Friday, January 05, 2007

Arnie Eisen's Listening Tour Makes News

I was surprised to see one article in the Wall Street Journal incorporate three organizations I've been involved with: The Jewish Theological Seminary, Hillel, and the STAR Foundation's Synaplex.

This is a great article about how Jewish organizations are finally going out and learning what the people want. If I wrote this article (and I'm not sure why I didn't), I would have included the same institutions that this author does. I commend Prof. Arnie Eisen, the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary for following through on what he promised (in meetings I had with him in both Detroit and Columbus) by conducting a listening tour throughout the Conservative movement to determine what matters most to Conservative Jews. I'm glad to see his devotion to the cause is getting this type of exposure.

I was also happy to see Rabbi Hayim Herring interviewed for this article. Rabbi Herring is the executive director of the STAR Foundation, which runs two programs that I am very much involved with -- Synaplex and PEER. Like the author of this article recognizes in her subtitle, "consultant speak" has definitely found its way into organized religion (or at least Judaism).

Reviving Judaism

A few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton got started on a new "listening tour." Her first one, during the 2000 Senate campaign, was aimed at soliciting the ideas of New York voters on what legislative issues were important to them. This one is aimed at hearing the thoughts of Democratic strategists on the subject of her presidential run. But the idea behind the tours remained the same: Find out what the people want--and, if possible, give it to them.Arnie-Eisen
In politics, such an approach has an irrefutable democratic logic. But is it well suited to religion? Arnold Eisen, the chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has spent the past few months on a "listening tour" of his own, holding town-hall meetings around the country to figure out how to reinvigorate Conservative Judaism. Mr. Eisen is looking to find out what Jews want--and, if possible, give it to them.

Trying to make Judaism more popular is not a new idea. Jewish leaders have worried for decades that high rates of intermarriage and assimilation are causing the Jewish population to diminish dramatically. And they are right. Between 1990 and 2000, the American Jewish population declined to 5.2 million from 5.5 million. With Jewish women getting married later in life and having fewer children, this trend is likely only to accelerate.

But the most recent response to this crisis has been less than inspiring. The Jewish Week recently published "17 Seriously Cool Ideas to Remake New York's Jewish Community." These included creating a Jewish culinary institute, building a kibbutz in the Big Apple, providing high-quality Jewish toddler care, hosting a hipper Israeli Independence Day parade, and baking better kosher pizza.

Perhaps these ideas were meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek, but other ideas are not--and probably should be. Take a new project called Synaplex. Sponsored by the Star Foundation, Synaplex is, according to its Web site, "designed to provide people with new reasons to make the synagogue the place to be on Shabbat." About 125 synagogues are already "enabling people to celebrate Shabbat the way they want to."

What does that mean? Instead of attending a traditional service, Rabbi Hayim Herring, Star's executive director, tells me, some people would do "Medi-Torah" or "Torah and Yoga." Others might attend a lecture or go to a musical service followed by a "latte cart." And still others might prefer to attend a Friday night wine-and-cheese reception. [Continue Reading]

No comments: