It happened at a congregational meeting of a conservative shul in Northeast Philly. I had recently become a Bat Mitzvah and my parents felt I was ready for the drama that can ensue at meetings like that. The purpose of the meeting? The Old Guard was intent on getting rid of the congregation’s young, vibrant Rabbi who had revitalized that dying (literally) congregation. Most of the meeting is a somewhat hazy memory – it was half my life ago – but one particular moment sticks out so vividly in my mind. An angry old man, in the heated debate, claimed no purpose for investing resources in the young families who had recently joined the synagogue; no need for the pied piper Rabbi; no need to bother with the young families, or supporting the religious school – why provide those kids with a Jewish education? They’ll just leave for the suburbs anyway…What’s the point?

I remember shaking with anger and frustration – feeling personally attacked – I stood and pointed at him, intending to tell everyone how important it is to invest in the next generation. All that came out of my mouth was a shaky “ That Man…”. I burst into tears. I’d never been so angry in my life. When I pulled myself together and went up to the podium to speak (after a rousing chorus of “We Can’t Hear You” from the peanut gallery) I found I had everyone’s attention – even a red-faced “That Man”. I told them, in the words of a 13 year old, that without a Jewish education, the next generation of the community won’t be able to raise Jewishly literate families, maintain a synagogue and surely won’t know how to say Kaddish when the time comes.

Well, they fired the Rabbi anyway. And when I was in high school, “That Man” apologized to me after High Holiday services. A few years later, the congregation sold the building my grandparents helped build and merged with a suburban synagogue that places an emphasis on congregational learning and has an active youth program. Who won? I think we all lost a little. But “That Man” has someone who says Kaddish for him.

For those I’ve encountered & disagreed with on this subject since that congregational meeting, I hope that I’ve changed their minds, altered their staid course or even just helped them to see their kids or grandkids in a different light. It’s always been my intention to create understanding and respect for the needs of the younger generation’s Jewish identity development/Jewish education. Unfortunately, people like “That Man” exist to this day and poison their institutional Judaism with negative feelings towards the ‘youngins’ and any innovation. They come in all shapes and sizes; some try to trick you into believing they’re on your side. Be wary. Because they could care less about you and everyone like you who strives to change the status quo, to create new models and innovate the Jewish world. They can sit there and say “What’s in it for us? Why bother?” and not see the butterfly effect those questions and attitudes create. Or they see it and just don’t care. Why bother? Because people like me have venues like this where we can express ourselves, verbalize our Jewish-ness & not have to watch what we say because “That Man” said so.

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  • Our congregation in Long Beach is going through that right now, perhaps with a bit more short term success. The temple board recently shifted towards youth and a willingness to change. We have a Rabbi who is very outreach, education, and experientially biased. He struggles with change that will attract younger families, and is making progress, even if he takes frequent personal criticism from those who resist his approach. Somehow we’ve also managed to invest in a dynamic Rabbi who is our Director of Education. She too understands how to connect to Jews in the modern world. As one of the leaders of the congregation’s executive board, I can attest to just how difficult a job it is to balance the future needs of the congregation against today’s issues (such as closing a significant budget deficit in a horrible economy.) Investing in the future is critically important. Bringing along those who built the congregation “50 years ago” and continue to fund a disproportionate percent of the budget is not only important strategically, but is the right thing to do.

  • I agree – but we have to see the human side of “that man” and others like him:

    – If they’re MOR Conservative or Reform, it’s likely that “Jewish continuity” is a messy reality – or sometimes breached – in their own families.

    – If they have kids who have returned to Orthodox/traditional practice, that brings with it other tensions – which are often writ large in the “revitalization” program planned for “their” shul/school.

    – Many of them are experiencing the self-doubt and loss that comes with aging – played out in the inevitable demographic ebb and flow of Jewish communities. Change and “handing over the reins” are perceived as a failure of the community and its institutions to provide strength and continuity – and pride to those who built them.

    Putting it all together:
    If they’re involved in these meetings, that means they were involved in building these institutions. It is “their shul” into which they poured themselves.

    And in the context of likely assimilation by at least some of their family – they “did the right thing” by affiliating and building, yet now can feel that they have nothing to show for it.

    If the change in the shul/school involves a move to more traditional approaches, that also can be taken as a veiled rebuff of their life’s choices.

    Lots of understandable, powerful feelings there.

  • it is diffcult for any Jewish institution to maintain the balance between current needs and future goals. however. synagogues, for example, weren’t created to meet only the needs of those currently involved. institutional Judaism exists to ensure the next generation. as there is purpose in attending services to fulfil spiritual needs, there is purpose in creating a legacy for the next generation of Jews. creating but not willing to hand down to the next generation is like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

  • Arielle:
    however. synagogues, for example, weren’t created to meet only the needs of those currently involved. Institutional Judaism exists to ensure the next generation.
    – – – – – – – –
    Many of these institutions already did that – at least, within the horizon of human lifespans. The “old timers” already accomplished the “next generation thing” – their kids have largely grown up in the institutions they supported. Now demographics, upward mobility, and rootless American culture has left many of the institutions without a constituency – and the stragglers without a community (= no legacy).

    I have been witness to some pretty self-centered, obnoxious behavior by the younger side of this equation – people unable to see beyond the needs of their own young families, while claiming they don’t have the time to contribute to the community. Unwilling to put in the work the old-timers did – they are basically scavengers of existing infrastructure.

    Often it’s accompanied by dismissive neo-Orthodox one-upmanship in religious matters.

    Lotta spite to go around when things don’t work out.

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