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Rabbi Larry Pinsker

Rabbi Pinsker: The Business of Jewish Life: Reflections on New Hours for the Rady Jewish Community Centre- Read Pinsker's Recommendations

Rabbi Larry Pinsker, The New Shul of Winnipeg, Jan 17, 2013


[Editor's note: Rabbi Pinsker's recommendations  re: Shabbat and the Campus are near the end of this article]

If you could pray for only one thing, let it be for an idea.
 —Pierre M. Sutton, CEO and President, Inner City Broadcasting

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle." — Philo of Alexandria

A popular teaching widely attributed to Albert Einstein says: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Current research suggests, however, that this comment was made not by Albert Einstein, but rather by author Rita Mae Brown in her book Sudden Death. You can see on page 68 of the 1983 edition from Bantam Books. (It is also cited in The Basic Text of Narcotics Anonymous.)

The recent announcement of changes in the operating hours of the Rady Jewish Community Centre elicited a letter of disappointment and sad warning from the Winnipeg Council of Rabbis. Interestingly, when the Rady announced it would be open on Shabbat afternoons and on Jewish holy days back in 2005, a similar letter from the Council of Rabbis was distributed in June of that year. A draft of the June, 2009, Council of Rabbis’ response states:

The leaders of the community, without any prior consultation have informed the Winnipeg Council of Rabbis, that the Rady Centre and the Asper Campus will henceforth consider Shabbat and the Festivals to be ordinary work days for the purpose of business.  
It is with more sorrow than anger that we received their decision.  At least they informed their spiritual leaders that they are so lost that they no longer understand the first principles of Jewish life. They informed us in the week before Shavuot that they intend to ignore one of the Ten Commandments.

They told us that this is necessary for the future of the Jewish community.  What they did not seem to consider is what the future of the community might be without Shabbat.  Do they think that the Jewish people has survived for close to 4000 years because of our unique ability to balance the books of our institutions by having non-Jews pay dues to our community centre?

We are told that the campus is the “centre of it all.”  Do they think that there is something strange about a community that claims a swimming pool as its spiritual centre?  Do they think that the renewal of our community and its survival can rest on the violation of our most sacred days?

We believe that the Jewish community of Winnipeg needs to step back and think about what it is all about, and what will ensure its future.  We would like to discuss with the members of our community what gives the Jewish people its spiritual strength and its cohesion.  There are many who claim to be “cultural” Jews and not religious Jews.  Do they think one can have a Jewish culture without Shabbat?

Before this decision is implemented, we urge the community to consider the implications of making the violation of Shabbat the official policy of the Jewish community.

Eight years later, how shall we discuss the rabbis’ complaint in light of changing congregational and community demographics? I don’t mean statistics about the overall population willing to identify as Jews, but rather the evidence of how Jews choose to express their identity. For example: At a post-high holy day review in 2012 conducted by Jewish Federation and representatives of the most of the city‘s synagogues, it was noted that the synagogues that reported attendance figures had overall suffered a drop from roughly 33% to 25% over the last four years. Whether the numbers are off by a few percentage points is not critical:  it remains the case that synagogue attendance in Winnipeg is in decline.

Changes in the value of ethnicity, social devaluation of religion, cultural origins, and community all contribute to this decline. Family histories explain some of it.  But the change in Rady hours in 2005 is an unlikely reason for the dismissal or loss of Shabbat as a value in a majority of the Jewish community. (Of course, for all we know, some of them light Shabbat candles, chant Kiddush, and proclaim Hamotzi over two loaves of challah. Do we know?)

I want to remind us of a policy that has infused Federation, Rady Centre, and synagogue activities for at least as long as I have been in Winnipeg: it is that all the existing institutions of the Winnipeg Jewish community have roles to play in sustaining Jewish life in Winnipeg and that the overall decline of synagogues is reason for everyone to worry. Motivating synagogues to reclaim their primary role in Jewish life – to create Jews who will actively engage in Jewish life – is an essential Jewish community goal.

We need to note that the decision of Rady Centre leaders was not motivated by concern over losing the growing non-Jewish population using its facilities. On the contrary, I have been reliably told that the reason was not an outcry from the 50% of Rady membership who are not Jews, but rather from Jewish members who wanted to use the facilities on their Saturday mornings.

Jewish communities have made an earnest effort to support the emergence of future Jews by supporting Jewish summer camping, Jewish day schools, teen programming, Birthright and March of the Living, Jewish education for adults (especially for parents of children). All of these are helpful strategies for encouraging lifelong learning and engagement in Jewish social, political, and communal organizations.

We have strongly emphasized our solidarity, and our vision of ethic pride, and the leaders of our community over the decades have every reason to celebrate their many achievements. The problem is that it is not enough. Dr. Sylvia Barack Fishman, Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life at Brandeis University, has warned that it is a mistake for Jews to believe that they will endure as an ethnic group divorced from a Jewish spiritual and religious heritage. She has said:

Ethnic capital is a term sociologists use to describe how distinctive an ethnic group is. Ethnic groups that are not distinctive do not survive in an open society, so ethnic capital is really the key to cultural survival. Among all religious groups – not only Jews – identity is far more stable when there only one religion in a household. It is not only the non-Jew who affects ethnic capital, of course: Statistically, as a group Jews who marry across cultural lines are frequently not as attached to Jewishness as Jews who marry Jews, and they bring little ethnic capital to the household.

Not the individual alone, but the cultural environment establishes the "worthwhileness" of particular activities and particular personal decisions. Personal behavior is deeply influenced by perceptions of what other people are doing and thinking, as Malcom Gladwell has convincingly argued. Individuals are often unaware of the influence of their social networks, and believe themselves to have embraced these values independently.

Gladwell shows that societal expectations go over a "tipping point," and from that time forward, the once-transgressive behavior is viewed as normative and persons will be pulled toward the changed standards, all other things being equal. Indeed, once the threshold has been passed, previously normative behaviors are often viewed as socially undesirable.

For those concerned about Jewish cultural transmission, it is clear that a laissez faire approach cannot succeed. Jews are a tiny minority group … embedded in a large, dominant, primarily Christian … culture.

Jews must be willing to be different, and Jewish leaders and educators should have as a goal – not as a brickbat – helping them want to be different … .

Despite her observation about a potential adverse outcome from religious pluralism in the household, Dr. Barack Fishman does not dismiss intermarriage outright nor forecast doom. She notes that the parental Jewish connections that have the greatest impact on children and teens are those in which adults

“(1) are involved in Jewish activities on a regular basis; (2) care deeply about their Jewish activities; and (3) are able to articulate their engagement with Judaism sincerely and frequently. Research shows that if cultural transmission is the goal it's not enough for parents to walk the walk – they also need to talk the talk!”

Applying Dr. Barack Fishman’s comments to our situation, perhaps we need to acknowledge that we have crossed the tipping point. We’ve been that at least half the membership of Rady are not Jews and that three-fourths of Winnipeg Jews have little or no connection to synagogues except visits for familial and social life-cycle events – ceremonies for birth, coming-of-age, weddings, and funerals.  We don’t know how many make a conscious effort both to “walk the walk” and “talk the talk” of Jewish life.

The dilemma of the loss of the sanctity of Jewish symbols is surely serious, but what we are witnessing is a much larger issue, as has been noted by Dr. Lawrence A. Hoffman in Reinventing Synagogues: A New Vocabulary for Congregational Life. What he and his colleague Dr Ron Wolfson (from the Whizin Centre at the University of Judaism) have discovered through almost twenty years of research and on-the-ground work with congregations is that synagogues are in decline is that for Judaism to survive (and let us not think that Jews will continue to exist and identify without Judaism; we’ve been there, done that, and are the worse for the wear), we need to motivate Jews to choose to be Jews through Jewish activities that inspire conscious identification and passion – and who believe that being Jews is a meaningful expression of human experience.

Whatever institution that enables Jews (and others who are not in the moment Jews) to hear the spiritual and moral messages of Jewish spirituality, ethics, and living and inspires them to living lives sanctified through prayer, political action, and gemilut chesed – deeds that pay forward) offers a future to the Jewish people. In Rethinking Synagogues, Dr. Hoffman  refers to our present-day synagogues as “default institutions” which are “limited liability communities”. They are market organizations in competition with others like themselves that are also intent upon providing a products demanded by consumers. Hoffman wants synagogues to offer a fundamental experience of connectedness – something that does not arise from memberships and money but rather from holy deeds and practices. 

So what can we do about this?  I would like to make some suggestions:

1) First, the issue is not one of whether opening the Rady Centre on Shabbat is a harbinger of doom. It is whether we can harness the enormous energy and good will that the Rady Centre has generated to strengthen Jewish life. To that end I suggest that:

a) We making Jewish learning, spiritual, and religious activities available at the Rady Centre for those who would like to explore these matters. Workshops, classes, discussion groups – the substance of Rady learning would be expanded into Shabbat morning time slots.

b) We ask that the Gray Academy’s chapel – which lies dormant on most Shabbat mornings –  and other campus space be activated on Shabbat morning as  places where individuals and families using the Rady facilities may have the option of spending a little time engaged in experiencing Shabbat for a little while as aspects of our people’s life, culture, identity, and religion. I would ask that the rabbis and their respective institutions allot a portion of their personnel resources on a rotating basis to provide these services so that any programme developed for this purpose be provided by all parts of the Jewish community.

c) We ask that the Rady Centre in conjunction with Federation, the synagogues, and the Manitoba Jewish Foundation support a grant to create a campus closed-circuit cable TV network which would be available not only to those at athletic workout stations in the Centre but also in classrooms and, if possible, to the general community as a library, perhaps as Youtube videos and/or DVDs. Offering low-cost or no-cost enrichment materials – podcasts – and ongoing options for adding a few minutes of Jewish learning to the lives of those  using the Centre who want this type of engagement might be a reasonable benefit of membership. We would showcase the diversity and richness of Jewish life in Winnipeg. Programmes could be defined by various demographic groups, from parents to seniors, and take advantage of already-existing libraries of Jewish media resources.  The production and management of this media outreach would be under the supervision of our amazing, literate, media-savvy teens and incorporate lessons from local rabbis, Jewish leaders, interfaith spokepersons, Gray Academy and university faculty, and professionals who can offer lively content to engage their viewers.

d)  Let’s make Jewish learning and connection a priority in all our institutions.  How can we promote those values in an essentially secularized environment? My suggestions are two-fold:

1) First let’s finally have a public, star-studded conversation about the way we use words like “secular”, “religious”, and “spiritual” to convey the fundamentals of how we live our lives. All three words are visceral – they describe ways of being alive and standing for something. There are intelligent conversations to be had about all three and what they mean to those who utter them. At the moment, they are divisive and devaluing terms because they are used to isolate individuals – Jewish and non-Jewish – from each other. However, they are not mutually exclusive.

2) Extraordinary programmes are available for engaging people – even marginally interested people – in informal Jewish learning. Perhaps we could fund outreach to a couple of thousand unaffiliated Jews and their partners through fresh and exciting gateways to Jewish life that would be low-cost or no-cost. I know of one such proposal that languishes for want of attention.

e) I request that the agencies of Jewish life jointly engage the Asper School of Management in a broad market study of how the institutions of Winnipeg Jewish life currently contribute to Jewish connectivity on the part of the Jews of Winnipeg – and how they might strengthen those connections. Perhaps if Federation, JCFS, synagogues, the Rady Centre, the Gray Academy, and the other institutions of Jewish life perceived that they would benefit from a broad conversation about and study of how to establish common purpose and strategies for advancing Jewish life in Winnipeg, then we would be able to move forward. Therefore,  we may want to have Dean Michael Bennaroch and  the Asper School of Management design a market study to find out ways that will encourage more Jewish membership in our Jewish community centre. Since it is an anchor of the campus, we want it to be  strenghthening the Jewish community. Can we as a community really afford  to have the number of Jewish members be less than 50% in the future?

f) Ought we to consider how our policies at  the Asper Campus accord with the values our Judaic studies faculty are teaching our Gray Academy students? Do we want to be supporting the education they get in school or contradict it?

g)  With regard to the Rady Centre, we all have an interest in ensuring that the percentage of Jewish membership increases rather than decreases in the future and also that genuine Jewish engagement is increased through its programming. In the event that the percentage of Jewish members declines further, it will still be in the interest of the Rady to be engaged in both broader and deeper Jewish learning. A realistic response to the growing population of Jewish members of the Rady who have non-Jewish spouses and partners, requires more creative approaches to those families that encourage them to increase the “Jewishness” of their households. It may be that this will even require us to establish partnerships with supportive non-Jewish clergy with firm commitments to strengthening, increasing, and preserving a solid Jewish presence in Winnipeg. This might be a good place to invest some of that Rady budget surplus to strengthen the Centre’s Jewish future.

Of course conversations about these matters have been at the heart of community decision-making since ancient times. But when we start repeating ourselves, there may be  a need for some fresh approach to taking old market models of Jewish life and institutions and reviving the way that they promote the authentic spiritual dimensions of Jewish life without which the Jewish future in North America will be greatly diminished. (What do I mean by “spiritual” here? Let’s use Professor Hoffman’s definition:  the fundamental experience of connectedness – without which there cannot be Jews.)

In the Babylonian Talmud [Berachot 45a], we read "Go and see how the public are accustomed to act" and by that means we may arrive at clarity regarding how to advance an exciting Jewish life.  Elsewhere [Pesachim 66a], Hillel says: "Leave it to Israel; if they are not prophets, they are the children of prophets." If members of the Jewish community are satisfied with the picture before us of Jewish life in Winnipeg, then either we will give them reason to join in changing it, or we will have no choice but to be bystanders to unwelcome changes.
I suspect we have simply failed to reach people who may want to bring something more vibrantly Jewish into their lives. But asking the Rady to reverse its decision is not going to engage them.

At the beginning of this article, I cited a misattributed quotation. It is such an intelligent and direct observation. That’s why people attribute it to Einstein. Only a genius could have come up with “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I’ve had my doubts about its origins from the first time I heard it because I can’t imagine Einstein ever saying it for one reason: because scientific method depends upon people doing the same thing over and over in order to verify whether experimental outcomes are correct, honestly derived, and accurately reported. When you get different results after performing an experiment others have conducted, either you verify their research or you cast doubt on it.

Every organization, every leader, every person working at the task  of making a Jewish future has made a difference in our collective communal life and deserves appreciation for his or her efforts. I am confident that not everyone will agree that we are doing the same things over and over, and that now it’s time to acknowledge that the results are only marginally successful.

But from all that I have heard in recent years, it seems that people are hungry for another experimental model, some bold ventures. The Jewish future needs all of us. It’s not only the rabbis who need to acknowledge the pain and disappointment of the changes taking place, and it’s not only they who need to rekindle hope for the beautiful Jews of Winnipeg.

As for me, I invite everyone to join me in praying for new ideas and for enough imagination and courage to apply them.

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