06 May 2013

It Ain't Either/Or

What is with Either/Or constructs?

Why, as Ron Wolfson argues in the JTA, is the choice for American Jewry between synagogue programs and what Wolfson coins, in this generation's ongoing obsession with re-branding Judaism, "Relational Judaism."  Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal and now Relational Judaism.

Stating the obvious--synagogues should be putting people before programs--Wolfson trots out the old canard that Chabad Lubavitch, with its outreach model, meets Jews where they're at in a more effective way.  Though no one ever really has the data to prove that.  Except to anecdotally say that a rabbi was warm and inviting to some Jewish event or another.  And didn't ask for money.  At least at first.  Heck, I'd be willing to bet that there are more people influenced positively in the psycho-spiritual healing of their soul from the real messiah of world Jewry--Sigmund Freud--than from Menachem Mendel Schneerson.  There are more shrinks practicing the Jewish art of psycho-analysis than missionaries shaking lulavs in the public square.  Just saying.

But somewhere between the great wave of immigration a hundred years ago and today, the mass of Jewry has grown squeamish about fulfilling the mitzvah of supporting one's Jewish community financially.  The great spoiled child of post-modernity is the phenomenon that everything has to be free and meaningful, because, as Wolfson implies, meaning can now be downloaded onto an app, accessed on the go, and deliver timeless content anytime, anywhere.

Chabad has the luxury of not asking for dues because their rabbis don't inherit the massive institutions that prior generations of American Jews built in order to assimilate our great-grandparents, grandparents and parents into contemporary American life.  Synagogues in America have been one of the key generative organizations for acculturation, inter-faith dialogue, expression Jewish values in civic life, supporting Israel, and providing relief for Russian and Ethiopian Jews.  Making dues payment the eternal bogeyman for a generation reluctant to understand that it's part of a chain of tradition that sees obligation as the necessary corollary to Jewish identity is overstating the case and Wolfson, using another generational buzzword--transformation--sets up a false dichotomy between programs and relationships.

After all, Shabbat and Holy Days are programs, with their requisite rituals, prayers, songs, meals and Torah based learning.  Weddings, brises, baby namings and even funerals are programs, offering public events to engage multi-generational "audiences" in a "conversation" about Jewish life, Judaism, and the Jewish people.  Visiting Israel and engaging Israelis in the United States is a program, deepening relationships with the largest Jewish population in the world and coming "face-to-face" with the revived Hebrew language, spoken now by nearly 8 million people in a thriving land.

Synagogues have long been the whipping boy of American Jewish life when in fact the misallocation of resources lies elsewhere.  Do we need the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center fighting anti-Semitism?  Do we need 7 rabbinical schools in North America to graduate barely 100 rabbinical students each year?  Do we need Boards of Jewish Education in various cities if synagogues and day schools already have educators?  Do we need to spend millions in philanthropic dollars for studies and consultants when we already know what works:  meaningful relationships, affordable synagogue affiliation, Jewish summer camps, day schools and trips to Israel.  The second half of the twentieth century and now well into the twenty-first has led to one of most inexcusable misallocation of resources in Jewish history.  We owe it to the future to fix that now.

In fact, I might argue that the Jewish people survived for the better part of the last three thousand years because we knew how to thrive with less; we knew how to triumph in times of great oppression and restriction; we galvanized our existence around the greatest of ideas:  one God; revelation as law; care for the stranger and the oppressed; the rebirth of a language and the reconstitution of a people in its land after two thousand years.

It's not that our dues are too high or that our programs are bad.  The key to engaging another generation of Jews is to tell, over and over again and with enormous pride, that we have the privilege to be a part of one of the greatest stories in all of human civilization.

That's a program I'd pay dues for til I die.

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