What most people recognize as the “Jewish World” today is a series of businesses. The Reform Movement, the Conservative Movement, AIPAC, JStreet, the Orthodox Union, and Hasidic sects. To varying degrees, these groups and ones like them are organized as economic units- the Jewish Industrial Complex, if you may. Each one relies on extensive fundraising efforts, courting of big donors, and hierarchical leadership which chooses how to direct the funds just like a CEO. Sometimes that leader even carries the title of Rabbi, though it’s questionable how studying Talmud and how to give a good Dvar Torah makes one fit to be a CEO. Or whether a Rabbi, originally a teacher and servant of the community, is really meant to be such a thing.
Am I exaggerating? Here’s a quick test for the Jews reading this piece:
- How many High Holiday services have you attended where there was no appeal from the Bimah for making a donation?
- How many Jewish groups have you been a member of that didn’t cost anything?
- How many synagogues have you seen where donors aren’t acknowledged with engraved plaques?
Now if you can count up your answers and the result be more than zero, you are a unique Jew. Mazel tov! Perhaps you belong to the budding chavurah movement, which I think gets many things right about how to organize Jewish life. And perhaps there are some variations by sect and organization, but the overall point remains the same: today’s Jewish institutions revolve around money. And the more you give, the more influence you have. If you’re thinking that it’s unfair for me to call this a uniquely Jewish phenomenon, you’re right- other cultures and religions suffer from this problem too, but I’d like to primarily focus here on how it affects my community.
I can recall as a child seeing the plaques in the synagogue entrance with donors’ names and being perplexed. Why were there plaques? And why were some plaques much bigger than others with weird phrases attached to them indicating just how much they gave? The Howard County Jewish Federation, for example, takes Jewish icons and turns them into fundraising slogans: the Maimonides Society for doctors who give $1800 a year, the Knesset Society for those giving $1200 a year, and the Lion of Judah Society for women who give a minimum of $5000 a year (and who get a fancy pin to show for it to show others of course). Why not go all the way? How about a “Guardian of the Gates of Repentance” for $6000, a “Queen Esther for a Day” for $8000, or maybe even “Become a Cohen” for $10000? Do these sound absurd? Perhaps. But is it really that much different than a Chabad shul in Israel charging $7250 for being called to the Torah at the beginning of Kol Nidre?. Before my Reform friends get high and mighty about that, some Reform Temples have historically sold the prime sanctuary seats to big donors who, of course, got plaques with their names engraved on the seats.
Speaking of plaques, this seems like a kind of filthy bacteria contaminating the otherwise admirable white teeth of the Jewish people. As the son of a single mother who had limited income, I often felt segregated, looked down on, and excluded from Jewish events. Although I actively participated in youth group, led services, tutored Bar Mitzvah students, joined Federation programs, and took Hebrew lessons, I can conclusively say that there is a pernicious class divide within the Jewish community. It’s not that I remotely begrudge people donating to Jewish institutions- I think they’re largely well-intentioned, good people. The question is why does our community feel a need for aggrandizing its wealthiest members? And what effect does that have on middle class or lower-income Jews trying to preserve their heritage as well?
Which goes back to the original point- today’s Jewish institutions are businesses. There are the leaders (CEOs- read: highly empowered Rabbis, non-profit Presidents, sometimes even movement or synagogue Presidents). There are also the workers (Hebrew school teachers, Jewish Day School staff, synagogue janitors, cantors, sometimes even Rabbis). And there are (brace yourselves) the customers- that’s me and you.
Well that’s a really ugly way to think about community. Especially because I think most people involved, be they clergy, board members, or community members, would rather not think of the synagogue or a Jewish organization as a financial transaction (especially the workers who are often underpaid and underappreciated- I’m looking at you Jewish communal workers!). So clearly something needs to change to make this community work for all of us.
What I find most compelling about Judaism (especially since we became a kind of anarchist Diaspora community 2000 years ago) is our lack of bureaucracy. I often like to point out to Catholic friends of mine that I’m quite proud of the fact that we don’t have a Pope. The fact that we are a dispersed, loosely organized (organized is generous when talking about Jewish communities!) people has allowed for a wide variety of interesting philosophical and cultural movements within our people. It stimulates debate and foments creativity. That’s why we literally have two Talmuds! It’s why we have Renewal, Humanist, Yiddishist, Sephardic, Yemenite, Persian, Ashkenazi, Atheist, Socialist, Communist, Zionist, non-Zionist, Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Conservadox, Modern Orthodox, Hasidic, and Charedi Jews- and more! Such a vitality and diversity of thought is almost unparalleled for such a small group of people! It is kind of like the city of Austin, TX. Because Austin has laws that specifically limit chains and large corporations, for a small city, it has a wide variety of restaurants and bars and stimulated people. Judaism’s lack of central organization and hierarchy allows for the most beautiful proliferation of cultural and spiritual energy.
This is why I’m so concerned about the corporatization of Judaism. Judaism is both a culture and a religion, but it is emphatically not meant to be a commodity. When you look at the Jewish movements growing most rapidly today it is the ones that do not charge membership fees. For instance, independent chavurot and minyans around the country don’t charge you to participate, so people are more interested in joining. Nobody wants to feel like their spiritual and cultural belonging feel more like paying rent than connecting with G-d. Another example is (not withstanding the bizarre Chabad practice in Israel described earlier) Chabad. While I was a student at Washington University in St. Louis, I led a Reform Chavurah for progressive Jewish students. We were very successful in building up an organization (the largest on campus) that was centered around community rather than membership or fees. The only other Jewish organization on campus that had similar success was Chabad. Despite the movement’s decidedly conservative politics and religious beliefs, the simple fact that Chabad emissaries make their meals, services, and programming free attracts people of all different backgrounds. It just feels more welcoming to be approached as a Jew and a human being, rather than a potential member or donor.
I’ve explained how a profit-centered Judaism is taking hold of the Jewish community. But how does this affect Judaism itself? In one word: barriers.
As each Jewish organization or movement builds its customer base, it doesn’t want to lose anyone to competitors. And so lines harden. Reform Jews, rightfully rejoicing in their egalitarianism and creative musical worship, have utterly abandoned Ashkenazi Hebrew and Yiddish. Conservative Jews, rightfully proud of their high levels of Jewish camp and day school participation, look down on Reform Jews while failing to recognize their policies on women and gays are taken from the Reform playbook but with an agonizing 10 year delay. Modern Orthodox Jews, rightfully proud of their tight knit communities and passion for Judaism, have adopted the Protestant model of Judaism as a religion only and have neglected Jewish culture- Ladino, Yiddish, calligraphy, art, social justice, and a concern for the “other” (read: Palestinian). Ultra-orthodox Jews, rightfully proud of being the only Jewish community to successfully preserve Yiddish as a daily language, have attacked women for praying at the Western Wall, forgetting the Biblical injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself”.
What this means is that each type of Judaism- be it a religious movement or a cultural one- needs to break out of its shell so our community can learn from the best of what each tradition has to offer. The only way to do this is to (sorry to quote Ronald Reagan because I’m not a fan!) “tear down this wall!” Rather than being little pieces of a much more interesting whole, we must start to practice “Whole Grain Judaism” where we’re confident enough to be able to see the good and bad in all Jewish movements and take what we need to build a holistic, healthy philosophy and community.
Since the barriers between our different Jewish silos are partially financial in nature, we must turn our attention to how we can de-financialize Judaism. Are we raising money for things that we could do ourselves? The most successful religious movement in the U.S. today (in terms of growth) is non-denominational evangelical Christianity. What do they do that’s so enticing? First off, this is largely a low-budget operation. While we do see images of megachurches and the like, a lot of prayer meetings are small and open to all (like minyans- see we have precedents for this in our history!). Perhaps “small and open to all” a good guideline for how to reconceptualize Judaism. Rather than big synagogues with big expenses where few people know each other, what about small, deeply personal chavurot that are largely self-run? There may in fact always be some expenses in putting on events or educational programs, but I think that without an expensive building and all the maintenance it requires, this would greatly reduce the cost of Jewish community participation. For communities that want to further reduce expenses, why couldn’t they run their own educational programming? The Hebrew school model (I’m thinking mostly of Reform and Conservative shuls here) is outdated and while there are many passionate and engaging teachers who I adore from my youth, for most kids it’s a bore and a chore. If community members themselves were the educators (and if the youth could take leadership roles), it’d increase everyone’s investment in the process and make for a more creative effort.
If you want to go further, you could reduce or eliminate the role of a paid rabbi, since Judaism, unlike Catholicism, doesn’t require a rabbi to do most prayer services or functions. Making rabbinic training less expensive, less bureaucratic, and more driven by local community needs would be one way to reduce costs as well. Local mentorship of rabbis by other rabbis instead of long seminary programs could be one way to train more leaders for less money. In additional, communal leaders could take on aspects of the rabbinic role or share clergy across chavurot.
Another benefit of decentralized Judaism is the ability for each chavurah or cultural group to set its own policies. Rather than obeying the mandates of the Union for Reform Judaism (which in turn eats a lot of synagogues’ money!), why not give each community the flexibility to choose what’s right for them? There is Jewish precedent for this. In Jewish tradition, it was considered the norm for a traveling Jew to follow the minhag (tradition) of the new community he or she encountered. This means that even going back hundreds and thousands of years, Jews have always maintained different traditions across time and boundaries and yet still managed to thrive as a people. Unity is a fascist concept. What is really beautiful is diversity and we ought to encourage it. What might work for Jews in D.C. may not work for Jews in Tehran or Jews in France. Let’s stop pretending we’re one people (by the way, having rigidly defined competing hierarchical movements doesn’t exactly contribute to that goal anyways) and embrace that we are one people with many faces.
Speaking of decision making, “Whole Grain Judaism” must include a strong emphasis on the democratic process. Currently, I can’t think of a since Jewish institution that lets all of its members choose its leadership. As a current member of the Reform Movement, I can’t think of a single time I’ve been asked to vote for the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, yet my movement emphatically urges me to vote for the President of the USA. I suppose it’s easier to preach democracy than to practice it. But I insist that Whole Grain Judaism allow people an equal voice in the decision making process. No plaques, no privileges, just equality. It’ll make for greater inclusion and involvement in the community because people will feel greater ownership.
There are different types of whole grains and so Whole Grain Judaism will mean different things for different people. For me, it means a Judaism that proudly embraces, teaches, and speaks its various languages (Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Bukharan, and more). It means a Judaism where all have an equal say and the community actively and passionately participates throughout the year- at home and as a whole. It means a Judaism that is egalitarian and progressive, but is also proud of our traditions- embracing aspects of Kashrut, holidays, tekhines, and piyyutim. It means a Judaism that shows a deep and abiding love for the world’s many cultures while also sharing and embracing our own- Jewish literature, history, music, cuisine, poetry, comedy, art, and architecture. After all, when we know our heritage well, we are better able to relate to and engage with other people’s cultures. It means a Judaism of loving our neighbors as ourselves and standing for justice, peace, friendship and cultural understanding with all peoples, learning from others and sharing our insights too.
The important thing is to find the whole grain that makes your Judaism fulfilling, rich, healthy, and delicious. Maybe you’re barley, maybe you’re wheat, but in the end, you can’t let the artificial barriers that separate us stop you from finding your path. There will always be disagreements among Jews- that’s what makes us Jews! But don’t let that convince you that you can’t learn from your fellow Yidden even if you continue to disagree on important issues.
In the end, I think most rabbis, cantors, Jewish communal employees, synagogue board members, donors, members, and unaffiliated Jews are good people because most people are good people. But let’s face it- this system sucks! Judaism is best when it’s not a financial institution, but rather a constellation of cultural, personal, and philosophical relationships that tie us together with love and curiosity. Let’s make it our mission to go against the grain and make ourselves whole.