While acknowledging the challenges and disruptions roiling every aspect of American society, Rabbi Irwin Kula refuses to embrace a pessimistic outlook regarding the future of Jewish life in a fractured country.
Kula, copresident of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL), believes not only that synagogues and Jewish institutions can survive, but that those that do will emerge healthier and stronger than before.
Kula will be scholar-in-residence, presenting “Reimagining Judaism for the 21st Century” at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, Friday-Sunday, Nov. 22-24.
We are living in an era of “disruption,” when unprecedented change is reshaping every aspect of American life — from business to education to religion, Kula told NJJN in a phone interview from CLAL’s Manhattan offices. Because of the challenges of these days, he said, “the American-Jewish future will be one of multiple futures, where great synagogues with great legacies situate themselves to fit this moment of unprecedented change in America.”
In his talks at the temple, Kula said, he will envision those futures after focusing on the “disruption of American religious life and the challenges to those of us committed to flourishing American-Jewish life and Jewish communities.”
Those obstacles are not plaguing the Jewish community alone. “The trends that are happening in religion in general and in Judaism are the trends that are happening in America,” said Kula. “We are watching the deconsolidation, disaffiliation, and decentralization of American religion. The fastest-growing demographic in American religion is ‘none,’ and the fastest-growing demographic in Jewish life is ‘no affiliation.’”
Calling Kula “one of the foremost thinkers when it comes to substantively talking about the future of Judaism,” Anshe Emeth’s Rabbi Philip Bazeley said the scholar’s predictions reflect “a wave of insurmountable Darwinism” governing the Jewish landscape. The future, he said, will see many synagogues forced to close because “they will not adapt to modernity the way their communities are looking for.”
“Affiliation trends have changed as people move and migrate all over the country and think differently about how to be a Jew in the 21st century,” said Bazeley.
He pointed to such adaptation as the key to his own synagogue’s stability and growth. The 160-year-old Reform congregation has remained a thriving institution in New Brunswick with more than 500 member families, even though the city’s Jewish population left in large part about 50 years ago.
“Instead of following the Jews out of New Brunswick we made an important decision to become a synagogue of purpose rather than a synagogue of convenience,” he said. That involved social action programs benefitting the city’s needy and challenged populations and struggling public school students, as well as increasing Jewish educational and cultural programs.
As a result, Bazeley said, Anshe Emeth continues to grow, drawing members from 45 different communities willing to drive long distances to attend programs and services. “We see reinvention as part of what it means to be Jewish and integrated into our community,” he said.
Kula described Anshe Emeth as an example of “a very healthy legacy institution” that has a “profoundly interesting role to play” in the Jewish future.
He said it was unclear what those “emergent” Jewish futures will look like.
“This is an opportunity to think of the future as an experiment,” said Kula. “I call it ‘Synagogue 3.0,’ sort of the next iteration of synagogues that are vibrant and vital places where people flourish.”
Kula predicted that in the coming years, a third of all current synagogues will have either merged with other synagogues or just disappeared, a trend playing out among all religions. “Ten thousand churches closed last year in America,” said Kula, an annual statistic that has held steady for the last 10 years.
Society has adapted to change before, he said, but “change at this level changes everything else, and the pace of change and depth of change feels qualitatively different than at any other period.”
“Managing and leveraging these changes to build the next wave of Jewish communities is how we will flourish.”
If you go
Who: Rabbi Irwin Kula, The National Jewish Center for Learning
and Leadership (CLAL)
What: “Reimagining Judaism for the 21st Century,” the Syril and
Dr. Norman Syril Reitman Scholar-in-Residency
Where: Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, New Brunswick
When: Friday-Sunday, Nov. 22-24
Friday, 8 p.m. — Jewish Beyond the Tribe: Jewish as a Global Wisdom
Saturday, 9:30 a.m. — Mitzvot as a Technology of Human Flourishing;
12:30 p.m., Lunch and Study: Time for a New God
Sunday, 10:30 a.m. — Israel and Us: Beyond Polarization
Contact: 732-545-6484; firstname.lastname@example.org