How to rebuild the American diaspora: Some suggestions to turn the tide

How to rebuild the American diaspora: Some suggestions to turn the tide

In my last op-ed (“Are the Holocaust and Israel enough?” January 31) I gave my opinion that I do not believe we can succeed in building a Jewish future in America based on the Holocaust and Israel.

For better or worse, these once central foci of American Jewish life are no longer significant enough in the lives of the average American Jew to connect them to Jewish community and to convince them to live a life of Jewish practice and values. While I accept that there are serious warning signs of the breakdown of the American diaspora, there also are important things being done in the Jewish community that are succeeding in reclaiming Jews for the American Jewish future.

Here are some of them:

Synagogue renewal

Successful synagogues have found that their key to renewal is articulating a high-minded set of missions, called “congregational covenants,” that members can help realize. These synagogues ask members for service and community participation and de-emphasize dues, which usually are scheduled automatically according to marital status, family size, age, and profession.

These new synagogues emphasize tefillot (prayer services) that are based on active membership participation. They use a liturgy that emphasizes communal singing that expresses yearning and joy, lifts the spirit, and allows worshippers to feel their own souls and the souls of fellow congregants. Children are not annoyances, and the service is neither a show nor overly decorous. But it is moving.

The best known synagogues providing this kind of prayer setting are Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (unaffiliated Conservative) and Central Synagogue (Reform) in Manhattan, but closer to home there is Minyan Kolenu at Congregation Beth Sholom (Conservative), which meets on Shabbat morning, and Congregation Rinat Yisrael (Orthodox) on Friday night. Both are in Teaneck. I would be happy to hear about tefillah settings of this sort in other local communities, and to let Jewish spiritual seekers in our communities know about them.

These synagogues bring their communities together often over Friday night meals or Shabbat lunches. They accept as members those who are ready to sign on to the congregational covenant’s requirements – involvement in worship, Jewish study, and social justice projects that take the effort of the whole congregation. Further, these visionary synagogues do not limit their mission to their buildings. If the Jewish singles and couples are not in shul, they reach out to them by establishing satellites in their neighborhoods, and even a Friday night “happy hour” rabbinate that encounters singles in clubs and bars. More often than you would think, the bar is traded for a Shabbat Across America program sponsored by the National Jewish Outreach Program.

Many Hillel houses have undergone major paradigm changes. Often their work is influenced and augmented by Chabad houses on campus. Among the most successful of these are the Harvard and Columbia Hillels, which have fostered respectful klal Yisrael attitudes among students and meaningful Jewish educational and religious experiences for their college populations. Locally, New Jersey Rutgers’ Center for Jewish Life and Chabad offer incredibly varied menus of activities – google these organizations to see what they offer. You will find out that Rutgers has Friday night dinners for 500 students and communal activities that can keep them Jewishly involved in a multitude of ways, 24/7.

Education by all means

The most success in reconstructing a strong diaspora comes through the delivery of Jewish learning to our young and old. In this endeavor, packaging, professionalism, and publicity is everything.

So here is a word in praise of “chulent and chat” and “tot Shabbat” programs. The Teaneck Jewish Center ran a regular “chulent and chat” program. The draw initially may have been the chulent, but the chat became a vehicle for Jewish learning, understanding, and transformation. Chabad of the Palisades in Tenafly follows a similar format after davening, and attendance is large.

Synagogue- and JCC-based tot Shabbat programs provide Shabbat experiences for very young Jewish children, usually from about 2 1/2 to 5 years old. As with the chulent, the draw is parents’ desire to give their children joyous and fun experiences without necessarily seeing themselves as a target group as well. But the programs are educational forums for parents as much as they are fun and good Jewish experiences for their children. Synagogues should run such programs, and widely publicize invitations to all young builders of Jewish homes and their children, whether or not they are synagogue members. A caring community that helps them try to fulfill their spiritual aspirations is what brings people into synagogue membership today. That is what synagogues have done traditionally, and that tradition must be reclaimed for a synagogue to survive.

Thoughtful and well-planned adult educational endeavors have successfully found the most committed, articulate, and thoughtful teachers to share their experience of a value-oriented, spiritually deep, and meaningful Jewish way of life. These teachers work in Melton and Context adult education courses throughout the country. Though the students in these programs tend to be middle age or older, the impact on the Jewish future that Jewishly committed, educated, and transformed people can have on their children and grandchildren cannot be dismissed. People who have studied in these programs, who never have found meaning in typical Jewish institutions, have sought out the new synagogues I have mentioned about and have become dedicated and active members. More importantly, they have brought family members and friends along with them on their Jewish journeys.

Let us not discount Jews who are non-believers. Many have serious secular commitments to the hot button issues of our day but are not attracted to religion. Judaism, which is not strictly speaking a religion, has something for them. They can alleviate human suffering actively, both here and abroad, through programs sponsored by such organizations as American Jewish World Service. They can lobby politically for the poor and disenfranchised through such social action groups as Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center and Orthodoxy’s Uri L’zedek. They can put ecological ethics into practice by joining forces with Hazon, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, or Kanfei Nesharim.

These organizations and others like them seek volunteers for foreign and local literacy and anti-poverty programs, for political lobbying for just legislation, and for eco-camping experiences whose purpose is to improve our fragile environment. These institutionalized tikkun olam programs usually link sacred acts of aid and justice to the Jewish texts and traditions that inform them, and participants will tell you how these programs changed their perception of Judaism.

Technology and social media

It is amazing how much Jewish information there is online today. Such websites as “My Jewish Learning” and “The Virtual Jewish Library,” information about holy day and other Jewish observances (for example, google Purim), Jewish news, Jewish music, and every classical Jewish text with English commentaries all are online. There is an immense amount of Jewish content on Facebook and Twitter. It is time to create a cadre of Jewish techies who can help us think of ways that we can use these new technologies more effectively to rebuild and strengthen our American Jewish community.

To give just one example: If you google “Bible” you will not find Jewish perspectives on the Bible immediately. If you try “Bible commentaries” you get Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical information. With some search engine optimization – that’s the technology that puts subjects higher on the list of google’s offerings – “Bible” or “Bible commentaries” might result in “Jewish Bible TaNaKh” or “Bible with Jewish Commentary” popping up early on.

Technology is the avant-garde of imagination. We can use that imagination to create an American diaspora of significance. Now, we need some committed Jewish students and adults with technological skills to help us think of the ways we can use the social media more effectively to get the Jewish message out. They don’t even have to meet in the same locale – that is what Skype and Facetime are for.

If Facebook can support revolutions and strengthen Arab springs, then it can transfigure the American Jewish experience as well.

Jewish Unity

If there is to be a diaspora renaissance, only the concerted effort of committed Jews will make it happen.

One institution that has been the major unifier in the Jewish community is the federation system. Whatever its faults are, trying to unify Jews for useful purposes is not one of them. In Bergen County, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey developed a program called Synagogue Leadership Initiative, which brings lay leaders, rabbis, educators, and synagogue professionals from every denomination together to re-envision the synagogue. This is a work in progress, but a good first step. We should, however, challenge our federation to take this initiative further by forming an interdenominational and post-denominational volunteer committee that has as its mission creating concrete programming dedicated to preserving our local diaspora.

The federation is uniquely positioned to bring together such a practically oriented think tank and to help it realize its goals. It therefore should feel a sense of mitzvah to do so.


Israel, at least for now, is not American Jewry’s poor, powerless sibling. It has a robust economy and a strong army. Those of us committed to Israel’s welfare and security should certainly take its cause to those centers of power that can secure its future. Israeli educators and cultural and governmental representatives, however, have openly said that Israel can take care of itself, and that we should be looking to the health of our own Jewish households. Let us take these thinkers, educators, and politicians seriously, and reconsider how we disburse our resources between here and there.

My plea for a strong American diaspora is not an American Jewry vs. Israel polemic. Rather, I see a reconstruction of an American Babylonia as the key to a renewed recognition of the significant place Israel plays in Jewish identity and the enrichment of our diaspora Jewish culture. But Israel alone can no longer sustain American Jewish identity, and American Jewry must define who it is for it to flourish.