This past May, I invited a courageous conversation about the future of Jewish life in Pittsburgh.
The response was overwhelming, with many thanking me for stating publicly what has for so long been discussed privately. And while some were surely discomfited by the ideas I proffered, none argued with the central premise: We can ill afford to dither another day before addressing ourselves to our community’s current state of affairs.
After all, the alternative to our working together to solve our challenges is best summed up in the New Yorker cartoon, wherein one colleague says to another: “We’re ready to begin the next phase of keeping things exactly the way they are.”
By now it is clear to anyone paying attention that none of our Jewish organizations can afford to put its proverbial head in the sand; and no Jewish leader can stand idly by. Hope is not a strategy.
If we are to navigate the 21st century successfully, every one of us must participate in a courageous conversation about the future of our community as a whole. I dare say, the High Holy Days demand we take up this task as our community’s highest priority in the new year.
Now, having thrown down this gauntlet, let us acknowledge that having a courageous conversation is easier said than done. After all, our community has invested heavily in the current order. We have an enormous emotional stake in our congregations and agencies; we have made outsized financial commitments to our infrastructure; and each and every one of our communal professionals (present company included) relies on the current forms for his/her livelihood.
Further, for small-c conservatives, it can be heresy to base decisions on the inevitability of change; and as the Jewish communal establishment is entrusted with transmitting wisdom and values from earlier generations to the next, even the most progressive among us are, by definition, in the small-c conservative camp.
But to deny that our future will necessarily be different than our past is either the height of naiveté or magical thinking. With so much change afoot, for any of us to continue doing what we’ve always done would be the height of irresponsible leadership.
However, absent a wider communal perspective, even our most capable leaders are often ill prepared to deviate from the ways in which our community is organized. In short, in too many cases, what we lack is not courage, but the ability to envision a new communal reality.
So, what am I calling for?
I am not calling for organizational mergers, congregational or otherwise, per se. I understand that this early in the conversation, as soon as the word merger is said aloud, many will hear that to suggest a submerge and, alas, the conversation may very well end before it begins.
This said, however, we ought allow how, under the right conditions, collaborations, partnerships and, even, mergers could save money and buy time; and even more, we ought concede that in merging, either in whole or in part, we may very well find we can better meet the common goals of two or more organizations in ways we had not heretofore imagined.
Neither am I suggesting that a courageous conversation be a means of preserving a given building, program, rabbi or staff member at the expense of another; nor should the opposite be true. The matters our community must confront today are greater than any physical structure or single person. The rub, of course, is that as recently as a single generation ago, it was appropriate, and even useful, for our community to have as many organizations, buildings and staff as we have today.
No longer. As presently configured, our community is simply not able to support all of our congregations and communal organizations long term; and we cannot continue to rely upon business strategies that no longer serve us well.
Over the last 100 years, the American Jewish community has enjoyed the greatest success in its 3,000-year history. By every measure, our community hit the leather off the ball in the 20th century.
And now? Let’s admit it, we’re “so 20th century.”
The challenge before us is clear. The more successful organizations become, the more difficult it is for leaders to recognize when things must change. And yet, a second decade into a new century, what with every assumption and belief upon which our community was founded now challenged, it is simply no longer useful for us to think in terms of “my organization versus yours.”
Therefore, the conversation for which I am calling is neither about preserving the past, nor finding a means to perpetuate the present. It is my belief that we must boldly confront the truth before us, explore new models for meeting the needs of our community, and together move forward in new directions. After all, we are all in this together. Indeed, believing otherwise has become no small part of our problem.
For this reason, a truly courageous conversation, as I envision it, acknowledges both past successes and present–day challenges, and then boldly invites every member of our community to join in being part of creating the new solutions Jewish Pittsburgh so desperately requires if we are to secure the future we all hope to achieve.
So it is that as the New Year approaches, I propose that we each:
• Set aside time to reflect on our hopes for our community;
• Consider why our congregations, agencies and organizations exist, respectively, as well as what we hope to achieve collectively; and
• Discuss and share with one another and our leadership how we believe we will together create the best possible reality — for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren — we can dare to imagine.
Let our courageous conversation continue!
(Rabbi Aaron B. Bisno is the senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation.)