"A must read for those who seek to understand and harness the mega-changes reshaping the Jewish world."
—Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president, Union for Reform Judaism
"Pushes us all out of our comfort zones to recognize what works and to train today's rabbis, educators and communal leaders to transform our respective institutions and create meaningful intellectual, spiritual and action opportunities for the young Jews who are waiting for these changes."
—Ruth Messinger, president, American Jewish World Service
"Provides us with [a] much needed lesson in understanding the American Jewish community and [how to reach] our spirits. [Sid Schwarz's] work is charting a course for the synagogues and Jewish centers of the twenty-first century."
—Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple, Los Angeles; author, Why Faith Matters
"A compelling overview of the stand-out successes and major challenges in confronting a generation many believe is moving away from its parents' and grandparents' ways of identifying Jewishly... Hopeful."
—New York Jewish Week
“Compelling.... With much to celebrate and much to cause concern, the reader will better appreciate the complexities of Jewish life when all Jews are Jews by choice.”
—Charles R. Bronfman, chairman, Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies
“Schwarz combines remarkable institutional building experience, [an] extensive network of relationships with the best and the brightest in Jewish life, and keen knowledge of the American religious landscape to produce a must read for those concerned with the genuine challenges of the next era in American Jewish life.... The book is insightful and creative ... sober and hopeful, realistic and idealistic, temperate and optimistic, pragmatic and visionary. Brims with wisdom and confidence....”
—Rabbi Irwin Kula, president, Clal—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership
“Provide[s] an invaluable framework for understanding the challenging dynamics of contemporary American Judaism [and] a blueprint for the future that will inspire and motivate leaders of our community. Anyone who wants to see American Judaism thrive in the twenty-first century should read this book!”
—Rabbi Marla Feldman, executive director, Women of Reform Judaism
“Face[s] difficult issues head-on. The faith we share in a creative Jewish future is due in large part to people like Schwarz and those visionaries he has gathered around him in these essays. Rabbis and other Jewish leaders should pay careful attention.”
—Arthur Green, rector, Hebrew College Rabbinical School; author, Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow and Radical Judaism
“Throws down the gauntlet to Jewish community leaders seeking to engage the next generation in this perceptive book.... The result: a thoughtful road map for the future of the Jewish people in North America based on wisdom, justice, community and purpose.”
—Dr. Ron Wolfson, author, Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community; Fingerhut Professor of Education, American Jewish University; co-founder, Synagogue 3000/Next Dor
“Spot-on in its analysis of the biggest changes in American Judaism.... Read this book to become informed, but more importantly, read it to become inspired to build the next vibrant chapter of Jewish life.”
—Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, executive director, Mechon Hadar; author, Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities
“A thought provoking, challenging and important book at this critical time of transition in Jewish life.”
—Rabbi Laura Geller, senior rabbi, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills
“Delivers an excellent and well thought out set of assumptions ... combined with some of the best thinkers and doers in the American Jewish community. I recommend this book to anyone searching to learn more about the major trends and direction of our Jewish community.”
—David Cygielman, founder and CEO, Moishe Houses
“Challenges us to do much-needed big picture thinking about the nature of American Judaism today.... By gathering and challenging major American Jewish thinkers in one volume, Sid Schwarz has given us the gift of a critical conversation wrapped into one important book.”
—Dr. Erica Brown, scholar-in-residence, Jewish Federation of Greater Washington; author, Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities and Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism
“A thoughtful work that challenges the traditional biases of decision makers in the Jewish community and empowers them to take risks and step into what could be a glorious future.”
—Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director, Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs; author, Building a Successful Volunteer Culture: Finding Meaning in Service in the Jewish Community
“[A] compelling twenty-first-century case for a Judaism of four key value propositions—wisdom, social justice, community and sacred purpose—gains a fifth—honest conversation—through the voices of some of American Jewry’s most creative leaders.”
—Shawn Landres, co-founder, Jewish Jumpstart
“Wisely and skillfully offers a multi-dimensional platform for reinvigorating the Jewish experiences and charts a course for a future of Jewish relevance.”
—Rabbi Will Berkovitz, senior vice president, Repair the World
“Brings ... many ... exciting developments [in modern Jewish life] into a focus that provides a fuller understanding of where we are and where we can go. It is a must read anyone thinking about the future of American Jewish life.”
—Esther Safran Foer, director, Sixth & I
“Insightful and honest analysis [as well as] specific ideas for how we must evolve as a community.... Offer[s] innovative strategies for building a Jewish community so compelling that future generations will be inspired to connect.”
—Nancy Kaufman, CEO, National Council of Jewish Women
“Offers us a roadmap to the unparalleled changes affecting the Jewish world today.... Uniquely lays out a new reality filled with challenges and opportunities that could not be more timely. After reading this book, one thing is for certain: the Jewish world of tomorrow cannot and will not look like the Jewish world of today.”
—David Bryfman, The Jewish Education Project; co-designer, The Jewish Futures Conferences
“A must-read for anyone who cares about the future of the Jewish community.... Present[s] a realistic, yet hopeful view of how the Jewish world is changing and how those with leadership responsibilities in the community can respond.”
—Rabbi Laura Baum, OurJewishCommunity.org and Congregation Beth Adam, Loveland, Ohio
“Engaging and spirited.... Calls for authenticity—a renewed focus on community, prayer, learning, social justice, Israel travel and cultural participation as ends in themselves, rather than as mere instruments to some other end. To get the best results, just do the right thing.”
—Professor Steven M. Cohen, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner
“If you want to understand the here-and-now of the Jewish community in the twenty-first century, then read this book today.... Helps us better understand the new narratives and urgent challenges of Jewish identity, engagement, and continuity.”
—Lori Weinstein, CEO and executive director, Jewish Women International
“Schwarz’s essay-as-premise and its responses reflect a Jewish world that is recalibrating and transitioning rather than floundering, and testify to the wealth of options for today’s Jews to express Jewish identity and connect to core values, texts and tradition.”
—Esther D. Kustanowitz, program coordinator, NextGen Engagement Initiative, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles
“Powerful ... provid[es] a compelling and nuanced vision of what a meaningful Jewish future can look like and the change-agents who are working to realize this vision.”
—Rabbi Ari Weiss, executive director, Uri L’Tzedek
“A tour de force... I encourage all committed Jewish professionals and lay leaders to absorb and process the vision in this book.”
—Jakir Manela, executive director, Pearlstone Center, Baltimore, Maryland
“An impressive body of thought leaders offer their perspective on the key challenges of the twenty-first century, as well as their insights on how the community can respond with intelligence and creativity.”
—Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block, rabbi-in-residence, Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice
“Gather[s] together an all-star cast of movers and shakers who have broken boundaries in their respective ways. Each contributes powerfully to a larger thesis that is important reading for all who take leadership seriously.”
—Rabbi Avraham (Avi) Weiss, founder, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat; author, Spiritual Activism: A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World
Rabbi Sidney Schwarz recalls the exact words of a comment from a liberal rabbinical student that disturbed him profoundly.
"We were at a retreat, and he said to me, 'I didn't go to rabbinical school to carry the tribal water of the Jewish people.' And I thought, 'that is the job of a rabbi.’"
Rabbi Schwarz, founder and leader of a Reconstructionist congregation in suburban Maryland, says the encounter was not atypical of a select group of progressive Jews who are deeply committed to Jewish life — but not to the agenda of an organized Jewish community perceived as "obsessed by continuity."
Calling for a new way to reach these and many other young Jews, most of whom eschew the term “Zionist,” Rabbi Schwarz has come up with an unusual approach in his new book, “Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future” (Jewish Lights Publishing). It opens with his thesis on how to engage the majority of young Jews who show little interest in traditional forms of affiliation — synagogues, organizations, Federation — and then asks 13 leading Jewish innovators to each write a chapter in response to his views, based on their own observations about what works and what doesn’t.
He closes the book with a rebuttal of sorts, “fine tuning” his initial thoughts and charting an upbeat path for an American Jewish community he views as “in transition” rather than “in decline.”
The result is a compelling overview of the stand-out successes and major challenges in confronting a generation many believe is moving away from its parents’ and grandparents’ ways of identifying Jewishly, and in charting a course for engaging it in ways it can relate to, authentically.
Rabbi Schwarz has the credentials for this effort. Besides his rabbinic duties, he is known nationally as a social and political activist, and founder of Panim, a group he led for two decades that trained teens for leadership through Jewish education, values and social responsibility. He is also the author of two previous books, one exploring the key to successful synagogue models (“Finding A Spiritual Home”) and the other (“Judaism and Justice”) on the power of social justice in engaging young people.
Those themes form the core of “Jewish Megatrends,” in which Rabbi Schwarz identifies a growing polarization between what he describes as two types of Jews. One, like himself, he dubs “tribal Jews”; they identify strongly with Israel and worry about external and internal threats to Jewish continuity. The other he terms “covenantal Jews”; they are primarily made up of younger people who are less parochial, less concerned about group solidarity, and more interested in universal themes like justice and human dignity.
Rabbi Schwarz argues that the organized Jewish community, led by tribal Jews, is in effect driving away covenantal Jews by “drawing hard and fast lines on who does and who does not belong to the Jewish community.” He says “rabbis and the organized Jewish community are notoriously bad at understanding and validating” those whose Jewish identity is “soft and highly ambivalent,” but who can be engaged through programs that connect them to universal and liberal values stemming from their Jewish heritage.
The key, he says, is to reach these “covenantal Jews” from the outside-in rather than the inside-out approach. In other words, don’t begin by preaching Jewish texts, which they see as irrelevant. Rather, “start with what matters” to sophisticated, thoughtful Jews, like their commitment to improve the world, and show them how these goals can be advanced through Jewish wisdom and spirituality. That means tracing social justice to ancient Jewish values, and offering a caring community and “sacred purpose” to their lives.
Don’t try to give them Judaism-lite, Rabbi Schwarz insists, but “raise the bar” in terms of content and commitment. If you’re serious with them, they’ll take you more seriously. And don’t be afraid to proclaim Jewish life as countercultural, emphasizing personal relationships in an era so dependent on technology that people prefer texting to meeting face to face.
The main section of the book is made up of chapters on innovations in Jewish culture (by Elise Bernhardt), synagogues (Rabbi Sharon Brous), family foundations (Sandy Cardin), Israel (Barry Chazan and Anne Lanski), denominationalism (Rabbi David Ellenson), “getting” the next generation (Wayne Firestone), Jewish social justice (Rabbi Jill Jacobs), community centers (Rabbi Joy Levitt), the Orthodox difference (Rabbi Asher Lopatin), interreligious collaboration (Rabbi Or N. Rose), tribes, food and community (Nigel Savage), the federation system (Barry Shrage), and Jewish education (Jonathan Woocher).
Most agree, to varying degrees, with Rabbi Schwarz’s basic premise and approach, giving examples of how they try to provide authentic experiences to a younger generation for whom Israel and the Holocaust hold increasingly less appeal. For example, both Wayne Firestone, outgoing president and CEO of Hillel, and Jonathan Woocher, a leader in innovative Jewish education, make the point that Jewish students aren’t trying to “fit in,” as their parents did, but are seeking ways to live more meaningful lives through Judaism. Rabbi Ellenson, the president of Hebrew Union College, notes that young Jews are not interested in denominational labels. And Rabbi Brous, who leads a popular synagogue in Los Angeles, emphasizes that the more demands she makes on her congregation members in terms of attendance and commitment, the better they respond.
Only Barry Shrage, the chief executive of the Jewish Federation in Boston, seriously challenges Rabbi Schwarz, arguing that the author’s “tribal” and “covenantal” depiction is an inaccurate stereotype, and that in truth the younger generation is more nuanced in terms of Jewish identity. For example, he says some may care deeply about the Palestinians’ plight but far more worry about Israel’s security.
Most significantly, he believes Birthright Israel has had a profound positive impact on young Jews, and he argues against dismissing tribal Judaism. “Not only is a ‘tribal-free’ Judaism inconceivable,” he writes, “it is also not necessary to attract the next generation of Jews.” That can and must be done, according to Shrage, largely in the ways Schwarz calls for.
The hopeful note throughout is that the contributors to “Jewish Megatrends” are seeking and finding creative ways to make Judaism compelling to people who are not just seeking to balance their American and Jewish identities, as did their parents and grandparents, but are looking to Judaism to provide deeper value in their lives. The question is whether these innovators are reaching enough Jews to make a difference, and if the rest of us are paying attention.
(Gary Rosenblatt New York Jewish Week
Rabbi Sidney Schwarz taught numerous Jewish high school students a different way of experiencing Judaism.
The lesson was part of Panim: The Jewish Institute for Leadership and Values founded by Schwarz in 1988.
For many of the teens, arriving from all over the nation, it was when they took peanut butter sandwiches out to homeless people on D.C.'s streets, some in the shadow of the White House or the Capitol Building.
Students who had hardly any desire to connect with our ancestral biblical heritage saw themselves as "practicing" Judaism with each peanut butter sandwich they handed out.
Schwarz maybe didn't know it at the time, but he was building then a basis for discussion that forms the very core of his latest book, Jewish Megatrends, Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future.
Schwarz, the founding rabbi of Adat Shalom, the Reconstructionist shul in Bethesda, writes about two camps of Jews. There are the "tribal Jews," who see their Jewish identity in political and ethnic terms. Tribal Jews are concerned about the threats to Jewish survival. They have a strong connection to Israel, because they see it as the most "public manifestation and validation of the Jewish peoples' existence in the world."
Schwarz, then defines "covenantal Jews. They affiliate less with institutional Judaism and feel an affinity to their faith because of its ethics and value system that seeks justice, compassion, human dignity and the protection of the vulnerable." Schwarz offers four platforms he sees as connecting points for tribal and covenantal Jews. They include wisdom, social justice, community and living lives of sacred purpose.
He then invites 13 Jewish leaders from different organizations to write in response.
Schwarz asks: "Can we transmit a tribal Jewish story in a way that the next generation of American Jews can hear it?"
Wayne Firestone, president and CEO of Hillel The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, writes on myths about the younger generations in the book. One of those myths was the "younger generation doesn't care about Jewish life."
Firestone believes that the younger generation indeed cares deeply about Jewish life, but in different ways. "They are not yearning to fit in," he writes. "Rather, they are actively seeking to carve out safe spaces to be different. They want to find their authentic voices and Jewish identity is often one piece of that."
Not all 13 contributors agree with Schwarz. Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, sees Schwarz's differentiation of "covenantal" and "tribal" Jews as "inaccurate." Shrage writes that he sees younger Jewish generations as complex, defying any easy categorization.
"They are universal and particular, tribal and covenantal," he wrote.
Still, the book suggests that covenantal Jews do not respond emotionally to appeals based on the Holocaust or the state of Israel. And while they are aware of historical anti-Semitism, covenantals don't share in the persecution phobias of earlier Jewish generations.
Rabbi Sid leaves us with the question, "Can we transmit a tribal Jewish story in a way that the next generation of American Jews can hear it?" Or as Dr. Jonathan S. Woocher, the chief ideas officer of JESNA wrote, the key question was how can Jews fit into 20th century America? "In the 21st century, the question is how can we live more meaningful lives?" Schwarz's book is an important read because it is a platform for teaching, dialogue and debate.
It's a road, it's a path. Or as Panim taught, it's "Street Torah."
Schwarz says he sees the beginnings of a Jewish renewal on the community's extreme margins.
"There is a cross-fertilization between established institutions of American Jewish community and the robust innovation sector of American Jewish life," he said, "if each side recognized the value of the other and committed to a program of collaboration, I believe we would be on the verge of a renaissance of American Jewish life.
"On the margins of the community, there are stirrings of a Jewish revival," he added. "And if it's properly nurtured, it has the potential to grow into a great renaissance of American Jewish life."
Schwarz asks what would it take to get younger American Jews to have a strong enough affinity with their Jewish identity that the Jewish community will continue to be vibrant and relevant to our children and to our grandchildren.
In his experiences, Schwarz said there is a large part of the Jewish community found outside of the orbit of synagogues. There are, he continued, many venues where Jews can be actively engaged and yet never step foot in a synagogue.
"The Jewish community has all the signs that it is lacking confidence in recognizing what's new and to embrace it. Frankly what is at stake is how to capture the next generation of Jews. There's a need to take them from the margins and put them in the mainstream."
Schwarz said that there are those who encourage him to take Jewish Megatrends and use it as a course in Jewish communal leadership.
This is especially the case since he said he feels that the American Jewish community's best days are still ahead.
"We must create institutions that integrate the tribal with the covenantal. We will need synagogues to see that do-it-yourself Judaism is not a threat to their existence, but as a way to empower Jews to make the congregation ever more exciting and vibrant."
(Phil Jacobs Washington Jewish Week
The struggle for survival we face today is not new. Jews have been defined as "the Ever-Dying People" for generations. It has been important that we re-assess ourselves and change direction, especially in difficult times. Rabbi Schwarz (founder of PANIM), aided by leaders from around the country and across the spectrum, has made an important contribution to the ongoing discussion.
The volume opens with a lead essay, in which Schwarz proposes four elements that will secure Jews, especially those under 40, in the coming years. The parts are "Wisdom/Chochmah," "Social Justice/ Tzedek," “Community/Kehillah,” and “Lives of Sacred Purpose/Kedushah.” Each element contains a proposition, dedicated to focus leaders and readers on thinking about how to resolve the deep and real difficulties we face in the 21st Century. This thesis is followed by thirteen essays by such recognized executives as Elise Bernhardt (Foundaton for Jewish Culture); Jonathan Woocher (JESNA); David Ellenson (HUC-JIR), and Joy Levitt (92nd Street Y, New York). The commentators use their essays to discuss how they and their organizations have dealt with the current situation, and how they are gathering the disenchanted, disaffected, and un-connected young Jews. The book closes with a final essay in which Schwarz analyzes the three themes that predominate in the other contributions: “Authenticity, “Relationships,” and the “Many Doors” approach to Jewish community.
The struggles that Jewish Megatrends points to are common throughout American Jewish society today. For that reason alone, the book should be in all major Jewish institutions (seminaries, Federations, etc.), and rabbis and community leaders should be aware of it. It is not entirely clear, however, whether it should be in every synagogue library. While it is clearly written and concise, its recommendations may not be close enough to “ground level” for every congregation and every congregant.
Fred Isaac, Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA
(Fred Isaac American Jewish Libraries