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Rosh Hashanah Day One: 21st Century Judaism and the Synagogue that’s Willing to Change

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Day One: 21st Century Judaism and the Synagogue that’s Willing to Change
It’s because of the Schwartz brothers that I have to make this appeal to you this year.
You see Issy and Howard Schwartz are terrible people. They run a crooked business, lie on their taxes, cheat on their wives, don’t give enough charity, but, they’re very, very wealthy. Issy died recently and Howard came to me and said, “Rabbi, I will donate one million dollars to the synagogue if at the funeral you say that my brother Issy was a mensch.”
I thought long and hard about it, but I eventually agreed. When it came time for the eulogy, though, I stuck to my morals and lambasted Issy for his wrong doings. I then closed with the words, “But, compared to his brother Howard, Issy was a mensch!”
Howard wasn’t so pleased, and that’s why the board is making me do this year’s fundraiser.
In truth though, there are two main reasons why we need this appeal: general lack of synagogue affiliation and changing ways of Jewish observance and identification.
The Pew Research Center released a new study on Religion in America on August 29th that says nearly half of U.S. Jews do not identify with organized religion.
While one in five profess to “actively practice their faith and are deeply involved in their congregations, thank you very much,
45 percent of American Jews are listed as either “religion resisters,” who believe in a higher power but have negative views of organized religion, or are “solidly secular,” those who don’t believe in God and do not self-define as religious. (The breakdown is 28 percent as “solidly secular” and 17 percent as “religion resisters.”)
This is one reason why synagogue attendance is down from its peak 20 years ago. The second driver is that Gen Xers and Millennials practice Judaism differently from Boomers and are not interested in traditional synagogue Judaism. I’ll try to explain why they’re different.
If you’re my age or older, and I’ll just let you estimate that, you’ll remember phonographs, typewriters and telephone numbers beginning with letters! You remember calling 411 for a telephone number, going to AAA for a trip ticket, and pulling out an encyclopedia, or many encyclopedias, for information about people and events.
Gen Xers (born 1965-1981) though came of age with the infancy of the internet and Millennials (1982-2000) never lived without it. The internet, which brings information to everyone’s fingertips, has profoundly affected the way these generations behave.
Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, explains:
“Search is so highly personal that searching is empowering for humans like nothing else; it is about self-empowerment; it is antithesis of being told or taught. It is empowering individuals to do what they think best with the information they want. Before the Internet and mass media, people who earned advanced degrees in the traditional education system were considered scholars. One could become highly knowledgeable in a particular field through years of study from books, lectures, and experimentation, and listening to rabbis. (just checking if you’re paying attention) Today, instant access to just about any fact, knowledge base, or piece of information created by any scholar can be accessed with one click of the mouse.”
This access to personal knowledge, this empowerment of the individual has changed the nature of the last two generations: they’re used to things coming to them. Rabbi Mike Uram, Director of the U Penn Hillel says millennials are not “joiners.”
I first noticed this when we tried to get our synagogue to march at the Israeli Day Parade. For a Zionist synagogue, we got a feeble response; only a handful of people signed up.
Uram says he had the same experience at Penn when he called for the students to join a pro-Israel rally. They did not, under any circumstance, want to be part of that rally. They said things like “My relationship with Israel is a personal thing, just like my relationship with Judaism,”
“I support Israel, but I don’t think of it like a football game where I need to go to some pep rally,”
and “While I support Israel, I am not one of those super pro-Israel types— they intimidate me.”
He says their hesitation to take part in institutional expressions of Judaism has two causes:
  1. They have a fear of not knowing enough or of not being accepted by the community.
  2. They believe that being Jewish is who you are and how you feel, but not necessarily what you do. Therefore, expressions of Jewish affiliation (like joining a synagogue, giving to a Federation, and in-marrying) that were so important a generation ago are less important for millennials.
Millennials prefer more intimate forms of Jewish community. They tend to be turned off by any kind of affiliation or membership because that creates a wall between their Jewish lives and the rest of their lives in a way that doesn’t reflect who they are. Millennials see their identity as more fluid than previous generations. For example, rather than being either Jewish or American, millennials see their identity almost as a series of windows on a computer screen that can all be open at the same time or that can be rearranged or closed as desired.
Therefore, this means if we want continuity for Manetto Hill Jewish Center and Judaism in general, we’re going to have to innovate. Not change entirely, but we’ll need to think of ways to address, stimulate and bring Judaism to young families in our area.
What happens if we don’t reinvent ourselves?
Let’s take a look at what happened to Blockbuster Video.
Many of us remember this ubiquitous chain store; browsing movie aisles and standing on long check-out lines. What happened to Blockbuster Video? Well, the simple story is that they were put out of business by Netflix, but that’s not the whole story.
The main mistake that Blockbuster made was thinking that their customers were desirous of the experience of walking into a store, perusing the shelves and picking up a movie and maybe some popcorn.
What they misjudged is that their customers were buying the experience of watching a movie – maybe with some popcorn. Having a large selection of movies to choose from was important, but not the act of walking into a store.
Netflix started as a mail-order movie rental business; with a monthly subscription for whatever movies you wanted at significantly cheaper costs than Blockbuster, and the product came directly to the customer.
Blockbuster’s profit had to be sufficient to sustain their 9000 worldwide stores and 60,000 paid staff. In addition to their rental prices, their profit also relied on something their customers hated – late fees.
Netflix didn’t even charge late fees; you could keep their movies as long as you wanted.
Netflix was a pioneer in another modern invention: customer ratings on movies. As opposed to just seeing a professional movie critic’s review of a movie, the populace in general was giving the power to vote. They empowered the individual.
Now, ignoring change doesn’t make it go away. Blockbuster had multiple opportunities to purchase Netflix in the early 2000’s for $50 million, and turned it down because they didn’t want to disrupt their traditional revenue. Netflix is worth $152 Billion now.
Blockbuster was managing their business by a combination of burying their head in the sand and looking into the past, as opposed to the future.
In contrast, Netflix had a clear focus on the future – their vision was that streaming video would take over. This would bring the product directly and immediately to their customers homes. In 2008, Netflix started to offer unlimited streaming for a monthly fee, and that was the nail in Blockbuster’s coffin.
How did Netflix succeed? By doing what Gen Xers and Millennials most wanted, having the product brought to them. If we don’t change as well, by bringing Judaism outside the synagogue, we may also be on Blockbuster’s path.
Organizations such as synagogues don’t die because they provide no value; they die because they fail to provide enough value to enough people.
One Jewish journalist asked on Facebook what keeps people from wanting to be more involved Jewishly in and out of synagogues? Her discussion went on for 12 hours, yielding more than 100 comments from Jews around the country. One woman, Rebecca Kotok, summed up the issue succinctly: “Many [Jewish leaders] are asking ‘How can we get people more involved in our synagogue?’ as opposed to asking ‘How can we get people more involved with Jewish life?’ Do you hear the millennial in her?
Why is it that 45% of Jews don’t belong to a synagogue? It’s not because they don’t value Judaism. 94 percent of American Jews report having positive associations with Judaism. The silver lining is that it’s not Judaism they are rejecting. They don’t reject Jewish identity, community, or rituals. They reject a twentieth-century iteration of Jewish religious life that feels too many layers away from spirituality and relevance.
We can save Judaism though. It’s been done before.
In 1990 it was reported that only 28 percent of intermarried couples were raising their children as Jews; The survey in 2001 estimated the figure to be 33 percent. Because these figures were well below 50 percent (the demographic threshold for breaking even), the general view was that intermarriage would drive down the Jewish population. However, the grim predictions made in the 1990s were proved wrong because Jewish organizations, federations, and private foundations did what they needed to do to turn the tide.
They funded massive new investment in Jewish summer camps, Hillels, March of the living and Birthright Israel trips, programs that reach a wide spectrum of Jewish children and young adults.
Today, the majority of children of intermarried families consider themselves Jewish (59 percent). I want to personally thank all the non-Jewish spouses in our congregation for all your sacrifice, support and encouragement of your Jewish spouses and children.
Manetto Hill Jewish Center is part of the global effort trying to foster a greater, stronger Jewish future. Invest in us, because we are the synagogue that’s willing to change. 50 years ago, we were at the forefront of progress as one of the first synagogues in Long Island to be totally egalitarian, and that attitude of progress continues.
When I first came to Manetto Hill Jewish Center, in keeping with traditional practice, we did not allow a non-Jewish parent to stand next to their child on the Bimah for their family’s most important celebrations. However, times have changed since that law was promulgated. These devoted parents sacrifice their own religion and agree to raise their child Jewishly, pay our dues, send their children twice weekly to Hebrew school, and sometimes even accompany them to their child’s Bar/Bar Mitzvah lessons, should they not be allowed to stand beside their child during that wonderful celebration? Our congregation was willing to see that there was a need to change our custom and we did.
For the last 2 years I attended a program called Davening Leadership Training Institute that taught me how to create thematic, meaningful services. These are holistic services where the pages are turned not because that’s the next prayer we have to recite, but because it continues the theme of our service and will enhance our understanding and experience. This past June we ran two such services with guest song leaders, and attendees told me, “Rabbi these are the best services you’ve ever had at MHJC”, and I’d agree.
And that is why we’re offering an alternative service tomorrow. I heard from many people, “Rabbi, one obscure service over Rosh Hashanah is enough, I don’t need two!” Therefore, the Cantor and I, along with our choir, have created a service that is not only shorter, but also more poignant and meaningful.
In understanding that our generation doesn’t associate being Jewish with being in a synagogue, we’re working on bringing the synagogue outside its walls.
We’ve starting doing Potluck musical Shabbats at people’s homes, where I run a shorter musical service and we have dinner together and get to know each other.
In alignment with the #metoo movement, the sisterhood has been having a series of classes at different people’s homes, entitled “The Real Housewives of Canaan.”
Invest in us, because we’re trying to be a synagogue of the future. We’re striving to break the stigma that Judaism is just obscure or outdated ritual.
I implore you to invest in us not only monetarily, but also with your time, your skills, and your creativity. We don’t just need congregants or members; we’re not a country club. We need partners. We need you to partner in our vision.
You’re here because Judaism is important to you.
Host a potluck Shabbat at your home and invite your neighbor who may not know what Shabbat is about. Host a class at your house. Let your home be a home for Torah,
for community,
for social justice,
for value-based living.
One forward thinking synagogue in Cincinnati has dissolved their monthly board meeting and committee meetings. They meet quarterly only for vision setting meetings. Committees are replaced by teams. Teams to promote social justice, or youth education and so on. Become a member of our team, of Judaism’s team.
Push down on a corner of your pledge card. But also push down on your heart. What can you provide for our team? MHJC’s team to provide meaningful, heartfelt Judaism for ourselves and the future.
Shana Tova

Manetto Hill Jewish Center
244 Manetto Hill Road, Plainview, NY 11803
516-935-5454|Email Us