Lead with our hearts

Lead with our hearts

When the Union for Reform Judaism opens its 2013 biennial convention later this month in San Diego, it will open the gathering to outsiders.

People not affiliated with the movement may attend.

Many program facilitators will be from outside the movement.

Friday night services will be open to all.

And biennial performers will spread out through surrounding neighborhoods to spread Reform Judaism’s message of vitality.

Sound familiar? It should because the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism tried something similar this past October at its biennial conference. Even more recently, the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which was held in Jerusalem, featured a “Global Jewish shuk: a marketplace of dialogue and debate” led by young Israelis and Americans from outside the federation world.

It’s the latest thing in the Jewish world — drop the barriers to affiliation.

We think it’s long overdue, but if we’re talking about inspiring Jews who have long since dropped out of Jewish life, it’s not enough.

It’s no secret that growing numbers of non-Orthodox Jews are turned off to organized religion.  They hate the politics and, as the Pew Survey of U.S. Jews noted, it’s even open to debate whether they value the community aspect of Judaism.

With this in mind, it’s a no brainer to make affiliating easier. But more needs to be done.

Congregations need to remember why they’re here: to spread the good word about Judaism — love, acts of kindness (for Jew and non-Jew alike) and to provide community and communal worship (for those who want it). If those things are done well, membership will take care of itself.

It’s not enough to tell a growing number of disillusioned Jews they should follow mitzvot, many times because that’s the way God wants it; we have to listen to them and hear what they’re saying about how we express our faith. Not that we should change just to suit them, but we should at least try to find some common ground.

We need to be a people-driven faith.

There are other ways we can open up. Our agencies and organizations need financial donors for sure, but there are other kinds of donors. People who can’t afford to write checks can give with their time and energy. Those people need to know they’re as welcome as the big contributors. We don’t always do a good enough job of communicating that.

Finally, many Jews will never join a synagogue or get active in an agency no matter what the Jewish world does; that’s just who they are. But they shouldn’t be written off. As Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute — and a man with Pittsburgh ties, by the way — has written, we need to take the faith beyond the synagogue walls to places where it normally doesn’t go — the shopping malls on Chanukah, home improvement stores on Sukkot, garden centers on Shavuot — not to mention libraries, bookstores, city parks — in neighborhoods with lots of Jews or very few. Chabad has been successful at this. If we selflessly touch even a few lives that way, we’ve done good work, the kind that isn’t quantifiable but every bit as important.

Judaism needs its synagogues and agencies to do the work our faith demands — tikkun olam — but we’re much more than the sum parts of our organizations. We must lead with our hearts. Otherwise, it won’t matter how many conventions have open-door policies.