Rabbi Avi Weinstein

More Studies Confirming What Any Bozo Should Already Know!

In Uncategorized on April 3, 2009 at 5:34 am

JTA newsflash “Study finds that ethnic identification on the wane and ‘spirituality’ is on the rise!” This has tremendous ramifications for Jewish institutions in the future. Pllllleasssse…Now, I haven’t read the study, so let’s confine this critique to the way it was reported, but if it has been reported accurately, well, let the chips fall…

Ask Joe/sephine college student if given the choice between a debauched evening with friends or a “spiritually meaningful experience”, most would opt for the former option. Hands down, however, it would be option B that has the potential to be memorable, and significant while option A will be forgotten with tomorrow’s inevitable hangover.

The truth is, people don’t often know what they really want which renders $60,000 surveys less than useful. We need to be suspicious of studies that call for new directions that are based on ill-defined terms like “spirituality”. Take this oxymoronic statement from the JTA article:

“The notion of spirituality is an elusive one, the researchers concede, though they generally understand it to mean the quest for meaning, purpose and connectedness. Rather than identifying Jewishly through ethnic food or language, or through affiliation with communal institutions…”

Aren’t synagogues supposed to be spiritual institutions? Aren’t they the primary communal institution? Aren’t they ostensibly the vehicle for meaning, purpose and connectedness? Aren’t synagogue memberships plummeting longer and faster than the stock market?

True Jewish spirituality, like all authentic disciplines, require commitment, literacy and community. For years, synagogues have pandered to the consumer by diluting Jewish uniqueness in favor of blander, fare. As long as anti-semitism was alive and well, it didn’t much matter what our institutions did because there was a visceral need to be connected to our brothers and sisters. Institutions do better when formed out of need, they do less well, when institutions need people, more than the people need the institutions.

I have no doubt that few newspapers will survive the next fifty years in their current format, but some will because there will be a group of people who need them, for whom holding a newspaper over morning coffee feels like having a good friend over every morning. There will always be those for whom the ritual of reading the Sunday Times will be a meaningful event in their lives that is worth paying for.

All over America there are emerging organic Jewish spiritual communal institutions that are developing through common need and interest. These institutions are joined by the most educated and Jewishly erudite of the next generation, but they developed because like minded people joined together to create something meaningful for themselves. They are committed people who need institutional structures to fulfill their commitments in the best way possible. These commitments require them to volunteer, create, and connect to their community.

Nearly two years ago I consulted with the Bronfman Youth Fellowships on their alumni program and how to make it more responsive to its alumni. The first order of business was to ascertain whether there was an actual need to be fulfilled and whether this was the vehicle to fulfill it. In other words, if we disappeared tomorrow, would it truly matter to those we ostensibly serve? To honestly acknowledge the possibility that it may be time to split the scene can be an invigorating starting point for truly serving the people. At that moment, one can honestly say, what do they need us for, and for that how do we serve them?

I believe re-invention begins with the possibility that it may be time to disappear. In many large synagogues, the most committed have their own minyan in either the chapel or the library. These breakaway groups are an accommodation to the most literate and often the most committed, but sooner or later those who crave intimacy might ask why do I have to help finance this sanctuary building fund, when I only need and care about a small modest room? Why do I need this newspaper when I can get more up to date information on line, and it’s for free? Why indeed? I’m convinced that the model of huge buildings financed primarily by those who attend them three days a year has been a failed model for longer than anyone cares to remember. Finally, people are choosing not to pay for it.
Well, Boker Tov!

A committed Jew needs a shule, because s/he needs to daven, not because the shule needs members. As long as the Jew is committed, the need for certain institutions exist. Spiritual institutions serve commitment. Whether it be religious services, kosher food, study groups, classes, Jewish meditation societies, or pot luck dinners, structures serve defined commitments.

As soon as the primary commitment is to serve the institution, and not to serve God, or whatever transcendent/spiritual purpose that brings folks together–it’s over, and we shouldn’t need to spend 60k on a study to figure that out.

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  1. Excellent point.

    The logical corollary in the United States would seem to be that, inasmuch as the bulk of American Jews have no spirituality or transcendent goals that bind them to other Jews (except by chance), that the bulk of American Jews will disappear in demographic terms within a century and simply become an ethnic identifier of a long-deceased great grandparent.

    In other words, the point is correct and consequences stem from that correct point.

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