Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, author of "Jewish Megatrends", shared his views on the state of the Jewish community at the beginning of the 21st century at this year's Jewish Funders Network conference.

Trends of 21st Century American Jewish Community

Jewish Funders Network Conference, March 2013

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz

Rabbi Sid Schwarz, founder of PANIM: the Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, and of Congregation Adat Shalom, and author of “Jewish Megatrends.”

Rabbi Schwarz views Jewish organizations as falling into two categories, the Legacy Sector which includes organizations such as Hadassah and Bnai Brith (and probably most temples, JCC’s, and Federations), and the Innovation Sector which includes newer organizations that may appeal to younger generations (I’m interpreting this to mean organizations such as Ekar, Hazon, Moishe House, Mazel Tot, AJWS, Godcast, Jumpstart, etc.). He points out that it is the next generation of American Jews that we really need to be talking about and planning for. This is the “marketplace” that he is focused on, and one that is full of challenges.

He begins by setting the historical context for this marketplace, which has the following concerning characteristics.

  • Federation, the central Jewish fundraising agency for more than 100 years, is in decline. There were 900,000 donors in 1985 and just 450,000 donors in 2010, a 50% drop in 25 years.
  • US Congregations are aging. A 2012 membership study of conservative & reform congregations showed only 7% of membership under age 35—which Schwartz views as an ominous trend for the future. If this was a business, he would sell.
  • The American economy is in a gradual decline. It was clear that our generation would earn more than our parents, especially if they were immigrants. It is not so likely that our children will earn more than us.
  • American exceptionalism is also a thing of the past. To the last generation, America felt special. Our system of democracy was the envy of the world. Today, that notion is almost laughable. Respect for our system of government is at a low.
  • Erosion of our civic fabric. Referencing the book “Bowling Alone”, Schwarz explained that we don’t do things together. The public square concept is vanishing. Congressional gridlock is an example of our dysfunction/lack of cooperative spirit.
  • The internet has a negative impact on how children grow up and the development of communities. Our children have too many Facebook friends, and too few real friends.

 What we need to do.

  • The prevailing malaise offers an opportunity for a sea change in American Jewry. Jewish experience can create real friendships and connection and meaning.
  • It is time to declare ourselves as counter-cultural. The denominations that are growing in the US today are not main stream. They are Pentecostal, Mormon, etc — the counter-cultural religions. Going against the grain.
  • In Mordechai Kaplan’s day, liberal Judaism was concerned about how Jews could fit into America. That is not the issue now. Today the concern isn’t about survival and acceptance, it is about authenticity.
  • Chabad and orthordox congregations are way ahead in this regard. They are counter-cultural, authentic, and growing.
  • Liberal communities are contracting. They are at the beginning stages of offering a more authentic, connected experience, which is what is needed.
  • It is not yet clear if liberal Judaism will succeed in attracting the next generation. Immigrants on Long Island needed Jewish institutions to navigate a new and complex culture. The boomer generation didn’t need this, and neither do their kids.

About the Boomers (Schwarz’s generation):

  • We will out-earn, and out-status our parents.
  • We had the experience of a “heroic period” of Jewish history.
  • In 1967 Israel won the Six-Day War, an improbable victory against five Arab armies trying to push the Jews of Israel into the sea.
  • In 1976, there was the successful raid on Entebbee by Israel to free the hostages in Uganda. Another improbable success.
  • In 1987 the massive rally in Washington DC led Reagan to tell Gorbachev no détente until the Russian Jews were freed.
  • These events shaped our consciousness, our generation. Israel was the story of David beating Goliath. We were proud to support Israel.

About the Next Generation:

  • Our children have totally different reality—Israel has emerged as a pariah nation. Labeled worst human rights offender in world at Durbin Conference in 2001. While this may have been outlandish, Israel’s image has clearly suffered.
  • Even birthright can’t overcome media describing Israel as the Goliath against the Palestinian David.
  • Their (the next generation’s) World View is stridently universal and post tribal.

Schwarz has a four-part prescription — four suggestions for Jewish institutions to be relevant for the next decades. He suggests that we need to offer:

  1. Wisdom — Hochma. serious learning, authentic, deep rooted, limmud style education, in the context of global spiritual wisdom and interfaith understanding
  2. Social Justice — Tzedek, This is an area or great interest and growth, as evidenced by the success of AJWS (American Jewish World Service). We are no longer the most at- risk people.
  3. Intentional Community — Kilav. The Jewish food movement is a good example of our community coming together around areas of common interest.
  4. Lives of Sacred Purpose — Kedushah. Many Jews today are spiritual seekers.

His model draws on the community leadership field for the concept of “principle-centered leadership.” If we get the principles right, the programs and people and dollars will follow and we will be on the path to Jewish renaissance in America. He is optimistic. For more info, check out his new book, “Jewish Megatrends.”

About Steve Ellis

Steve Ellis is the founder and president of Colorado Capital Management, and an active volunteer in the Jewish community.

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