If you build it, will they come?
Friend of a friend came to visit me yesterday, looking for advice. He heard about what I do and thought that I (with several others he consulted this week) would perhaps be able to give suggestions to help his community stay Jewish. Not a “religious” fellow per se, he has been distressed watching his kids’ generation leaving behind their Jewish identity and came to the conclusion that whatever is happening now simply isn’t working. Kudos to him for taking the initiative.
I asked what he was thinking now and what had been suggested so far. Some good ideas from experts in the field.
His own idea was to create a massive and impressive Jewish center. Great food. Great music. Great socializing. Movies. Day care. Lectures, including some Jewish ones (not too many or it will turn people off). Not a typical JCC – fancy, hip, and a cut above (no offense, JCC friends J). Offer young Jews and young Jewish families ‘the best’ and they’ll come to the Jewish center rather than other places, thus creating and cementing Jewish community and building for the future. He added that by building a big center that the Jewish community is invested it, the program will survive beyond him and will have long-term impact.
What do you think of his idea? I’m interested in your thoughts (and so is he).
I shared a bunch of specific ideas (some of which you’ve read in these newsletters) and then politely critiqued his main plan (he asked me to J). Great initiative and desire to have a profound effect but I am skeptical: (1) we can’t compete. Yes, the Jewish community has money, but we are numerically a small community and (sadly) 95% of our resources go outside. We’ll never be able to have the best restaurants, movies, parties, etc. If people are looking for the best, we lose; (2) you still need to make Jewish centers and events nice, impressive, attractive – in order that people feel comfortable going. But that is not their motivation to come in most cases; (3) the world today is very impressive and open. The only reason Jews will stay Jewish is if they want to stay Jewish – if they understand how it adds to their lives and is important to the future. This means that though the socializing is important – really important, crucial to keep people involved – without knowledge and inspiration, the whole project is doomed to failure; (4) in the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s the Jewish community created Jewish social halls. Later on we created camps for Jews (I’m not referring to Jewish camps with high Jewish content). In many ways, we focused on the social at the expense of the educational. And look where it got us. Of course we need socializing and community and fun and JCC’s etc…but they are only a part of the picture. The goal is motivating each individual to want to stay Jewish. Achieve that, everything else follows. Fail that and you’ve lost. This means that ; (5) we need to create a pyramid approach. Greater numbers of people will come to social events. Fewer to the occasional lecture. Fewer to weekly learning. That is the reality. Our job is to reach out to everyone, give them whatever Jewish services they want. Of course, help as many as are interested ‘move up the pyramid.’ It is also our goal – since we know from study after study that education works much better than social events alone.
What were my other suggestions? It was a long discussion but here are a few: (a) if you can raise money, make Jewish education affordable. Mass subsidies and scholarships to day schools. Nothing works better and nothing is more expensive now, sadly; (b) when kids go to Sunday school, parents should stay for interesting lectures for them (along with bagels and coffee). Give a financial incentive to this; (c) don’t leave Israel til Birthright – create, join, subsidize family trips to Israel. Plants seeds in the kids and inspire the parents. Impact is massive and I see it every week; (d) home study groups. 1-2 a month for a limited # of weeks, invite friends. Environment is less intimidating than a shul. Friendly. Occasionally invite a rabbi but often one of the hosts can prepare something. Impact on learning and community is profound.
What is the good news? Jewish knowledge is profound, exciting, and easily accessible. Give people a little and they’ll come back.
What are your thoughts?
Doron Kornbluth is an internationally acclaimed speaker, bestselling author and “Jewish Inspiration” tour guide of Israel. Spread the word about Doron’s free newsletter. Sign up at www.doronkornbluth.com. Contact Doron at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now arranging speaking tours for 2011. Why be Jewish? is soon to be released.