‘Megatrends’ rabbi embraces challenges of Jewish community’s future

Rabbi Sid Schwarz

By David Baugher, Special to the Light

At first glance, Rabbi Sid Schwarz seems to sound an ominous note when talking about the Jewish community’s future.

“The Jewish community faces declining trends in affiliation not only in synagogues but also in contributions to Federation campaigns and the decline of major membership organizations that for a long time were the fabric of the organized Jewish community,” said the 59-year-old founder of the PANIM Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. “On any scale you measure by, we’re seeing dramatic declines.”

But where others fear uncertainty, he sees opportunity.

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“I’m very bullish,” he said. “I’m buying stock.”

Members of the St. Louis community will get to hear why for themselves when Schwarz comes to town at the beginning of next month. The author of “Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future” will speak at the Kopolow Building for a breakfast event Oct. 1. Sponsored by the Millstone Institute for Jewish Leadership, the event is free and open to the public.

Karen Sher, senior program associate with the Millstone Institute, said she’s been impressed by Schwarz, who in 2007 was named one of the 50 most influential rabbis in North America by Newsweek.

“I read his book and found it to be extremely relevant to where we are today as a 21st Century Jewish community,” she said. “He has insights not just in one particular area of the community but several – synagogue life, arts and culture, social justice. I think anyone who attends will find it relevant.”

Marci Mayer Eisen, director of the Millstone Institute, feels his visit will be a rewarding one.

“It is an important topic that both our professional and our board leaders need to understand in terms of what is going on across the country and that can help us put decisions we’re making about St. Louis into perspective,” she said.

Schwarz feels strongly that communities across the nation do need to start making decisions to deal with falling affiliation rates. However, he stresses that the Jewish experience is merely paralleling wider trends across America, which is becoming increasingly mobile and less tied to a fraying social fabric that no longer connects people as it once did.

“It seems that all too often analyses of the Jewish community fall short because we look so much at ourselves and not at the context in which we function,” he said. “In the past 25 years, we’ve seen an erosion, almost an evaporation of the ethos of the public square.”

It’s a process he feels has been accelerated by the rise of the Internet, which has allowed people to cocoon themselves within their own bubbles of information.

“Look at the way you get your news. Instead of having four or five major media streams that have a responsibility to give a complete picture, everything has been narrow-casted,” he said. “Now you can choose the media source that is most aligned with your views.”

That dynamic has made it increasingly difficult for people to understand one another. But interestingly, that’s precisely why Schwarz is optimistic. Where American society fails to connect people, Jewish communal institutions should be primed to step in.

“I think there’s an opportunity,” he said. “The Jewish community should be in the business of creating common focus, common vision, common ground.”

But to claim that role and bring Jews together in common purpose, Schwarz believes, Judaic institutions must align around four principles: Jewish wisdom/learning, social justice, crafting lives of sacred purpose and the creation of intentional spiritual communities.

“If done well, these point to a potential renaissance of Jewish life in America,” he said.

He thinks traditional approaches to solving congregational shrinkage tend to misinterpret the problem. It does no good to water down spiritual education.

“People are interested in serious Jewish learning, not Jewish lite,” said Schwarz who at present serves as a senior fellow at Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “I think that’s been a big mistake to pitch Judaism on the lowest common denominator.”

It’s also not a marketing problem.

“The thought is just to make the ad bigger and send it out more regularly and maybe they’ll come,” he said. “That ain’t going to happen.”

Instead, Schwarz feels that rabbis and Jewish institutional leadership should work harder to listen to what the community is looking for and serve those needs. 

“When people are feeling more and more isolated in their lives, people are desperate for a place to connect with other people,” he said. “That should be the business of what synagogues do but it doesn’t happen if it is all top down. You’ve got to create an empowered lay culture.”

He said that synagogues built on successful models can see as much as half the congregation engaged and active as opposed to those stuck with older dynamics where 10 percent participate and the other 90 simply pay dues to keep the lights on. 

“We can see that some of the greatest growth and greatest energy in the Jewish community is among those organizations that are focusing on social justice that protects the most vulnerable around the world,” he said. “That’s going to be a feature of every Jewish institution and program.”

There is also a generational issue. Schwarz said that engaging next generation Jews doesn’t just mean trying to force them into the same dynamic as their parents and grandparents.

By David Baugher

Special to the Light

At first glance, Rabbi Sid Schwarz seems to sound an ominous note when talking about the Jewish community’s future.

“The Jewish community faces declining trends in affiliation not only in synagogues but also in contributions to Federation campaigns and the decline of major membership organizations that for a long time were the fabric of the organized Jewish community,” said the 59-year-old founder of the PANIM Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. “On any scale you measure by, we’re seeing dramatic declines.”

But where others fear uncertainty, he sees opportunity.

“I’m very bullish,” he said. “I’m buying stock.”

Members of the St. Louis community will get to hear why for themselves when Schwarz comes to town at the beginning of next month. The author of “Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future” will speak at the Kopolow Building for a breakfast event Oct. 1. Sponsored by the Millstone Institute for Jewish Leadership, the event is free and open to the public.

Karen Sher, senior program associate with the Millstone Institute, said she’s been impressed by Schwarz, who in 2007 was named one of the 50 most influential rabbis in North America by Newsweek.

“I read his book and found it to be extremely relevant to where we are today as a 21st Century Jewish community,” she said. “He has insights not just in one particular area of the community but several – synagogue life, arts and culture, social justice. I think anyone who attends will find it relevant.”

Marci Mayer Eisen, director of the Millstone Institute, feels his visit will be a rewarding one.

“It is an important topic that both our professional and our board leaders need to understand in terms of what is going on across the country and that can help us put decisions we’re making about St. Louis into perspective,” she said.

Schwarz feels strongly that communities across the nation do need to start making decisions to deal with falling affiliation rates. However, he stresses that the Jewish experience is merely paralleling wider trends across America, which is becoming increasingly mobile and less tied to a fraying social fabric that no longer connects people as it once did.

“It seems that all too often analyses of the Jewish community fall short because we look so much at ourselves and not at the context in which we function,” he said. “In the past 25 years, we’ve seen an erosion, almost an evaporation of the ethos of the public square.”

It’s a process he feels has been accelerated by the rise of the Internet, which has allowed people to cocoon themselves within their own bubbles of information.

“Look at the way you get your news. Instead of having four or five major media streams that have a responsibility to give a complete picture, everything has been narrow-casted,” he said. “Now you can choose the media source that is most aligned with your views.”

That dynamic has made it increasingly difficult for people to understand one another. But interestingly, that’s precisely why Schwarz is optimistic. Where American society fails to connect people, Jewish communal institutions should be primed to step in.

“I think there’s an opportunity,” he said. “The Jewish community should be in the business of creating common focus, common vision, common ground.”

But to claim that role and bring Jews together in common purpose, Schwarz believes, Judaic institutions must align around four principles: Jewish wisdom/learning, social justice, crafting lives of sacred purpose and the creation of intentional spiritual communities.

“If done well, these point to a potential renaissance of Jewish life in America,” he said.

He thinks traditional approaches to solving congregational shrinkage tend to misinterpret the problem. It does no good to water down spiritual education.

“People are interested in serious Jewish learning, not Jewish lite,” said Schwarz who at present serves as a senior fellow at Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “I think that’s been a big mistake to pitch Judaism on the lowest common denominator.”

It’s also not a marketing problem.

“The thought is just to make the ad bigger and send it out more regularly and maybe they’ll come,” he said. “That ain’t going to happen.”

Instead, Schwarz feels that rabbis and Jewish institutional leadership should work harder to listen to what the community is looking for and serve those needs. 

“When people are feeling more and more isolated in their lives, people are desperate for a place to connect with other people,” he said. “That should be the business of what synagogues do but it doesn’t happen if it is all top down. You’ve got to create an empowered lay culture.”

He said that synagogues built on successful models can see as much as half the congregation engaged and active as opposed to those stuck with older dynamics where 10 percent participate and the other 90 simply pay dues to keep the lights on. 

“We can see that some of the greatest growth and greatest energy in the Jewish community is among those organizations that are focusing on social justice that protects the most vulnerable around the world,” he said. “That’s going to be a feature of every Jewish institution and program.”

There is also a generational issue. Schwarz said that engaging next generation Jews doesn’t just mean trying to force them into the same dynamic as their parents and grandparents. Instead, he feels an active conversation is necessary. He says a great deal of innovative activity is already occurring though most of it is confined to the margins of Jewish life.

“A lot of that learning can happen if we bring together the leadership that is currently Boomer Generation or a bit younger…[and] Jews of a younger generation who may not have had all the resources of the older generation but intuitively understand these things that will attract their peer group,” he said.

Schwarz, who is based in Rockville, Md., will arrive in town the day before his presentation to give private workshops to the Millstone Fellows, Millstone IMPACT program and the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 

Instead, he feels an active conversation is necessary. He says a great deal of innovative activity is already occurring though most of it is confined to the margins of Jewish life.

“A lot of that learning can happen if we bring together the leadership that is currently Boomer Generation or a bit younger…[and] Jews of a younger generation who may not have had all the resources of the older generation but intuitively understand these things that will attract their peer group,” he said.

Schwarz, who is based in Rockville, Md., will arrive in town the day before his presentation to give private workshops to the Millstone Fellows, Millstone IMPACT program and the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.