As I speak with Jewish community professionals, rabbis, and leaders from across the country, and as I consider what lies ahead in 5778, I believe the biggest challenge before us is the most basic one: How can we make the case for the importance of community itself, specifically the value of being part of the Jewish community?
Ultimately, that is what the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey is all about. We build community and encourage as many Jews as possible to find their connection to the Jewish world. Our focus is on strengthening, protecting, and enriching our local and extended Jewish family.
To that end, I’d like to share with you what I believe are four key components to ensuring the well-being of the Jewish community. If we are to build on what we have already accomplished and ensure our future, we need to address these core issues:
At its most basic level, the Jewish community is an extended family — and family looks out for one another. They take care of family members in need, celebrate accomplishments, and offer support when someone is struggling. That said, not everyone seems to realize that we are a family, which presents challenges, but also opportunity.
The problem is that the needs of the Jewish community are growing. Our population is aging and, geographically speaking, we are more spread out than at any point in our history. The number of people with special needs is growing, and as society’s social fabric frays, the capacity of our Jewish social service system to help is particularly strained.
But here lies the opportunity: By being there for people when they are in need and helping the most vulnerable within our family, we showcase the power of unity and make the case for why it’s worth being part of the Jewish community.
We’re all too aware that we are living in an era of crisis after crisis. From natural disasters, like Tropical Storm Harvey and Hurricane Irma, to the violence in Charlottesville and concerns about anti-Semitism, from threats to Israel to divisions in the Israel-Diaspora relationship, responding to these crises has become something of a new normal. Our strength as a community depends on how well we prepare for these incidents and how we react when they occur.
Like the year that was, 5778 will bring its share of difficulties, and for us to confront them we need, first, to recognize and reinforce who we are and what we stand for.
Second, we must keep our eyes on the prize and maintain a focus on the core work needed to strengthen our community. In other words, we have to shut out the noise that distracts us from that goal.
Lastly, remember what it is that binds us together, while recognizing the integrity of our differences. We are no longer a monolithic community. We need to show respect for other backgrounds and perspectives, while remembering that our whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
One of our greatest challenges is that, increasingly, so many of us don’t have the same connection to Jewish life or the Jewish people as our parents and grandparents. It’s not that, in my opinion, most of those who fall in this category have made a conscious choice, or that they are not interested; rather, they haven’t found a compelling reason to opt-in. As my mentor once said: “Today, being Jewish is an option and not a condition.”
Those of us who are connected have already drunk the Kool-aid; we’re a part of the choir, and what the Jewish community currently has to offer works for us (mostly). But for many others, it does not. They simply are not buying what we are selling. We can continue trying to sell the same product, maybe repackaging it with glitzy marketing that gets a bump in interest — but unless we develop persuasive entry points and different models for how to engage Jewishly or have meaningful Jewish experiences, we will lose large segments of our community.
For community to grow, it needs to evolve. That means Jewish organizations and leaders need to look at themselves differently and try to balance the values that we hold dear — and that make us who we are — with the changing needs of our constituents. In the age of social media and emojis that replace human interaction, we need to establish mechanisms for people to foster meaningful relationships and make personal connections.
Ultimately, enabling and empowering community requires individuals to step up and demonstrate leadership, while making a commitment to supporting and engaging others. The work of a community is not sustainable without those of us willing to take time out of our busy schedules, get our hands dirty, and, of course, open their wallets.
But commitment is a two-way street. It is not just about what an individual receives, but what that individual can give back. We, as a community, need to get better both in appreciating the efforts of those who donate time or resources, but also encouraging others to do so in healthy ways. And we all need to recognize that giving and receiving go together.
The challenges of building and sustaining community today are not unique to the Jewish community. Faith-based communities and membership organizations are struggling across the country. At the same time, our society is seeing a crisis of values and meaning — whose impact can be seen in a variety ways, from the rise of extremism to increases in drug abuse. The diminishment of meaningful communities is a contributing factor, but it also points to a potential solution and a path to a better future.
Community serves a vital role in society, and also a vital role in peoples’ lives. Looking ahead to the new year, the key challenge we face is how to reinvigorate and refashion community. People want to be a part of movements that offer meaning and value beyond themselves; they want to belong to and believe in something greater.
And that’s something our community can offer.