Pew, Contact, and ALEPH

I don’t know how many of you have read the latest edition of “Contact” with its theme of “Philanthropic Priorities in Light of Pew.” As the old hippie that I am and a survivor of the first STAR conference, I remain suspicious of both the mainstream programming and fund-raising arms of the Jewish community and generally don’t find this periodical of much interest. And, in some ways, this was true of this issue as well. But I was curious to see what this particular grouping of individuals would have to say, especially when I noticed the headline given to Sarah Seltzer’s piece, “We are so Jewish it’s ridiculous: Stop Worrying About Pew!”

As is also usual for me, I looked for references to God and spiritual practice in the articles. And, as usual, I was disappointed. Except for Hayim Herring’s article on Conservative Judaism, which I recommend as the best piece in the issue since he addresses the essence of Judaism itself and derives his programming suggestions from that essence.

Two quotes express my concerns best. The first is from Andres Spokoiny of the Jewish Funders Network. Under item seven, “Funding Ideological Innovation” he writes, “Yet I see few ideological innovations: new ways of understanding the Jewish people, God, society, and the human condition. Probably the last big ideological innovation dates back to Mordechai Kaplan in the early 20th Century…”

The second is from Jerome Chanes’ essay, “Orthodox ‘Retention’ and Kiruv.” He writes that the success of Orthodox outreach efforts may be better measured by whether those touched go on to become involved anywhere in Jewish life and not just by whether they stay Orthodox. Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee suggested to him that people touched by Orthodoxy may become involved in other Jewish movements “or they may try out a ‘congregation of renewal;’ such as New York’s Romemu.” Chanes continues, “Unfortunately, the Pew data have nothing to say about this hypothesis.”

If you didn’t get why the first quote caught my attention, I’m sure that this second one makes them both obvious. If the “legacy” organizations and structure are being challenged, then two things need to be considered. One is the extent to which people are in motion among them. This was made all the more obvious to me personally as I listened to two of Hanna Tiferet’s prayers included in the beautiful cd “Friday night at Central Synagogue in New York”. The second is whether there really are groups which have been exploring new ideological expressions of Judaism’s essence and, if there are (and of course we are!), then to what extent do prior beliefs interfere with recognizing them. Thus, Michael Steinhardt, who both funds this periodical and wrote its lead essay, extols secular Jewishness as the liberator of Jewish creativity and hence the catalyst for the increasing Jewish pride which the Pew survey notes. He holds this belief despite evidence to the contrary, such as the incredible release of artistic creativity of all kinds which is “normal” for us in Jewish Renewal.

I have long believed that the primary resistance to our movement of Jewish spiritual renewal is not about how counter-cultural we have been nor about our “statistical irrelevance” (which I think is not true when one looks for the relationships as Steven Bayme suggested). I think its roots are much more about the belief that we share with Chabad and others that in some way or another, being Jewish is entwined in a covenantal relationship with God (however one unpacks that word) which gives ordinary life extraordinary meaning.

If our Jewish Renewal is going to move with strength into the next generations, then helping the “legacy” community understand that we are providing the venue for precisely the things that many of them consider missing needs to be one of our higher priorities.