“All anybody wants to do is talk about the Pew Study, but I don’t think Judaism is going away soon,” said Dr. Ron Wolfson, author of Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community (Jewish Lights Publishing). “Institutional lives are in some danger, because people are voting with their feet.”
Dr. Wolfson, who is Fingerhut Professor of Education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and president of Next Dor (Synagogue 3000), believes that Jewish institutions have to rethink their emphasis on buildings and programs and focus on relationships. Those who responded to the Pew Study that they are “just Jewish” need a compelling reason to affiliate with a Jewish organization, he said at a lecture sponsored by the Community Scholar Program (CSP).
“When people say they are proud to be Jewish, there is an opportunity, rather than a challenge,” according to Dr. Wolfson. “We have to be honest and change the way we engage people. We have to change the paradigm.”
He related that people can go online to watch services, learn Jewish things and even get everything they need for a shiva minyan. “Something is wrong,” he said. “People are getting married later and making their personal connections elsewhere.”
Dr. Wolfson added that people join synagogues, get active and then leave after their children’s B’nai Mitzvah if they view their membership as a transactional relationship. “You can’t sustain the Jewish community that way or on a programmatic basis,” he said. “Something is missing – the enduring understanding that we’re a covenantal people and need covenantal relationships.”
Dr. Wolfson emphasized the “spirituality of welcoming,” saying that “it’s great to have greeters in congregations, but we have to do more.” He also added that demographic forms that people fill out when they join a congregation are no way to hear people’s stories. Once people fill out the forms, they are usually forgotten, and the things people would like to do are forgotten. Instead, Dr. Wolfson believes in having congregants build real relationships by hearing each other’s stories through personal encounters.
He thinks Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church is the best at doing this in the Christian community and that Chabad is the best at doing it in the Jewish community. “Chabad raises over $1 billion a year from non-Orthodox people grateful for relationships,” he said.
In Orange County at least one congregation is working with Dr. Wolfson to learn how “relational Judaism” can make a difference. Scott Seigel (who owns the Orange County and Palm Desert franchise of California Closets, along with his wife, Leslie) was asked to consider being president of Temple Bat Yahm. While he was not as yet on the board and encouraged the members of the nominating committee to consider other candidates, he said that they “felt that I embody the best qualities in a possible new leader of the temple.”
Seigel, said, “How could I say no? I thought of my dad and how generous he was with the community and how similar we are in our style. He was president of University Synagogue (Los Angeles, Sunset Blvd., in 1964). I thought of the relationship he always had with rabbis. My memories were of a lot of laughing and warm feelings. I constantly try to coalesce and inspire my team at California Closets, and I inject a sense of humor into the process. Hopefully, they are laughing with me. I figured I could put that kind of inspiration to work in the temple. The congregation affirmed my nomination and I began serving on the board. I will become president next summer.”
Seigel reached out to Dr. Wolfson on effective relationships. They have met a couple of times, including a private meeting and tour of Saddleback Church with Pastor Rick Warren. Seigel created a Power Point presentation that Dr. Wolfson described as “fantastic.” He was “floored” by Seigel’s skill “in putting the message of Relational Judaism in such a compelling and entertaining format,” adding, “The best thing of all is your willingness to challenge the status quo…and I love, love, love the quote about strategic planning. I hear that term and shut down. I actually turn down synagogues that want to engage me for a ‘strategic planning project.’ So much wasted time and energy and nothing happens to change anything. I once met a rabbi who felt the same way…he said ‘I’m the Nike rabbi…just do it!’”
As Dr. Wolfson puts it, the purpose of Judaism and the purpose of relationships is “to love the other and the Other, the thou and the Thou.” By finding belonging in a community of people who will “be there for you,” a person will find a lasting relationship with a Jewish institution.
Dinner with a Scholar
Dr. Wolfson will be one of the speakers at Dinner with a Scholar, the Bureau of Jewish Education’s signature winter fundraising event in which more than 250 people gather together for two spectacular evenings of Jewish learning and gourmet meals in support of the community’s Jewish teens and youth. Dinner with a Scholar offers renowned speakers hosted in elegant homes. BJE invites people to attend this fun, social way to make a difference in the Jewish community by calling (949) 435-3450. Here is the lineup of speakers:
Ron Wolfson: It’s All About Relationships – The Reshaping of the American Jewish Community
Matthias Lehmann: Surviving in Secret – Uncovering the Marrano Jews of Spain
What happened to the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish converts known asConversos or Marranos? Learn from Matthias Lehmann, the Teller Family Chair in Jewish History at the University of California, Irvine.
Richard Hasen: Race, Party, and Politics:
The New Turn in the Voting Wars
Last summer, the Supreme Court held a key provision of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. How should we understand these fights over voting rules? Hear a non-partisan analysis of these questions and their impact on modern America from Professor Richard L. Hasen, Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine.
Monica Piper – Farmisht, Farklempt, & Farblungit!
Laugh all evening with Monica Piper as she explores her Jewish roots and present life in this hilarious and heartwarming blend of stand up and storytelling. Monica is an Emmy Award-winning comedy writer, stand up comic, and artist-in-residence with the Jewish Women’s Theatre.
Dr. Richard Lippa: The Science of Sexuality
Is sexual orientation “chosen,” environmentally caused or biologically based? How do these answers affect social and religious debates? Join Dr. Richard Lippa to delve into a host of scientific, social, political, and religious questions surrounding sexual orientation.
Shira Klein: When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do: How the Jews Became Italian, 1870-1938
Italian Jewry is well known for its celebrities, from sculptor Amedeo Modigliani to author-survivor Primo Levi. But far less is known about the history of “ordinary” Italian Jews. Shira Klein, assistant professor at Chapman University, explores the culture and daily life of Italian Jews from the time they became full citizens up until their persecution under Fascism.
Shelly Goldstein: Funny Girls – Famous Jewish Women in Music & Comedy
Enjoy the talented and brilliant Jewish women who helped revolutionize the worlds of Broadway, TV, film and pop music in the 20th Century. Shelly Goldstein is a founding member of the musical comedy group SHEBREWS. She is currently writing for the new musical LOBSTER BOY.
Cantor Natalie Young – Cantor Natalie Young: Behind the Music
Join us for a front row seat to see emerging Jewish musical star and new local Orange County cantor, Natalie Young. In this intimate musical setting, Natalie will play moving and spiritual original scores, and share insight into the Jewish sources and people that have shaped her music. She serves as cantor for Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo.
Erwin Chemerinsky – The Supreme Court
It is an amazing time in the United States Supreme Court with many decisions affecting each of us. Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of UCI School of Law, discusses major recent decisions of the Court – including health care, gay rights and separation of church and state.