American Jews are being urged to host their fellow Jews for Shabbat meals, organize study groups and form havurot.
These efforts at spreading Jewish identity and helping “other Jews grow in their Jewishness” are among the recommendations contained in a 36-page draft report of the North American Commission on Jewish Identity and Continuity.
The draft was presented at a meeting of the commission on Nov. 16 in Denver at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations.
The 88-member commission brought together leaders from all walks of Jewish life – federations and synagogues, seminaries and national Jewish organizations, rabbis and academics – to map out new directions as the American Jewish community shifts focus from rescuing endangered Jews abroad to strengthening Jewish life at home.
The draft, reflecting a year’s discussion of the commission and four constituent working groups, described Jewish identity as “the bedrock of Jewish continuity.”
It said the community’s goal “must be to make Jewish identity more central; and meaningful more Jews, not just for the sake of the community’s future, but because of Judaism’s life-enriching power.”
But the report did not define Jewish identity.
Discussing the draft at the recent commission meeting, Rabbi David Elcott said it was “disturbing” that the commission came up with neither a description of what a Jewish identity entails, nor the building blocks for creating one.
“If the report was talking about enhancing health, we would expect recommendations, such as `don’t smoke, exercise,’ etc.” said Elcott, academic vice president at CLAL: The National Jewish Center For Learning and Leadership.
It is likely that such recommendations will make their way into a final version of the report, which the commission hopes to present early next year.
Proposals range from the abstract, such as calls for greater cooperation between institutions, to the more concrete, such as suggestions that communities make a concerted effort to keep teens involved in Jewish life after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebrations.
As an amalgam of reports from the four separate working groups, the report contains some inconsistencies.
While one group was urging that the high school, college and young-family years be seen as the prime focus of new efforts, the working group on “reaching and involving Jews outside the intensely affiliated core” zeroed in on young people out of college and not yet married.
Which should be the priority?
“That’s a real issue,” said Jonathan Woocher, executive vice president of the Jewish Education Service of North America, who compiled the report. “it will be resolved not by a commission, but community by community, institution by institution. For any national commission to come out and say, `here is the rank order of priorities’ would be counterproductive.”
In one of its strongest messages of how money should or should not be sent, the draft report insists that Jewish identity must be built through both ongoing “formative” experiences, such as family life, Jewish schooling and summer camps, and through “transformative” experiences such as Israel trips.
“We see a tendency in continuity to value transformative over formative, to put the big bucks on the singular experiences,” said Joseph Reimer, director of the Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service at Brandeis University, summarizing the report of the working group he helped lead.
“We’re pleading with planners of Jewish continuity to find the right balance between formative and transformative. The formative takes that moment of high intensity and turns it into a regularized part of our Jewish life,” Reimer said.
In its introduction, the report cites several broad requirements for advancing the Jewish continuity agenda.
They include: “Vigorous advocacy to make and maintain Jewish identity-and community-building as priority concerns.” “Basic research and ongoing program evaluation” to learn what is effective in enhancing Jewish identity. “Sharing knowledge and resources more effectively.” “Focusing more intently on the needs and growth paths of individual Jews, rather than on institutional needs and accustomed ways of doing business.”
Whatever effect the report may eventually have, the unusual grouping of religious and communal leaders in one commission has already yielded some positive results, according to participants.
Rabbi David Teutsch, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, has begun talking with a federation director about placing rabbinical students with an interest in community organizing and outreach with the federation as interns.
“Such ideas have become much more acceptable as a result of the attention this issue has gotten,” said Teutsch.
“One of the things this means is places like RRC purposely training rabbis who will serve far beyond the boundaries of the Reconstructionist movement, and entering partnerships with institutions far beyond those boundaries,” he added.
And the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism is taking seriously the discussions about keeping teens involved in Jewish life.
“I’ve learned from the commission that this is an important time in people’s lives that we’re not capturing enough,” said United Synagogue Executive Vice President Rabbi Jerome Epstein, who serves on the commission.
“We’re going into a new venture to try to bridge formal and informal education, particularly around the Bar Mitzvah area of time,” he said.
One thing that commission members are clear about is that “we are not presenting a cure-all,” in the words of Ronne Hess, a CJF board member from Birmingham, Ala.
“This is not a problem which you solve,” said Woocher. “It’s not as if you can work three years, stop intermarriage and turn your attention to other issues. This is part of the fabric of a mature Jewish community in an open American society.”
The draft report presented last month is the first product of the national commission, which was announced in November 1992, but took nearly a year to convene its first meeting.
The commission was convened by CJF, which assigned two senior staff members to work with the commission. Most of the staff work for the commission was undertaken by Woocher Of JESNA, which is located in CJF’s offices.
But CJF insisted that it did not “own” the commission, which instead belongs to the entire community.
Half in and half out, CJF was criticized by some commissioners as dominating the panel, and by others for not taking an active enough role.
CJF is now considering starting its own implementation committee to begin acting on the commission’s recommendations. Like the commission, the new body would also include representatives of the synagogue movements.
Mean while, the national effort is being mirrored on the local level by more than 40 federations, which have launched similar local committees to plan continuity and identity initiatives.
“In every community in North America there’s action taking place,” said CJF Executive Vice President Martin Kraar.
“Some is good action, some I think is flawed, and we need some national activity so we don’t invest our energy and dollars doing the wrong thing. We have federations going in a variety of directions, and CJF has not addressed the effort except to do some networking of heads of local continuity commissions,” he said.
Where the commission itself goes from here has not yet been determined. Commission members agree that even when their draft report is polished up, there is plenty of work to be done.
But already, one chair of the commission – former CJF President Shoshana Cardin – has announced her resignation, citing other responsibilities, and the other, former UJA national chairman Marvin Lender, is nearing the end of his two-year commitment to the post. A new chair is expected to be announced in a few weeks, according to Woocher.
Lender is bringing together a subset of the commission to discuss future directions for the commission.
“It could be monitoring implementation, continuing as a think tank – there are a variety of possibilities,” said Woocher.