Looking for Judaism in (Un)Conventional Places

One of the ironies of living in a world in which there are few limits on the information available to us is that we protect ourselves from “information clutter” by focusing only on worlds we already know. That was not the case for organizers of a recent symposium on “Looking for Judaism in (Un)conventional Places” sponsored by the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies. Here’s the brochure: http://www.cjs.ucla.edu/images/stories/pdfs/looking_judaism_sm.pdf

I was invited by my friends Jack Wertheimer of Jewish Theological Seminary and Carol Bakhos of UCLA to participate in the symposium and share reflections on the event. Two of my Congregational Studies Team colleagues, Steve Warner and Gerardo Marti, also made presentations along with a dozen other scholars and practitioners.

I should not have been surprised to discover that the sense of fluidity, uncertainty and rapid change I find all around me in Christian circles is also present in American Judaism. Judaism’s Reform and Conservative movements have experienced membership and participation declines at rates similar to those of Mainline Protestantism and the leaders of those denominational movements are similarly confused. There is lots of talk of decline as religious institutions struggle with financial crises and issues of sustainability.

That is not to say that Judaism doesn’t face some special issues. For example, I can’t recall a conference of Protestant leaders in which interreligious marriage was a big issue or where internal Israeli political struggles play a big role in congregational life.

The symposium was organized around four topical panels.

The first panel looked at “trans and post-denominationalism in American Judaism.” Jews, we learned, like to think of themselves as rugged individualists but in fact are deeply influenced by their social circles. Young Jewish leaders, including those known as innovators, tend to have been raised in “Jewishly-rich” environments.” In a time when the influence of the traditional Jewish denominations is declining, new forms of Jewish connection are emerging, including a dramatic increase in the number and influence of independent minyans or congregations (for an example see www.nashuva.com). One important change emphasized by Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College is from Peoplehood to Purposefulness as an organizational principle.

The second panel introduced three rabbis from thriving Los Angeles area synagogues reflecting on “Jewish religious life in 21st century America.” We were reminded that there are many ways of being Jewish in contemporary America. One panelist reminded the audience that “there is more than one way to be a Jew” and that this is true in individual synagogues. Panelists spoke of differences between ”serious Jews and not so serious Jews.” Another rabbi talked about his synagogue’s “boutique style” with multiple affinity groups. In the case of this synagogue (which he described as “Conservative only on the letterhead”) the congregation’s 1000 weekend participants gather in five distinct congregations. The Chabad movement was represented by Rabbi David Eliezrie of Orange County (http://www.ocjewish.com), who referred to himself as one who “keeps the rules but pushes the edges.” I was impressed by what is happening in each of these local faith communities, some of which is familiar but much is not. All of us were impressed by the fact that one of the (Un)conventional places of Jewish innovation is the local synagogue. I heard a number of familiar themes: that “the synagogue funding model is no longer working,” that “it is iffy whether we can keep the doors open,” that “hospitality” is always the big question,” that “today all Jews are Jews by choice.” As the panel came to a close one audience member reflected on the high quality of the panel members’ leadership and asked, “If you’re so good, why are things going so badly?”Good question!

The third panel focused specifically on Los Angeles, with an emphasis on religious innovation. Gerardo Marti made a helpful presentation on religious innovation in LA, drawing on his two books on evangelical Christian congregations in the city (see Mosaic and Hollywood Faith) Both congegations embody self-consciously innovative/unconventional practices. One memorable line from a member of a church known as Mosaic: “I don’t go to church. I go to Mosaic.”

The other presentations explored the place of innovation in the broader Jewish community. This community is highly organized, with formal religious structures being only a part of the community itself. I was reminded of a story I have told many times over the years in talking about religion in New England and the powerful role once played by religious elites. One evening I gave a talk in a Unitarian Universalist congregation and was challenged by a retired pastor who though I had overstated the historical influence of Protestant churches. I challenged him back: “Tell me the name of the Catholic hospital in Hartford,” I asked. “St. Francis Hospital.” “How about the Jewish hospital?” “Mt. Sinai.” “And the Protestant hospital?” “Hartford Hospital.” “How about the social service organizations?” “Catholic Family Services, Jewish Family Services, Child and Family Services of Hartford.” Point made!

In many parts of the country the religious identification of nonprofit social institutions was simply assumed. Mainline Protestants who founded these institutions had no need to put their name on the institutions they created as they assumed the whole community to be their “parish.” This was not true for minority religious institutions in a city like Los Angeles, who created institutions to meet the unmet needs of their community.

Panelists helped us understand how the Jewish institutions of LA are changing and we looked at a number of cases. As in many cities, Jewish organizational life has centered on the local Jewish federation and that is still true in LA but younger organizations of younger Jews are challenging its hegemony. Panelist Shawn Landres of Jumpstart LA reported on 600 new Jewish organizational “startups” in Los Angeles now employing 3,000 paid professionals and spending $200 million per year.

The final panel explored “new trends in Jewish religious life,” including a fascinating study of Orthodox outreach (at least 4,000 Orthodox leaders working with non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S.) and an overview of the local Jewish population survey (more than half of young Jews with no formal Jewish affiliation.) I was very impressed by a presentation on the changing shape of Jewish religious and ethnic identification by Shaul Magid of Indiana University. With the “destabilization of peoplehood,” for most Jews Judaism is now only a part of their identity. “The structure of peoplehood is now ephemeral and fictive.” Judaism is now Judaisms.

That was a lot of ground to cover in just 24 hours and my head was reeling as the symposium came to an end. It had given me a lot to think about. I was struck by several things during my full day journey back to Cape Cod. First, it took guts to invite outsiders into the discussion at UCLA for a discussion of issues that are central to Judaism’s survival. For most of those present, the future of Judaism is of far more than passing interest. It’s an issue of survival and these were engaged scholars at their best. Second, I’m reminded that religious Americans and those who study them do most of their work in silos. We would know more about our own faith communities if we knew more about issues facing other faith communities. That’s as true within faith traditions as among them. Third, I wondered where similar discussions are taking place within my own religious community of choice: Mainline (substitute “liberal” or “progressive” or “ecumenical” if those adjectives are more to your taste) Protestantism. I fear that they are not, except as side conversations at gatherings focused on other topics. And that’s too bad.

Watch for my new essay on religious change in America in an upcoming issue of The Christian Century.