Hard, Honest Questions
Will synagogues continue to exist in the future?
Will the next generation engage in Jewish life?
Is Reform Judaism still relevant?
These hard, honest questions underlie the conversations we members of the URJ leadership team have every day with leaders and staff of Reform congregations. Last week I was honored to be the ordination speaker at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, as a minyan of new rabbis received smicha. I addressed these questions head on, and challenged this next generation of rabbis to do the same.
It is true that the data is challenging. Fewer young people are joining synagogues than their parents did, and the “drop out” rate after b’nei mitzvah is sobering. But it won’t surprise you to know that I strongly believe that synagogues will not only continue, but many congregations will transform and thrive in the next era of Jewish history. I also feel confident that Reform Judaism, which continues to re-form, re-invent, and re-new, will not only be relevant, but also will successfully capture the imagination of our young people.
So given my optimism, why do I amplify these provocative questions? Simon Rawidowicz famously taught that every generation of Jews thinks it is the last. I often have pondered the notion that this phenomenon sparks the urgency among successive generations of Jewish communal leaders to challenge their institutions to re-imagine themselves to become relevant for the future. In other words, being honest about the gap between the ways our synagogues are organized and the needs of the next generation forces us to make change.
At the URJ we continually are working to help you re-imagine Jewish life. In my address, I invited our newest rabbis to become our partners in this sacred work. I also challenged them to focus less on creative programs and slick brochures, and more on fostering enduring relationships among all those whom we invite into our dynamic communities.
During my four wonderful days in Cincinnati, my optimism was only confirmed. I studied with the great Rabbi David Ellenson who has brought HUC-JIR to unprecedented heights. It was bittersweet, as this will be David’s final ordination ceremony as president of the College-Institute.
Earlier in the week, I sat with the leadership teams of various Reform congregations. Like many of you, they are hungry for moments of spiritual connection as part of real community. Through communities of practice, leadership training, and creative experimentation, they, also like many of you, are rising to the challenge.
I also had the opportunity to visit the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archive, an incredible resource for our people. I urge you to visit and have a tour with the great Rabbi Gary Zola who is an inspiring voice of Jewish history.
Hearing Rabbi Zola reminded me that time and again, Jewish leaders have confronted the challenges of their day and risen up to overcome them. How much more so will Reform Judaism rise to the challenge, since by nature, Reform Jews are called to renew?
What do you think it will take to transform our communities? Comment on this post to join the conversation about re-imagining Jewish life.