ImagInIng the JewIsh Future
religious movement looks to its
seminary for ideas: for ideas to
inform, for ideas to inspire,
for thought-leadership to help guide
action in the trenches, on the ground.
And this symposium is a realization of
that ideal in practice. We’re going to be
looking today at the relationship between
ideas and actions, between beliefs and
behaviors, between meanings and actions.
I want you to consider two different
models. One is a very contemporary
model that I’m certain you will be
familiar with and that is very much
present in popular Jewish conversation.
The other is a more traditional model
that is not as well-known but that
actually has a lot of grounding in
contemporary sociological thinking.
You will see that my position on
this inclines to the traditional and
sociological more than the popular.
But what I want to do is raise the
question of how do ideas and meanings
relate to each other, and what does that
relationship mean for the ways that
leaders think about dealing with the
challenge of Jewish engagement?
Model one, with which I assume you
are familiar:
You have heard it said that “‘We’re all
Jews by choice,’ and that because we
are all Jews by choice, in a moment
when everyone is free to choose or
not to choose Jewishly, we need to
answer the question, ‘Why be Jewish?’
We need to answer that question for
ourselves and we need to answer that
question so that we can engage other
people. If we don’t know why this
matters to us, how are we going to be
able to present to others compelling
reasons for why they should be engaged
This notion that to deal with the
challenge of Jewish engagement we
need to answer the question of ‘Why
be Jewish’ is something that comes up
periodically, usually after we have a
demographic survey and people tear
their hair out about the prospects for
American Jewry.
This notion certainly was alive
and well a few years after the 1990
National Jewish Population Survey,
when President Panken and I were
in a hotel conference center on Cape
Cod as part of the Wexner Graduate
Fellowship, a leadership development
program. We were both new graduate
students sitting in the circle with other
rabbinical students, Ph.D. students,
cantorial students, and students
of Jewish education and Jewish
communal service.
Leading the discussion were Jonathan
Woocher, a sociologist and educator,
and Jonathan Sarna, the scholar of
American Jewry, who today we wish
refuah shelemah
complete recovery.
We were debating the question: Do
we need to answer this question of
Why be Jewish’ in order to actually
go out and do the work as Jewish
leaders that we want to do and need
to do? How important is this?
The room was diverse denominationally
and politically, and there were a lot
of different perspectives on this. But
even after the 1990 Population Survey,
many shared this notion that we have
an assimilating community and in
order to engage the unengaged, Jewish
leaders must understand ‘Why be
Jewish?’ They have to crack that nut.
They have to answer that question.
Around the same time, David Harris,
head of the American Jewish Committee,
wrote about an apocryphal story of a
Shaul Kelner, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Sociology and Jewish Studies, Vanderbilt University
watch thE vIdEO: