Innovation And Tradition: Finding The Middle Ground


An unfortunate local controversy involving the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and the former leadership of the Newberger Hillel at the University of Chicago has attracted widespread attention. Some of the commentary has cast the issue as setting a stodgy, anachronistic establishment up against creative, exciting innovation (“Are We Overly Invested In Bricks And Mortar?” Editor’s column, May 4). That formula is off the mark in this case, and it is a problematic way to look at communal dynamics in any event. 

Chicago’s federation is probably one of the most innovative institutions of its kind, with a long list of examples available to demonstrate that fact, especially in the areas of Jewish identity, community building and connection to Israel. Further, the federation has embraced the kinds of innovations that have been introduced at the Newberger Hillel while generously funding such breakthrough programs as Birthright Israel there and on other Illinois campuses.

These realities aside, it is important to stress that an either/or template that pits traditional institutions against innovative outsiders is a misleading oversimplification that leads to behavior detrimental to the well-being of the Jewish community.

To be an institution like a federation (or, let us say, a synagogue) does not necessarily mean being stuck in an old-fashioned, archaic framework. Institutions can and do change. In fact, if they do not change, they run the risk of becoming petrified and irrelevant.  However, while adaptation may be a virtue and often is a necessary trait for maintaining continued relevance, and while we may feel that we are living in a rapidly changing world (a condition felt by citizens of the industrialized West for at least the last 200 years), there is much of value to be retained in the structure, methods and agendas of institutions that have proved their importance and centrality over time. 

These are institutions that have helped individual Jews to lead meaningful lives enriched by the defining attributes of Jewish existence and to build strong communities rooted in Jewish values and the concept of Jewish peoplehood. Rather than weighing us down, such institutions have served as bulwarks against the vicissitudes of a changing, sometimes threatening world. While innovation and creativity are positive values in their own right, and while these days being a “change agent” is especially admired and encouraged, change merely for the sake of change is a questionable approach, calling to mind the old aphorism about throwing out the baby with the bath water.

And there is something else at stake in seeing Jewish institutional life via a zero sum lens, an approach that reflects and leads to the type of toxic thinking and rhetoric that is all too common in today’s national political discourse. It is a polarizing approach, an approach that says my way or the highway, that I am right and you are wrong, and that there is no middle ground. Such polarization is harmful to the well-being of the Jewish community. And in fact, such choices do not have to be made. The best approach — in both the short term and the long term — lies in avoiding the extremes and embracing an effective synthesis.

Not all institutions from the past remain vital, of course, and those that have failed to evolve and no longer serve contemporary needs are indeed likely to fade away. Similarly, to secure a meaningful future the community needs to embrace fresh voices and fresh ways of seeing and doing things. Creative steps, and the people who take and advance them, need to be encouraged and welcomed. 

But above all, we need to find ways to reconcile these two approaches, to let all flowers bloom. We need to support time-tested institutions that have sustained their ability to serve the community as well as new ways of doing things. We need to avoid automatically concluding that what has been around is bad and what is new is good — or vice versa. Instead, we need to find a way to merge what is good from the past with what is good in the present in order to ensure a strong and positive future for our community and our people.

Here in Chicago, as we work our way through current issues, leaders of this federation will continue to keep our eyes on the big picture, and we urge others in the national community to do so as well. And as thought leaders and commentators analyze these dynamics, let us hope that, instead of rooting for the survival of the most fashionable in a fight to the finish between the two poles of the organizational dialectic, they will demonstrate understanding of the need to move forward in a way that maintains a strong community — a community that is respectful of differences and alternative ways of doing things but at the same time is held together by a sense of a common past, common traditions, basic values and a shared destiny.

Michael Kotzin is senior counselor to the president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.