Sunday, October 31, 2010

Strikes, Spares and the Jewish Future

I’m a bowler. I’m in a league. Sometimes I hate it. You see, once the ball is rolled, the outcome is by no means assured. I can control how I grasp the ball, swing and release it, but that’s it. Once it’s thrown, it interacts with the oil that is spread on the lane and is impacted by the laws of physics that determine the way it hits the pins, as it ricochets, slides and rolls. I can set up the perfect shot, but the process that takes place after I release that sphere is up to forces over which I have no control. There are too many variables. It’s sort of like planning for a Jewish future (you knew this was going somewhere.)

We can plan tactics, strategies, and methods of engagement but when we talk about modern Jews, we’re not dealing with a herd (Klal Yisrael notwithstanding). The phenomenon that Cohen and Eisen defined in The Jew Within 10 years ago describes American Judaism today and probably tomorrow – Jews are making their own Shabbat and are increasingly becoming alienated from established forms of Jewish communal life. Jonathan Woocher got it right last week when he wrote that we need to adjust the paradigm of Jewish education, empowering each individual to be involved in personally constructing "a meaningful and satisfying Jewish journey." And this is how building a Jewish future is like bowling.

There are many different types of bowling bowls designed for the particular style of individual bowlers. One size cannot fit all. As we design the foundations of 21st (and 22nd) century Judaism, not only do we need to contemplate how to link the silos of Jewish institutional life; we may very well need to build new ones to replace the antiquated structures that are still standing. But we can’t tear everything down, at least not for the time being.

As long as I’ve been in my present position as a synagogue educator, I’ve communicated with my religious school families via weekly e-mails. This year I decided to take the next step - I just created a religious school Facebook page. I happily announced it and received fascinating feedback. There were those religious school parents (all in their 30s and 40s) who thought it was cool. Then there were those (same demographic) who began to tremble in their shoes…as one religious school mom put it: “I’m one of the handful of people who refuse to use Facebook. I hope you will continue with your email updates.” As I’ve written before, we need to be careful of how quickly we embrace our future. We don’t want to leave anyone behind.

Obviously it will be impossible for us to forecast the outcomes as we tinker with the Jewish future. We may be positive that we’ll get a strike, but in the end we may only knock down a few pins. The trajectory of 21st century Judaism is radically different from anything that Jewish civilization has experienced before. One center of Jewish life, concentrated in North America, is a place where state sanctioned anti-Semitism by and large never existed – at least not since Peter Stuyvesant and Ulysses S. Grant. The only Jewish ghettos in the United States were self-imposed. This communal history has left an indelibly unique mark on the character of American Judaism.

The other center is Israel – with a flavor of Judaism that is defined by an amalgam of socialism, European nationalism and religious orthodoxy, and topped off with strife, both internally born and externally imposed. The resulting concoction is a type of Jewish identity that, at times, is almost alien to the Jewish sensibilities of its brothers/sisters/cousins across the great sea. Is it possible to link these silos?

In “The Big Lebowski”, John Goodman, playing the weirdest Jew I’ve ever seen, declares that he doesn’t “roll on Shabbos”. Now that I think about it, he may not be so weird, actually. He’ll drive. He’ll drink. He’ll fight. He just won’t bowl. He’s like many of us. We all seem to be making our own “Shabbos”. As we strive to engineer the future of our people, we must not be so confident that we have all the answers. We don’t. Sometimes the exception, or the unexpected, becomes the rule. That’s the only thing we can be sure of.