The Column | The tribe is dead, long live the tribe

It’s Passover week, the time when Jews retell our foundational story about how we, a tribe of Israelites, moved from slavery in Egypt to freedom in our own land. It’s a very particular story; it defines who we are. We’re MOTs, members of the tribe.

Now along comes Rabbi Sidney Schwarz to tell us that the next generation of American Jews will be post-tribal.

That’s not breaking news to Jewish professionals who aren’t fast asleep. We know about declining communal loyalties, we know that young people identify with those who share their niche interests rather than with a vague notion of “America” or, in the case of Jews, the American Jewish community. And whereas our immigrant parents or grandparents may have needed the Jewish communal infrastructure to help them navigate American society, those of us who grew up after 1967 — the watershed year that ushered in an era of public Jewish pride — need no such filters. We don’t feel the world is against us; we are Jewish because we choose to be Jewish, because it enriches our lives.

That, says Schwarz, has implications for — here it comes — Jewish continuity. For how will a community whose story is so essentially tribal tell that story to a generation that is post-tribal?

“If we can’t figure out how to do that, we’re lost,” he said last week during a lunchtime lecture in San Francisco sponsored by UpStart, Hazon, Bend the Arc and Keshet.

And Sid should know. The founding rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md., as well as Panim: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, he’s a senior fellow at Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and the author of several books on the American Jewish community, including his just-published “Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future.”

Schwarz is a major go-to guy for Jewish institutions looking to stay relevant; because of his many hats, he moves easily between the Jewish establishment (federations, JCCs, brick-and-mortar synagogues) and the world of Jewish innovation (indie minyans, environmental activism, social justice, the food movement).

And he comes with a message (who doesn’t?). It’s true that what he calls the Jewish legacy institutions are suffering from declining numbers. And it’s true that the Jewish innovation sector, by contrast, is growing, attracting an increasingly larger share of the Jewish philanthropic pie.

But instead of whining about how the world is changing, the legacy institutions need to look at what’s working. The Jewish community today is driven by four main principles, he said. First is hochma, or wisdom — a thirst for authentic Jewish learning. Next is tzedek, or social justice. Third is kehilla, a search for intentional community. Finally there is kedusha, the desire to craft a life of sacred purpose.

The Jewish groups that are growing most rapidly — he points to Chabad and Hazon as examples — are those organized around one or more of these core principles. “Pick one of them and dive in,” he urged the few Jewish establishment representatives in the room.

I have two things to say about Schwarz’s advice. First, the Bay Area Jewish establishment has already taken it, to its credit.

“In 2006, innovation was anathema to the legacy world,” said Toby Rubin, director of UpStart, the incubator for many of the most successful new Jewish initiatives in the Bay Area. “That’s changed, and very fast,” she said, adding that half her budget now comes from the so-called established Jewish community.

Then, as I walked back to my office, I thought about how Schwarz’s points relate to an ongoing conversation we’re having at j. Here we are, the communications hub for one of the most vibrant centers of Jewish life in the country. How will we change to serve you better? How will we harness the power of social media to create a robust public square where Bay Area Jews can share ideas and build on each other’s successes? What should we keep from our own 117-year history as we move forward?

Stay tuned. Changes are afoot. And we want to know how we’re doing.


Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].