Local leaders make predictions, wishes for next century

What's in store for the Jewish community in the 21st century?

Several Bay Area Jewish leaders speculated on what Jews can expect to see. Among them were Gary Tobin, director of the S.F.-based Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University; Nimrod Barkan, Israel's S.F.-based consul general for the Pacific Northwest; Professor Steven Zipperstein, director of Stanford's Jewish studies program; Rabbi Alan Lew of S.F.'s Congregation Beth Sholom and head of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California; and Robert Sherman, executive director of the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education.

At the heart of the community, Lew said synagogues are in for a change, and they'll become "leaner and meaner."

Though some congregations may shrink in membership, Lew isn't worried. In past years, he said, many "grew to a size where it was absolutely impossible to have a sense of spiritual community anymore.

"I also think they're going to become a much more significant force in Jewish life. People are going to be turning more and more to the synagogues to express their Jewishness."

Realization is dawning that "what's really important about Judaism is Jewish spirituality," said Lew. So in the years ahead, "those synagogues that survive will be those that learn to re-tool themselves for the 21st century and learn to address spiritual needs more directly."

In Lew's opinion, "Jewish ritual needs to be overhauled inside and out…We need to get away from the `frontal' religious services where people passively watch someone else perform."

Maintaining that Jews must "see synagogues more clearly as a place where spiritual healing takes place," Lew added that while change is already under way, the process will be gradual.

"It's very, very important that Jewish people rediscover the very powerful spirituality of the Jewish religion."

In the last 100 years, most American Jews have focused on external issues: Such emphasis on the Holocaust and preoccupation with the state of Israel was totally legitimate, Lew said.

"But it became too much, to the exclusion of developing Jewish spirituality," he said, adding that he hopes Jews will "rediscover the joy of traditional Jewish observance" — Shabbat, for instance, and daily prayer.

"That's the part that's been lost, that's what people have been thirsting for."

A "period of tremendous transition in Jewish life" is imminent, Lew said. Synagogues will offer more — instead of one large Saturday-morning service, for instance, there might be half a dozen minyans going on at once. There might be daily services instead of weekly ones, and more holiday services.

Synagogues are overdue for internal revamping, with small, more effective, more hands-on directorial boards. Rabbis' roles, too, could change.

Though today is "a very rich time to be a rabbi," Lew said, "it's a difficult time."

The problem is burnout. "Rabbis are being worked to death," he said. Historically, rabbis served as legal scholars and teachers. Now they must also be counselors, community organizers, administrators, social justice advocates, public relations experts and more. Rabbis work "around the clock. It's got to change, or otherwise the rabbinate is going to break in two…Every year, the most talented in the field just drop out."

Given a certain amount of change, the future looks good, Lew noted. Synagogues will not merely survive; they will become "the pre-eminent institution in Jewish life. We saw the future without Jewish synagogues, and it scared us to death!"

Demographer Tobin believes "there is no such thing as demographic determinism." Using past events or trends to predict future events or trends is practically impossible, he said, citing the Holocaust and the birth of the state of Israel as examples of events that could not have been predicted 100 years in advance.

Instead Tobin used a different perspective to predict the future. "Judaism," he said, "is largely a function of what we do. If we continue to deal with issues of assimilation the way we deal with them now, I suspect the population of Jews will slowly shrink." That's not to say Judaism will cease to exist, Tobin said, noting that "we are one of the oldest surviving groups in the world.

"But the question is whether or not we're going to be growing, vibrant and alive and to what extent. The community needs many more creative ways of dealing with high levels of integration and success."

Scorning interfaith marriages, emphasizing tradition and trying to preserve some amorphous Jewish "identity"probably won't do the job, according to Tobin. "I don't think any of that makes any sense anymore."

He recommended a much more aggressive strategy: Judaism must compete "in the marketplace of American religion. Judaism has a tremendous amount to offer and it needs to be a prominent religion in America, where people choose to be Jews. I think there needs to be a religious revival in America of Judaism. Numbers matter. The way people become Jews has got to be different 50 years from now!"

Tobin's suggestions include "open and aggressive promotion" of Judaism — through the media, conversion centers and a "clear-cut set of initiation rituals and rites so that people can become Jews. Otherwise, he cautioned, "if we sit back and wait for the doom to engulf us as if we were helpless," it will be a "self-fulfilling prophecy."

Israeli Consul General Barkan maintained that peace plays a key role in the community's future.

"The alliance between Israel and the United States is clearly a major pillar of Israeli security," he said. Looking 20 to 25 years down the road, Barkan sees neither U.S. political forces that would shatter this alliance, nor "the rise of any global force" that would "try to compete with the United States in the Mideast."

He feels Arab countries will be unable to mount a significant challenge using conventional warfare in the next quarter-century.

Beyond that, however, the picture darkens.

Technological developments and cheaper methods of manufacturing weapons, coupled with "instability in some parts of the world," Barkan said, could enable "some dangerous forces to put their hands on means of developing warheads."

A peace treaty notwithstanding, "Arab hostility" will likely persist, he said, making the "Israel-United States alliance even more necessary" for Israel's security.

America will also need this Israeli alliance and the cooperation of other countries interested in long-lasting Mideast peace. America's dependence on fossil fuels and "interests in the oil-producing areas" will remain strong, Barkan predicted, as will its need to deter any Iraq-Iran conflicts.

"Israel will find itself in the same alliance, as the major threats become domestic and [issue] from countries like Iraq and Iran."

A number of other factors are problematic in the Mideast, he continued. A population growth rate that "threatens economic stability of a substantial number of countries in the area," as well as ecological troubles such as water shortage and pollution from sewage and automobile exhaust fumes must be addressed.

Israel faces its own pollution problems and an "overly dense population in the center," which must be dispersed northward and southward. But potentially the country could be a regional leader for progressive ecological change as well, he said.

Other internal issues facing Israel include "the growth of ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem" and "continued change in the nature of the population." Immigrants will continue to arrive and resettle, he added.

"The Russian immigrant will be integrated, I think, very nicely," while Ethiopian adjustment, Barkan noted, "will be more difficult."

Contemplating the coming century, Zipperstein said, "I would think that as we contemplate the future of Jewish life, the most pressing and real problem that might exist 100 years from now is the absence of recognizable Jewish problems.

"Of course problems will exist; they're part of life. But the…sense of very real vulnerability that we've felt as a people for so long…the various collective animosities [against us]…My suspicion is that probably the greatest challenge we face as Jews is to construct a Jewish life without these as the center."

Israel's future looks "far less vulnerable" than it did in the recent past, when it was under attack militarily and politically, Zipperstein suggested.

And while in the past Russian Jews were persecuted and denied exit, the future of these Jews also looks somewhat brighter, he added.

"Two great totems of Jewish identity, Israel and Soviet Jewry, have been transformed." As a result, "for American Jews a real challenge will be to construct a Jewish life that is animated by other priorities.

"The question is, `What will be the texture of Jewish life once [Israel and Soviet Jewry are] no longer our focus?'

"Can we be happy about being happy?" he asked, adding that he wondered whether Jews will be "comfortable in our comfort."

Offering no pat answers, Zipperstein reflected, "I suspect that over the next decades, we're going to find that as different as the lives of American Jews and Israeli Jews may be, the similarities between our preoccupations as Jews will loom larger and larger."

Robert Sherman, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education, San Francisco, said, "One of the things I see happening is that Jewish educational enterprise will begin to catch up with the advances in technology, and will probably as a result of that be more involved in distance learning opportunities."

With access to the Internet, Jews will be able to take educational courses from higher learning institutions across the country, Sherman said.

Belt-tightening, he added, will help effect another big change for the better.

"I really believe there will be a good deal more collaboration occurring among providers of information, because I don't think anyone's going to be able to marshal the resources individually. We're beginning to see some of that now." There will be a merging of efforts among synagogues, schools and other community Jewish educational institutions such as the Bureau, Sherman predicted.

Also, the educational focus will shift to older students. Baby boomers' teenage children — "and there are a lot of them" — will be going off to college. Aging boomers will have more time for adult education courses, and more disposable income to spend on educational-recreational trips. "I think that's going to be a major growth industry," Sherman said.

Another imminent difference will be "the growing realization that the goals of Jewish education can only be met through multiple experiences," including Israel travel, school, summer camp and family ritual.

"We will see an emphasis on the part of funders trying to create linkages, and helping to support that kind of thing."

Sherman is optimistic about the future of Jewish life. "We have a tendency to talk in very stark terms, to talk in terms of the `in' group and the `out' group, the `affiliated' and the `unaffiliated.' I think part of what's happening is that we have to learn how to change our mental models. I don't think our old mental models necessarily give the only picture of the way things are. I think we can find new and different kinds of things."

A Jew living in San Francisco might not belong to a synagogue, but might regularly attend the Jewish film festival and rent Jewish videotapes, for example. "Is that person affiliated or unaffiliated?" Sherman mused. "Who are they?"

Jewish institutions and agencies "are going to look so different," said Sherman, contemplating the next century. Populations will change, he said. Funding will change.

"Everything changes around this, so even if you want to remain staid and stodgy, you can't."

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.