Hoping for change Discontinuity might bring better results

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It is, someone once said, the definition of insanity.

Doing the same thing over and over, and yet expecting, each time, a different result.

Everyone knows what the problems facing the Jewish community are. The insane thing is that, as a community, we keep doing the same things and expecting a different result.

What we need, instead, is to try new things, to do things in a different way.

The president of Brandeis University, Jehuda Reinharz, put his finger on it a couple of years ago as he watched the Jewish organizational world get itself in a lather about Jewish continuity.

Having discovered how high the rate of intermarriage was and how low Jewish identity was, the organizational world — as always — threw a slogan at the problem, appointed task forces and repeated the mantra "continuity," figuring that would do the trick.

Of course, it did nothing. For what the Jewish world most needs, said Reinharz, is anything but continuity.

What we need, he said, is discontinuity.

"We have to discontinue doing business as we have done. We cannot afford to repeat mistakes that have been made in the past: poor Hebrew schools, poor Jewish education in general, agencies whose responsibilities overlap, misuse of resources.

"The fact is, the whole history of Jewish continuity, from ancient times to the present, is actually a history of discontinuity. Whenever there has been a crisis in Jewish life, movements arose that were discontinuities. Chassidism, Zionism, Reform Judaism."

What we need today are "new initiatives in Jewish life that will change the face of Jewry, that will rejuvenate the Jewish community."

Well, I am very pleased to report that there are some out there who are doing things differently.

There is the National Jewish Outreach Program, which organized something called Shabbat Across America.

What Judaism has long needed is better marketing, and this was a case of marketing at its best.

There are those who find the notion of marketing Judaism offensive, even repulsive. "What are we supposed to do, sell Judaism like Coca-Cola?" they sneer.

Why not? Seems to me Coke gets its message across pretty well, and many seem to respond to that message.

We are living in a more wired world than ever. A world in which, from all sides, we are bombarded with messages, ever slicker, ever more enticing, ever more adept at hooking us.

The message of Judaism for Jews is incredibly powerful and meaningful, but it will only mean something, have an impact, if Jews, especially young Jews, tune into it.

We need to do all we can to make sure they do. We need to keep up with the times. So far, we haven't, but Shabbat Across America was a step in the right direction.

It promoted something positive — Shabbat — as opposed to the usual Jewish menu of anti-Semitism, the Arabs and "Will there be one Jewish people in the year 2020?"

It also sent the message that Shabbat is for all Jews and that each Jew should celebrate it in a way that is meaningful and comfortable for them.

And it spread the word through an attractive, engaging ad campaign that included Time magazine, radio stations and billboards. It used the media of the '90s to reach the Jews of the '90s with a message sophisticated enough for the '90s.

Equally important, it advertised, too, in Jewish newspapers, remembering the importance of spreading the word to Jews already inclined to respond.

Shabbat Across America did everything right and shows that we can do things differently, can win the battle for Jewish hearts and minds in this MTV age.

Thankfully, there are other welcome developments in the effort to increase Jewish discontinuity.

The first came amid the conversion controversy in Israel. Amazingly, all sides pulled back at the very last minute, with Bibi Netanyahu's government agreeing not to immediately pass a bill that would ban Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel and which liberal movement leaders said would pull the Jewish world apart.

Instead, all sides agreed to discuss a compromise.

As Bibi's adviser on diaspora affairs, Bobby Brown, put it: "We've begun a period during which Jews will be speaking to Jews. That has been one of the greatest victories."

Another encouraging development came with the announcement that the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations are ready to begin a joint operating partnership.

What makes this more than bureaucratic chair-shuffling is the way the two have framed what they are doing.

"UJA and CJF, in a spirit of shared history and tradition, and in recognition of a powerful, common responsibility to Jewish communities and to the principles of God, Torah and Israel, wish to create a more effective, efficient and aggressive new national structure."

What's significant about those words, what's encouraging about those words, what's new about those words, is the "principles of God, Torah and Israel" part.

For too much of the post-war period, our national organizations have behaved as if they were the United Way or the Red Cross. Doing good, offering help to those in need.

All fine and to be commended. But missing was the Jewish component, the values that define us, that shape us.

God, Torah and Israel. Without them, we are nothing.

Another positive thing to happen of late was a show of real guts by a Jewish leader.

Her name is Marlene Post, national president of Hadassah. She recently did something I couldn't believe.

While attending some innocuous ceremony with Bibi, she had the guts to hand him a statement urging him to do something to encourage Jewish unity, in a manner that pulled no punches.

"I am impelled to use this occasion to convey our distress and dismay over the shocking disintegration of the unity of the Jewish people that we are now witnessing in Israel," she wrote.

She harshly criticized Bibi's role in allowing the conversion bill to get this far, noting that, if passed, it would "virtually devastate a majority of diaspora Jews."

"Mr. Prime Minister, we know that you share our shock at the spectacle of Jews hurling stones at other Jews, at Knesset members cursing and ridiculing diaspora Jewish leaders. It must stop. There is no room for this anti-Jewish behavior, and you are in a position to end it."

Good for you, Marlene. Good for all of us. Jewish discontinuity. The more the better.