Category: Jewish Community

…if we want real institutional change, all areas of the Jewish community should seek to foster young leadership. In every commencement speech, we hear youth described as our future. This is most certainly true, and, yet, Jewish organizations are loath to act on that dictum. The reason is obvious: No one wants to be usurped and declared redundant, so we hang on, in many cases, as long as possible, and keep the young aspirants for Jewish communal life at bay.

Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 177.


…let’s redirect funds used for fighting anti-Semitism toward Jewish renaissance programs. I have publicly stated that it is a waste of the Jewish tax dollar to spend so much money on so-called defense organizations. Anti-Semitism in this country is, for all practical purposes, dead. Yes, there are incidents, but we live in a racist world, and there will always be graffiti and random insults from deranged, sick people. They are a small minority.

Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 175.

Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) can also be an important part of the renaissance, as they are positioned to connect with Jews who are not otherwise involved in Jewish life. When the JCC movement began in the mid-nineteenth century with the creation of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA), it served as a central resource for Jewish immigrants and a place or celebrations within the new Jewish communities in North America. Today, people go to JCCs for their gyms, art classes, nursery schools, and day camps. JCCs must now make Jewish education, culture, and identity a central part of their mission.

Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 172-173.

The Zionist thinker and Hebrew-language essayist Asher Ginsberg (better known by his pen-name, Ahad Ha’am) once said that “more than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” If we were to paraphrase this proposition and substitute the synagogue for the Sabbath, its veracity seems highly doubtful, at least in the American experience. In most periods of the history of the Jews in the United States, fewer than half of American Jews have been members of synagogues, and surely not all of those who had memberships have participated in the religious, educational, cultural, and social activities of the institution, even after making a financial contribution.

Yet, we can say with some confidence of the American synagogue, after thinking about its history over more than three centuries, that it has been the most significant Jewish institution in the life of Jews. And, although it has offered to both young and old learning experiences in classrooms, from the early years of religious school and Hebrew school through confirmation and then in the form of adult education, and though it has provided a wide variety of ancillary activities in the form of sisterhood, brotherhood, youth fellowship, social action projects, and much more, nothing has been as central to the purpose of the synagogue as the sanctuary. Here, rabbis, cantors, choirs, and talented laypeople have used printed words (liturgies and Scripture) of all kinds, together with the spoken word (sermons, lectures, discussions) to make Judaism (call it spirituality, if you will) a part of the life of countless Jews. There is no reason to think that this will not continue, in old and new ways that blend centuries of Judaism with the American experience.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 206-207.

To a great extent, not much changed from earlier decades in the Reform synagogue during the 1950s and well into the 1960s, though, by the late 1960s, as we will see, the synagogue had become a very different place from what it was in the 1940s and 1950s. Rabbi Joseph Narot came to Miami’s Temple Israel in 1950, eliminated head covering and prayer shawls, and frowned upon the bar mitzvah ceremony. At Pittsburgh’s Rodef Shalom, Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof put the normative position of the early postwar period well: “We believe that the essential of the worship of God is the ethical mandate and that the ceremonial is incidental, if anything. That is our principle…. We shall never make a religion for us out of all these observances. . . . No rabbi will ever try to persuade you that God commanded you to light lights on Friday night.” The Sabbath-morning service at Temple Beth-El in Providence began at 11 A.M., ended at noon, and included a bar mitzvah! While not every Reform synagogue, by any means, fit the description of “classical” Reform—there are examples of retrieval of tradition and of restoring customs and observances absent from Reform services for decades (e.g., the sanctification of the wine, the wearing of the head covering and the prayer shawl, the use of a wedding canopy, and the construction of a sukkah)—the patterns of synagogue worship, religious school, adult education, youth groups, social activity, and social action had much in common around the country….

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 132-133.

…the content of American-educated Orthodox rabbis’ English-language sermons was dramatically different from that of the (mostly) Yiddish-language sermons of an earlier generation. This was particularly true between the World Wars in New York City, where Leo Jung on the West Side and Joseph Lookstein on the East Side—self-proclaimed ‘modern Orthodox” rabbis—drew upon the works of Carlyle, Dickens, Freud, Goethe, Ibsen, William James, Macaulay, Shaw, Tennyson, and Whitman, as well as on the vast body of rabbinic literature, to craft sermons much like those of American-born Reform and Conservative colleagues. Keeping in mind the warning of a contemporary Conservative rabbi, Israel Herbert Levinthal, that his printed sermons were often delivered ‘extemporaneously” and written “out a long time after their delivery,” the historian looks for typescript sermons or sermons reprinted in synagogue bulletins and the Jewish press immediately after delivery. They are abundant, and, by the 1930s, Orthodox rabbis in various places turned a Latin phrase, digested a German book on philosophy or literature, or followed the scientific arguments of the leading writers of their time as easily as they could quote from the Talmud.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 89-90.

The denominations, and the seminaries where they train their rabbis, will have to recognize this and take a more holistic view of their role in Jewish life. Rabbis need to see themselves as teaching Judaism, not as upholding the tenets of a particular movement. …
What’s more, the denominations, themselves, are no longer the most relevant force in shaping our synagogues. Instead of the large denominational divisions, imagine an entrepreneurial approach to synagogue life, one that encourages the growth of vibrant communities….

Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 169.

Traditional Jewish institutions must seek guidance from creative young leaders, and some have begun to do so. Young Jews are finding ways to be Jewish outside of traditional Jewish institutions, but that does not mean we have to battle for who controls Jewish life….
We need to cultivate this spirit of openness and exchange between new efforts and traditional Jewish institutions. Both are important for the renaissance. While there is exuberant energy outside the established Jewish community, there are tremendous financial, structural, and human resources in our large institutions. These resources can, and should, be used to educate and empower our youth. While change may happen more quickly in new efforts, existing organizations are capable of making a significant difference in Jewish life if they are willing to adapt to the conditions of the twenty-first century. They need to reach out to young people and invite their ideas and their leadership.

Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 167-168.

The problem with the whole idea of “affiliated” and “unaffiliated” is that it depends on an outdated model for Jewish community. The fact that young Jews are not affiliating in the old-fashioned way indicates there is something wrong with our institutions, not that there is something wrong with our youth. We have to let go of old ways of defining what it means to be an involved Jew and look to the kind of involvement that young Jews themselves seek. It takes some imagination to understand that the decline of Jewish institutions does not necessarily mean the decline of Judaism. Our question should not be “How can we get unaffiliated Jews to affiliate?” but “How can we inspire young Jews to understand Judaism as important for their own lives and for the world?” We should not be concerned with keeping Jewish institutions alive, but with keeping Judaism alive.
Simply because young Jews are not involved in the same way that their elders were does not mean that they are completely disengaged from Jewish life. While they may stay away from synagogues or Jewish Community Centers, they are clearly interested in Judaism. … They want to be Jewish, but on their own terms, as well they should.

Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 157-158.

Only with hindsight can we see that, by the 1960s, there were hints of the dramatic changes that were to take place in American Judaism in the following decades. For the most part, the immense transformation of Reform into a movement of considerable ritual and its effort to grapple with the presence of intermarried couples and nontraditional families was barely visible even by the middle of the 1960s. The demands of Conservative Jews for a strong statement of what the branch believes and for gender equality, both flashpoints of the 197os, were barely discussed in 1965. And, among the Orthodox, even in the 1960s, the rigorous observance that, beginning in the 1970s, would characterize so many children of the moderate Orthodox of the 1940s and 1950s was still under the surface. Right up to the Six-Day War of 1967 and even beyond, in some ways, little had changed from earlier decades. But momentous transformations were just around the corner.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 168.