The Jewish community is changing, as it has for more than 2,000 years. It’s time for cheshbon nefesh – a time for taking stock.
Last week’s report from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and the Board of Deputies has highlighted that we are all really Jews-by-choice. It has raised some justified concerns for the whole community. Evidence that there are two Jewish communities emerging – a rapidly-growing strictly-Orthodox community and a shrinking “mainstream” community – is only getting stronger.
This report demands action. Now is the time to understand why people are drifting away from our communal institutions. Judaism has always grown to serve the needs of its members in a specific time and place – how do we do that in today’s circumstances?
We must not be complacent. We used to assume that new generations would want to keep being Jewish within the structures the community has given to them. But if we are Jews-by-choice, this is not now enough. People will leave our community and understandably so, if the community is not serving people’s needs and providing a spiritually uplifting experience. Communal institutions can take nothing for granted – we work for the community, not the other way around.
At the core of our response, we must follow through on the commitment of the Children of Israel at Sinai – na’aseh v’nishmah, we will act on the community’s needs and we will listen to what those needs are, with the emphasis placed on the action. Not only do we need a community with a listening leadership, we need a community that leads the way itself. In Reform Judaism, we have started to transform the way we build communities with our Re-Imagining Leadership initiative and our embracing of lessons from community organising.
These lessons tell us that we don’t need strong leaders over us, we need those who can lead with their communities and truly tap into the interests of the congregation.
A change in how our synagogue congregations are structured alone is not be enough. There are now many in our community, particularly our young adults, who are branching away from synagogues and into grassroots, peer-led community frameworks, for instance last Shabbat I co-led a service outside in a park with one of our young adults in a blossoming minyan. They show the strong desire many have for the ability to shape and own one’s religious experiences – a desire stifled by rigid congregational structures.
These new kinds of communities are vibrant, energetic models which we all must integrate into our understanding of what our community will look like. These are not a threat, but a way forward – a way that we at Reform Judaism are committed to nurturing.
We still need to think even bigger. We need to look at the bigger picture of community life. Jewish families often cannot afford housing in areas that connect them with the community. Often young Jews do not have the financial security to be putting down roots, settling and starting families.
Increasingly this doesn’t happen until later in life than it used to, which only adds to the lower birth rates and demographic pressures put on the community. We must provide our children with adequate opportunities to engage and build a love for the Jewish community.
Transformational Jewish experiences, especially our youth movements, build the identity that will ensure our young people want to keep identifying with the community.
Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, has been sustained through history thanks to a willingness to totally uproot everything if needed to keep the chain of tradition going.
We must have that same courage and willingness to answer the pressing challenges that lay before us now.