Jewish leadership in the 21st century
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Jewish leadership in the 21st century

Hartman Institute head Yehuda Kurtzer talks revolution, transformation in Closter

Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, left, and Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, left, and Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

 

 

What’s with Jewish leaders?

Certainly there are many Jews who are pleased with their congregational rabbis — who feel inspired, moved, challenged, instructed, and even led by them. And there are many others who feel that the heads of their own federations and other beloved Jewish nonprofits are absolutely all they should be.

But there is a sense that something is not quite right in the institutional Jewish world, that somehow the aging generation of leaders we have in place now is not making way for a new generation of leaders, who don’t actually seem to be there anyway.

The notorious October 2013 Pew Report, with its bad news for Jews, fed into that understanding, with its glum assessment of falling demographics.

So what’s going on?

Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, a Harvard-educated historian, will tackle that huge question during Shabbat next weekend at Temple Emanu-El of Closter.

The unsettling mood engulfing much of the American Jewish community when it considers its leadership is a result of the “massive transformation and revolution that we have been undergoing for the last 30 years in the Jewish community, some of which has been unacknowledged,” Dr. Kurtzer said.

Three interlocking transformations have affected us most, he said.

The first change is our understanding of ethnicity. It used to be easy — if you were Jewish, the chances were that you were white and of eastern European descent. “Now, through intermarriage and conversion, that is changing, particularly in Israel. Our core narrative — that we are one ethnic group — is much more challenged.”

The second change is “political,” Dr. Kurtzer continued. “There is no such thing as a Jewish consensus any more. I’m not sure if there ever really was — but now its lack is becoming ugly and public. It’s become very uncomfortable as we air our dirty laundry in public.

“I think it’s mostly related to the success of assimilation — our feeling that we made it work here. The less you feel yourself bound to a particular narrative of an oppressed minority, the more you see yourself comfortable in the public square. You spread out politically.

“The third is that the institutional makeup of the Jewish community in the 20th century no longer seems to serve the Jews of the 21st. The role of the federation still can be strong, but it is no longer seen as a tax that is owed by all Jews. Synagogues are challenged completely differently than they used to be, and all the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations no longer have membership bases that they can take for granted.

“All of these phenomena are forcing us to ask what would be the institutional makeup that the Jewish community of the 21st century actually would need.”

At an even more basic level, Dr. Kurtzer suggests that we take advantage of the transformational changes all around to rethink our basic organizational assumptions. “We talk about the manifestations of the revolution around us by talking about how the numbers of Jews or their affiliations are changing,” he said. “I want us to think about living through a revolution like this. How do we think differently about Jewish leadership and collective identity?”

There surely must have been changes like those at work in the Jewish community now, Dr. Kurtzer said, “but the reason that this feels so intense is because in the 20th century we got used to revolutionary changes coming from massive geopolitical events like the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel.”

Dr. Kurtzer’s doctorate is in ancient Jewish history, and he has written about the early diaspora and its Jews’ relationship to the land of Israel, and “I think about the parallels between then and now, but since I came to Hartman I have been engaged more broadly in big moral Jewish questions,” he said.

The Shalom Hartman Institute’s work “relates to the meaning of the state of Israel,” he said. “We do a lot of work around some of the things I’ve been talking about — Jewish peoplehood, collective identity, and also about faith and spirituality. That figures into our curriculum as well.”

His Shabbat residency in Closter is a result of Dr. Kurtzer’s friendship with the shul’s senior rabbi, David-Seth Kirshner, who completed the Hartman Rabbinic Leadership Institute, a three-year program that many participants find transformational.

Transformation, in fact, seems to be Hartman’s stock in trade.

Who: Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America

What: Will be scholar in residence

When: On Friday, January 22, at Kabbalat Shabbat services at 7 p.m., and on Saturday, January 23, at services beginning at 9

Where: At Temple Emanu-El of Closter, 180 Piermont Road

Why: To talk about “21st Century Judaism: Leadership and Change in Jewish Life.”

How: Made possible in part by Dr. Mark and Eva Horn, shul members interested in creating fertile ground for tomorrow’s leaders.

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