging in 2020", but the rules of the game have changed already. And the community needs to catch up. 


A few thoughts since the event:


  • The current economic engine that drives synagogue life is Bar/Bat Mitzvah. As long as families view the value added of synagogue participation as beginning when their oldest children enter the educational program of a synagogue, and that the value ends when the youngest children become b'nai mitzva, the integrity and quality of the program itself is compromised to the need of the ceremonies and educational requirements, without which synagogue life adds little to the vast majority of American Jews' lives (see http://thenotoriousrav.blogspot.com/2008/07/blowing-up-bima-rationale-for.html). The Orthodox community, independant minyanim and Chabad are the exceptions, either because the "members" themselves provide the value proposition for the communities, or because the communities have developed a value proposition (and economic engine) that is not rooted in the 1940s and 1950's.
  • The current model of synagogue and communal involvement is based on exclusion, as in: you cannot attend high holiday services if you don't pay dues, you cannot be a leader of this organization without a certain level of donation, you cannot have a bar/bat mitzva here if you haven't joined and sent your child to our "school" for a minimum number of years. American Jews have figured out that there is no God-given membership or even educational prerequisite for bar/bat mitzvah, and there are private rabbis as well as Chabad willing to state this. American Jews are calling out for an inclusive and embracing community, rather than one that puts hurdles in the way of involvement. 
  • Congregations and organizations are being challenged to make a case for their relevance or to prove that there is a qualitative reason to place a family's Jewish life in their hands. It remains to be seen which will be able to respond.
  • Denominational movements are not the friend of new approaches to Jewish involvement. Young Jews are crossing every institutional divide that the 20th century Jewish experience imposed to find meaning for themselves. If you don't believe me, take a look at the support for such post-denominational projects as the Sabbath Manifesto (http://www.sabbathmanifesto.org/) or Sukkah City (http://www.sukkahcity.com/) garnered. And not only among the young generation.
  • The technology now in use is too new for us to determine the degree to which online Jewish "communities" can or should replace face-to-face communities for some Jews. However, the use of technologies to support face-to-face communities is unquestioned. For decades, synagogues have used radio and TV to broadcast services to homebound congregants. Today's Facebook communities, twitter feeds, online services, and Skype study groups (I'm part of a chavruta on Skype) are simply an extension of what we've been doing for decades, at least. 

Folks, the future is now. What else do our Jewish communities need to do to not only catch up, but to lead into the future? And what will you do to make it happen?