Posts Tagged ‘Reform’

Jews in the Pews

Friday, October 25th, 2013

by Sam Glaser

Business is great.  The economy’s steady upturn has slowly trickled down to the bottom feeders of the socioeconomic ladder: non-profit organizations. With a bit more disposable income and the promise of more down the road, members of synagogues have been making good on unpaid dues and supporting special programming like Shabbatons, musicians and speakers.  Boards of Directors and clergy have realized that they cannot rave about dynamic synagogue life if they have cut back all their programming. And singer/speakers like me who offer all-ages programs rich in enthusiastic Jewish celebration and deep soul content are suddenly in fashion again.

The problem now is that Jewish institutions, which have been gasping for breath for the past five years, perceive that the real issue is greater than mere membership retention.  Those proud and few who have remained true to their shul in the lean years are the proverbial “choir” to whom the synagogues and JCC’s are marketing their refreshed calendars.  The great challenge revealed in the Pew Research Center’s recent study is that most of our fellow Jews are not even exposed to the message.  The real wake up call is  that Jews on the fringe are an endangered species and the challenge of our generation is fight complacency and endeavor to bring them back.

According to the study, 1/3 of Jews age 33 and younger, the American Jewish future, are claiming that they are Jewish with no religion. They have a vague sense that they are part of an elite and afflicted ancient cult and have a predisposition to enjoy Seinfeld and deli-food. Thanks to thewidespread acceptance of Jews in the greater culture, most have a sense of Jewish pride.  But the net result of that acceptance is that 4/5th’s of these “non-religious” Jews will marry out of the faith and all but eliminate the likelihood of raising the next generation with even basic Jewish values. Who will support Jewish non-profits in the future? Who will our teachers teach?  Who will fill the pews of our mega-synagogues?  No wonder this study has organized Judaism reeling.

I’d like to offer a few ideas for turning this ill-fated ship around.  I believe I have an unusual perspective gained from twenty years of visiting Jewish communities in fifty cities every year. I interact with, teach and entertain Reform, Conservative and Orthodox audiences, work with preschools through elder-hostel programs, visit schools, shuls, temples, JCC’s and even the occasional church. The formula that seems to work best requires a combination of three factors that I think are ignored at our peril.  I’ll sum them up in three simple words: Hineni, Halacha and Hillel.

In my office we can tell well in advance if my weekends are going to be successful. Some organizations hire me, pay a deposit and then we don’t hear from them until they request my travel information a few weeks before the show.  The fact is that we help our clients to be self sufficient by making all the marketing materials available online.  On the other hand, some venues bother us incessantly about how to “get out the vote.” Some daily.  These are often the gigs that are exceptional.  These organizations realize that they must strive to gain consensus, to establish committees for the sake of getting more people involved, to get the adults and kids in choirs on stage with me, to have my music playing “on hold” when people call in.  They may honor a few dignitaries, include a raffle or Chinese auction and call on local businesses to advertise in the program. They send the congregation links to my videos, they send buses to the senior homes to bring in the elderly, they have the teens run the intermission concession and pass out the aforementioned programs. They have the community vote on which workshop I present during Shabbatons, arrange for multiple individuals to pick me up and feed me, give out honors in advance for opening the ark and being called to the Torah.  The cantor might sing a duet with me, a brave teen instrumentalist gets to sit in on a particular song and then soloists and choirs all combine for a blockbuster finale.

Hineni CvrIn short, experienced leadership galvanizes the community by making requests, giving individuals the chance to answer Hineni, here I am.  I have a theory that since the time of Abraham, Jews have been primed to wait in quiet desperation until they are called upon and they cannot help but answer in the affirmative.  We respond to the call with a sense of honor and duty, glad that we were thought of, wanting to make a difference. Leaders can elicit Hineni responses when coordinating membership drives, planning artist-in-residence programs, banquets, even when recruiting enough folks for a minyan. The only prerequisite to releasing the inherent Jewish drive to take on a task, contribute funds or volunteer is a leader with the ability to pair individuals with a particular job and the guts to make the request.  The request must begin with “I need YOU to do ___________ for the community,” in other words, the community member feels uniquely singled out for the job.  Synagogues that elicit the Hineni response are typically busy beehives of activity, with all ages constantly coming and going, more like community centers than cold and corporate auditoria.

I recently co-officiated with a rabbi who had just taken his first full-time rabbinic position and was already beloved by his chosen congregation.  He was a capable speaker, practiced what he preached in terms of living a Jewish life and also had a fine voice for leading the prayers.  He had connected with the community in pastoral moments where he displayed his God-given gifts of compassion and insight. I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers, but I felt compelled to give him this Hineni theory before I departed.  His community is aging and is endemic of the “running for the exits” tendency of the younger set.  I believe that all those great sermons and moments of tenderness will be ineffective in stemming this tide unless he finds the inner resolve to get under people’s skin with chutzpah.  I encouraged him to invent programming to empower the full range of congregants, to chase after ex-members, young familes and the unaffiliated with communal, even secular activities and not to spend an extra minute in his office when he can be meeting his constituents “where they live.”  In short, to get past the fear of rejection and elicit Hineni from everyone he meets.

Another crucial component to our survival in my humble opinion can be summed up with the word Halacha, or the path.  Just like planets have their orbit around the sun, so too do humans and more specifically, Jews. Our path is informed by the vast system of mitzvot that we have held sacred for millennia. No need to reinvent the wheel here. Part of the “Hineni” job of Jewish leadership is to reinforce that we all have an internal compass that is nurtured by the 613 commandments and clarify that they are not the 613 suggestions. Mitzvot are the skeleton that supports the body of Judaism. There is no continuity or survival without them. When an interviewer asks me where I’ve seen evidence of flourishing communities, I point out those synagogues where the leadership has laser-like focus on making mitzvot a priority, regardless of denomination.  One case in point is Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC, a Reform congregation where I experienced a united, dedicated community like no other.  I asked Rabbi Fred Guttman if he would reveal his secret. He replied, “it’s simple: I just get the congregation to take on mitzvot and build from there.”

Incorporating halacha into a leadership style is controversial. It requires that the leaders personally engage in halacha, to “walk the talk.” It requires that the education budget be allotted not only to the children but also on increasing the chance for true “informed” choice for the adults. It requires gentle, private tochacha, or rebuke, when any given individual is straying from the path. It requires nudging our young people to try on kashrut, to make Shabbat and holidays sacred, to marry within the tribe and be fruitful and multiply. I see posters around my neighborhood reminding me that parents are the “anti-drug,” in other words, that in spite of evidence to the contrary, our kids do care about what we think. I believe we continue to care about what our parents and other role models think until we’re six feet under. We can all look back on our lives and acknowledge the times that a mentor steered us on the right track. We Jews have a spiritual “right track” and it’s worthy of intensive research and aggressive marketing.

My last item, at least for this essay, is Hillel.   And by that I mean the amazing collegiate institution that is the pride of Jewish America, and by extension, all Jewish programming for our endangered tribespeople under thirty. Hillels enhance Jewish life on campus for those lucky enough to have had a Jewish day school education and are the last chance for engagement for those that haven’t. I just returned from leading a Shabbaton at Lafayette College, a top 50 liberal arts school in the rolling hills of Easton, PA. A passionate, self-selected group of Jewish students celebrated Shabbat with me, a 27-hour period which included spirited davening, divrei Torah, great meals, my workshop “Jewish Perspective of the Afterlife” and after Havdalah, a rowdy concert where many of them got into the act. Perhaps the Hillel board chose the afterlife course since Halloween is coming up? According to the Hillel website, 94% say that being Jewish will “continue to be important” to them after graduation. Is there any question where our benefactors should be directing funds?

That said, I think what we are seeing is that “continue to be important” is not enough to give these young people the gift of Jewish grandchildren. Nor is the powerful Birthright program or the multitudes of great Jewish summer camps that dot our countryside. The programs with the efficacy that we require must open the door to a life of Jewish commitment, in other words, a life of mitzvot. Hillel Shabbatons, Camp Ramah and NFTY will succeed only to the degree that Jewish leadership pursues the aforementioned individual “Hineni” connections. And when these young people are called upon, the framework on which they base their Judaism must include not only adventure travel and falafel but also an opportunity to learn of the Jewish derech, or path. Yes, we have to “nudge” them. Or else I fear they will be lost in space, spineless, grasping for meaning in their lives that they will satisfy in arenas outside the Jewish weltanschauung.

Some argue that students that come to Hillel events are from different backgrounds and therefore must be catered to with kid gloves so as to not offend or demean those with less Jewish education or tradition. I must admit that I was saddened when the dear students with whom I was interacting over the weekend were stumped when I asked what Lech L’cha meant or what was Abraham’s noted character trait. They didn’t realize that Jews believed in reincarnation and had no idea of the meaning of Kaddish. I’d like to make a plea that our national Hillel rabbis and interns take it up a notch. As I’ve seen at every Hillel function that I’ve had the pleasure to lead, the students will rise to the occasion. They are hungry for Torah and leadership. They need role models that are living a Jewish life and doing so with class and a sense of fun. They want their programming to include not only talks on Jewish history, Israel and the holocaust but on the Jewish soul, text study and personal growth through mitzvot. They know that they are about to enter the abyss of the job market and the ills of society at large and need to be armed with our Jewish secrets for success. Like many Jewish events, food is the primary magnet to attract these “starving students.” But once they are there for the meal we must also feed their hunger for spiritual transformation, for our rich tradition of tools they can use to navigate the waters of life.

I agree that it’s pointless to cry about the Pew study without coming up with concrete action items. I will be working with my wife to raise a pool of matching funds for Hillel programming over 2014-15. We will be partnering with the non-profit Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity to enable Hillels to book programming that informs as well as entertains. Several campuses in each region will be involved in any given weekend with Thursday Night Live concerts, Shabbatons and Sunday workshops and teacher/staff/board training. Students can opt in to any or all of the events on the schedule with transportation provided. In tandem with this effort will be a subsidized distribution of Jewish music downloads from top Jewish artists, with a featured album available every month for free to university students. It is my hope that this small effort will help to create a groundswell of renewed enthusiasm for Jewish life and serve to better inform the choices of young Jewish people during their college experience and after they graduate.

The solutions above are a-denominational. Some may argue that Orthodox Jews are immune to the above issues. I can state from experience that they too are badly in need of an injection of renewal and joy and lose sleep over their kids’ connection to Yiddishkeit. Others might argue that mitzvot are outside the purview of Reform Jews or are “optional.” No! In fact “The (1999) Pittsburgh Principles asserts that each Reform Jew has the right, indeed the obligation, to enter into dialogue with the mitzvot…affirming a mitzvah, declaring one is not ready yet to accept it, or even rejecting it. But the dialogue must precede the decision, or it is not really a decision.” Conservative Judaism wins the prize in the Pew reports of Jewish organizational hemorrhage. I’m hopeful that the new breed of JTS/AJU graduates are eschewing the ivory tower-academic rabbinic model with which I grew up and instead can incorporate the wide-eyed sense of amazement and intoxication with God’s love that religious life requires. Many Conservative rabbis model halachic life but are unwilling to offer halachic education or tochacha to increasingly secular congregants for fear of appearing pushy or damaging relationships with the board. Clearly the clergy of all denominations must restructure their time; they can’t be too busy in board meetings, fundraising and preparing sermons or they will miss out on crucial Hineni moments. If the Pew study revealed anything it’s that all our movements are in need of healing and that any one’s success is a victory for the Jewish People. More than ever, we’re all in this together.

My friends, all denominations are struggling with retention. All of our organizations are striving to improve the Jewish experience that they offer. All are concerned about maximizing nachas: that profound Jewish joy button that is only pushed when our deepest soul clearly perceives that the Jewish mission is alive and well. When our leadership has the guts and the wisdom to create Hineni moments in our lives, we will rise up and say, “Here I am!” When we are encouraged to focus daily on the Jewish “path” and nurture every age group with Jewish literacy, Torah study and the importance of halacha, our out of kilter orbit will eventually stabilize. And with the devotion of resources to inspiring and directing our youth, we will create an atmosphere of love for heritage that will make the decision to raise a Jewish family a no-brainer. Let us spend our hard earned resources not on further Pew exposés of our demise but on the programs that have proven to have efficacy in stemming the tide of assimilation. I’m confident that with resolve and sagacity we’ll once again see Jews in the Pews.

The Reform Biennial: The Good, the Bad and the Plenary

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

 by Sam Glaser

 I am writing this newsletter on the road during my 2011 Chanukah tour. It is as varied an itinerary as can be imagined in the Jewish world; a whirlwind of performing for Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, religious and day schools and a retirement home. This is my eighteenth Chanukah on the road, a time that is often difficult since I am gone for weeks rather than my typical every-other-weekend schedule, but is also the period when I relish in the joy of having so much time to interact with out-of-town friends old and new and reflect on the year gone by.

I began this adventure at the new Gaylord National Convention Center, a mega hotel complex just south of Washington DC that easily housed the 6000 delegates of the Reform Biennial. I have performed at several of these events but this one felt special. It ran like a well-oiled machine with a record number of participants and myriad opportunities for study, conducting the business of the movement and power-schmoozing. An impressive list of my musical peers was on hand to add a creative touch to the proceedings and a well stocked exhibit hall of Judaica from around the world was a shopper’s delight. I couldn’t walk more than a few feet without being embraced by the membership and clergy of synagogues where I have performed over the years.

 There were two highlights of the conference for me. One was the climax of Craig Taubman’s standing-room-only concert when he invited me to the stage to sing a spiritual version Maoz Tzur. It takes a big man to open up a very tight set list to let another artist share the spotlight. For me, it was a moment of redemption. My own concert earlier that day was scheduled during a plethora of breakout sessions and so the numbers in the audience were limited. I have a suspicion that those individuals that program the concert slots aren’t quite sure what to make of their frum, tzitzit-wearing friend Sam, in spite of the fact that most of my shows on my annual 50 city tours are in non-Orthodox synagogues. That day happened to be my birthday, and I was questioning the wisdom of accepting the invitation to attend in the first place rather than celebrating with my family. Having the chance to share in the intense spirit of a packed house for a show unopposed by other programming gave me and hopefully the audience a powerful high. I’m grateful to Craig for this gift.

 The other highlight was a pair of late night jams. I had just finished a midnight hour and a half kumzitz where I led a continuous medley of all tunes Jewish, Beatles and Broadway. With little strength left after such a long day I wandered through the lobby on the way back to my room. There I saw a group of the new wave of immensely talented young Jewish musicians who had just been kicked out of the lobby bar after last call. We started singing and were asked to find somewhere else to make noise. I dragged them back to the stage where the other kumzitz had just ended and we began another few hours of going around the circle sharing new musical creations with one another. Every musician had either a keyboard, guitar or percussion in hand and lent their voices to one another’s songs. The collaboration was organic and the support and love for one another was palpable. I must say I have renewed hope that in spite of the economics of downloads, loss of our distributors and financially ravaged synagogues, there is a HUGE future in Jewish music.

Plenary sessions can be inspiring or a grind. Imagine attending two three-hour banquets per day but you don’t even get the tepid chicken dinner. These were the programs where Obama, Eric Cantor, Ehud Barak and Natan Sharansky held court. I’ve been to enough Biennials and GA conferences to predict the exact script of each of these speeches. The politicians impress the audience with teleprompter readings of exactly what the constituent population wants to hear, pausing at preset moments for applause and standing ovations, posing for the photo with the movement leaders and then running to the waiting helicopter. Yes, it’s exciting to be in the room with the political giants of our day. But the succession of humorless soundbites leaves one wishing for a left turn, a bit of levity, a novel idea. The rest of the plenary sessions were chock full of congratulations for incoming or outgoing movement executives, showcasing programming and waiting for videos that usually didn’t work. No one was forcing me to be there. I attended the plenaries because I deeply want to see innovations, to be inspired, to feel hopeful for this largest movement on the American Jewish scene.

 A few things really got my goat. Over the days of the conference I heard many times references to the Reform’s iconic principle of “informed choice.” Informed choice requires that the chooser have all the possibilities at his or her disposal. It also requires a Jewishly educated laity. Real pluralism tolerates and engages all aspects of the spectrum of the Jewish people. Instead, I found many speakers to be defensive, taking a stand against tradition and using the word Reform to excess. In other words, rather than just say, I’m a Jew, the phrase continuously repeated was, “since I’m a Reform Jew,” “as Reform Jews we…” or, “I am proud to be a Reform Jew.” Jewish pride is great, but in many cases the speakers missed the chance to bring the conference a feeling of belonging to the greater whole of our glorious people.

 This idea of pluralism also must take into account the presence of Reform Jews with right wing leanings. I heard closet conservatives whispering amongst themselves in fear of political backlash. The AIPAC meet and greet was nearly empty in spite of the free cocktails. Applause for Republican Congressman Eric Cantor was guarded. Discouraging words are seldom heard in the interest of political correctness. Where is the famous Reform openness and tolerance here?

 While I’m venting, the basic food groups of the Jewish menu such as tefillin, respect for the laws of Shabbat or kashrut were absent. I asked if there were any provisions for kosher meals and the few provided had been sold out in advance. No kosher deli booth among the multitude of dining options, nothing with a hechsher for the many exhibitors, visitors and attendees who might appreciate such a concession. I lived on store bought bagels and salad for the duration of the conference. Attendees had to reach into their wallets over the course of Shabbat and cell phones were plentiful. I heard lots of calls for outreach…what would it hurt to have some outreach towards those on the traditional end of the spectrum?

 I know some of my readers are thinking: “you idiot! If you don’t like it, go to the Chabad convention next time.” But that’s missing the point.   I have seen in my short career the “running for the exit” of my generation. The URJ youth director informed me that 80% of Reform kids leave Judaism after Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Gone. For good. Only 15% of those that identify as Reform Jews report any involvement at all in Jewish organizational life. More than half say they have not attended a synagogue within the past year and cannot read Hebrew. Ours is a generation that needs the power of a living Torah and the skeletal support system of mitzvot on which to hang the flesh of our spiritual lives. If it works for Orthodoxy throughout the millennia, there must be something to it. A strong Reform Judaism that has a grasp of these crucial fundamentals and includes them in the wealth of Jewish choices offered will be a movement that will attract American youth.   My friends, this isn’t Reform vs. Conservative vs. Orthodox. Any failure of the Reform movement is the failure of Judaism.

 I was brought up in the Reform/Conservative realm and can attest to the fact that there is a way to ensure vibrant Judaism in the present and continuity in the future. Reform Jews are amongst the most dynamic, forward thinking, innovative and challenging of our people. They have the civic passion of Avraham while Orthodox Jews have the stringency of Yitzchak. Now is the time to come together in balance like Yaakov, with vibrant education, great music, and a love rather than fear of tradition. I know personally the power of Reform camping, prayer, social justice. I sang into the night with the new generation of teens and twenty-something leaders, educators and musicians. What’s done is done…but let’s get this new generation hip to mitzvot, giving them tools to have a full Shabbat every week, rejoice in the power of the holidays, to see that tefillin are cool and that opting for “pork sliders” and shrimp sushi is opting out.

 The departing leader of the movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, gave a fascinating presidential sermon on Shabbat. His daughter has become a Modern Orthodox Jew. He said the following:

 “When I look at Adina, I see someone who has put God and Torah at the center of her life. In her high school days, she would often challenge me. Judaism is of transcendent importance or it is not, she would say. And if you don’t believe in your gut that Judaism matters to an existing God, why bother?…Do I regret her religious choices? Absolutely not. She has chosen a path that I would not choose, but it is a worthy path. We continue our discussions, which are both vigorous and loving. And every time we do so, I think about the need to respect religious approaches other than my own. This is a subject on which I need reminding, from time to time. I am a combative person; I see myself as a defender of Reform Judaism; I am quick to offer a fierce defense of my liberal principles. But sitting across from my daughter and knowing the thoughtfulness of her convictions, it is respect that I feel and express; and I remind myself to stress the authenticity of my beliefs rather than what I may see as the shortcomings of hers. This above all is what I have learned from my daughter: that if we hope to engage our children, we will need to provide those answers – answers that are religiously compelling and intellectually engaging, as well as authentically Reform…this means making it clear that as Reform Jews, there are things that God expects of us. This means saying that ritual opens us to the sacred and gives structure to the holy. This means affirming our belief that if ritual dies, Judaism dies; it is only a matter of time. This means proclaiming that Shabbat is a God-given duty, even as we know that there are many, many ways for a Jew to fulfill that duty.”

 May Rabbi Yoffie’s wisdom permeate liberal Judaism. Let us give our kids real “informed choice” and let the chips fall where they may. Let us open the gates of tolerance to all branches of Judaism and not just to LGBT’s and the intermarried. If any movement in Judaism is going to make radical changes it will be Reform. They have done so as they have shifted to a Zionist platform and evolved from Classical Reform to a movement that was able to adopt the latest batch of Ten Principles and davens with the beautiful Mishkan T’fila siddur. I’d like to be first in line to work with the Reform movement on a task force to create true pluralism, informed choice and full spectrum Jewish education. It may be too late for the millions that have chosen to disregard the chosen people. But for those incredible young folks who were singing with me at Biennial into the wee hours of the night of their love for God, let’s give them a fighting chance at having Jewish grandchildren. Is it fair that only Rabbi Yoffie be assured of such a luxury?