Challenging Our Past to Ensure Our Future
Allan Finkelstein is President and CEO of the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America. Allan can be reached at JCCAL@jcca.org.
At the end of Ha’azinu, this week’s Torah portion, Moses comes down from the mountain and concludes his instructions to the Israelites and says,” Take to your heart all the words that I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching. For this is not a trifling thing for you; it is your very life; through it you shall long endure on the land that you are to possess upon crossing the Jordan (Deut. 32:46,47).
The past year has brought not only unprecedented challenges to all of us, but also an incredible opportunity to think differently about how to accomplish what is best for the Jewish people. This is no trifling thing; the decisions we make today will determine what kind of Jewish life our children and grandchildren will inherit. The question is: how to best seize this moment . One thing is certain: things cannot continue as they were.
The American Jewish community is right to be proud of the institutions it has created over the past 100 years. Yet, those institutions were built in a time and a place that no longer exists, without enough consideration for our ultimate ability to sustain them. Gradually, phrases like “institutional survival” and “primacy” replaced mission, substance, and content in our discourse. And along the way, the very people we are supposed to help travel along their Jewish journey were left to deal with confusing and intimidating barriers to entry and engagement with Jewish life. Times have changed, though, and the model of independent, isolated institutional planning does not help the Jewish people. Philanthropic leaders have long encouraged us to collaborate, becoming impatient with our insistence on preserving “what was” without asking if there is a better way. I know there is.
Now is the time for us to come together to accomplish two things: to facilitate easier access and a greater sense of belonging, and to ensure the future stability of Jewish communal life. Today’s reality requires a pan-institutional approach to removing the barriers to an exciting engagement with Jewish life that have been erected over time. The unwritten “rules of engagement” can and should be set aside in favor of new, collaborative ways of inviting more people to discover, and fall in love, with Jewish living. In recent conversations with other community leaders, I have found a universal readiness to embrace a new paradigm of institutional collaboration that leverages creatively each of our unique assets while preserving individual institutional goals and ideologies.
Ha’azinu opens with the phrase, “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; let the earth hear the words I utter! (Deut. 32:1). Moses invokes the heavens and earth as a way of signifying that his message is for all time, and for all people. So, too, for us. The door to this new sense of community is open for all of us to walk through—synagogues, JCCs, Day Schools, Federations, and anyone who is passionate about Jewish life.