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Rabbi Sid Schwarz

Rabbi Schwarz's Recipe for Attracting Next Generation Jews: Serious Jewish Learning, Social Activism, Kehilla and Kedusha- Fulfilling Jewish Soul (Jewish environmentalism, Food Justice)

by Rhonda Spivak, March 15, 2015




In a thought provoking sweeping lecture which gave a broad overview of trends in the Jewish world, Rabbi Sid Schwarz opened the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg's Limmud conference by noting that "The Federation system [in North America] is in serious decline." He noted that in 1985 there were 900,000 donors to the Federation, but in 2010 there were only 450,000, "a 50% drop in 25 years."


Similarly, according to the data referred to by Rabbi Schwarz only 7% of members of Reform and Conservative synagogues are age 35 or under. Additionally, memberships in Jewish organizations and in the "JCC networks" are also facing "steep decline."


Rabbi Schwarz, named "one of America's top 50 most influential rabbis" by Time Magazine, noted that the Federation system has kept its campaign numbers high by getting wealthy donors  "to double their gift from $100,000 to $200,000", but when you look at the donor base,  it has shrunken significantly. Rabbi Schwarz, who has a doctorate in Jewish  history noted that in biblical times Jews got counted by  "giving a half Shekel" but when one looks at the Federation system, the reality is that fewer and fewer Jews are giving that half shekel. 


Rabbi Schwarz, who said that his biggest charitable donation yearly is to the Jewish Federation, outlined how For Next Generation Jews, unlike previous generations of Jews, the issue isn't "how will we make it in America." Jews have already done well socio-economically, and the question for Next Generation Jews, according to Schwarz is whether Judaism can offer any added value to their lives. According to Rabbi Schwarz, who is the director of the Rene Cassin Fellowship Program, a yearlong fellowship on Judaism and human rights for young professionals, Next Generation Jews are asking "why do we need it" since "we can be successful without it."


Rabbi Schwarz, a 61 year old who is the son of Holocaust survivors, said that Next Generation Jews are interested in "living out the covenant" in ways that are different than his generation. He made it clear that if organizations such as the Jewish Federation and synagogue do not begin to put on programming that targets the interests of Next Generation Jews, then they will remain in serious decline. Next Gen Jews are "passionate" about some things and are "reinventing Jewish life" in ways that are different than previous generations


Rabbi Schwarz, who is a senior fellow at Clal (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), gave a four pronged "recipe" for engaging Next Generation Jews, outlining four areas which in which he believes Next Generation Jews are keenly interested: 


He is also the director of the Rene Cassin Fellowship Program, a yearlong fellowship on Judaism and human rights for young professionals with hubs in New York, London and Jerusalem.  He founded and led PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values for 21 years.


SERIOUS JEWISH LEARNING. According to Rabbi Schwarz, "Next Generation Jews are more serious about Jewish learning than my generation ever was." He noted that in his generation, "non-orthodox Jews didn't learn." He said that the Limmud Festival of Jewish Learning, which is now occurring in 80 cities, is one example of this trend. According to Rabbi Schwartz, many Jews who come to Limmud are not necessarily Jews 'who give to the Jewish Federation, or belong to synagogues or belong to Jewish organizations, but they "are interested in serious Jewish learning" (Editor's note: I have sent in a query to the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg in this regard since I would venture to say that the vast majority of attendees of Limmud in our city are in fact donors to the Jewish Federation). Rabbi Schwartz noted that Chabad has an appeal to Next Generation Jews because it is "giving and providing authentic serious Jewish learning", something which young people want, "even though they don’t want that observant lifestyle necessarily." His overall point was that you can't put out "Jewish lite” but instead must offer serious Jewish Learning


PROVIDING TZEDEK  THROUGH SOCIAL ACTIVISM - According to Rabbi Schwartz, this is the sector that has grown the most regarding Next Generation Jews.  Rabbi Schwarz is of the view that is necessary to "Use the wisdom and values of Jewish Tradition' in order to "to inspire greater social activism and community service.” Jewish values provide a lens through which to harness social activism. As Schwartz said, "We [Jews] care about the world" since if the world isn't safe for humanity "we are the canary in the coal mine, we’ll be the first victims when the world turns dark, which it is again doing."


Rabbi Schwarz referred to the American Jewish World Service [AJWS], to which more and more Next Generation Jews are attracted. It "allocates money to non-profits throughout developing world." According to Schwarz, while the Federation movement has lost half its donor base, the AJWS has grown significantly, which shows "Jews are passionate' about "re going to India and Nepal, to work with people who are dispossessed." He referred to his own daughter who spent a year in India through  AWJS.  This type of experience enables Next Generation Jews to "be fully engaged in the he world but in a Jewish way."

Rabbi Schwarz gave another example of providing Tzedek through social activism, by talking about a mission to Haiti he organized at the congregation he founded, the Adat Shalom Reconstructionist congregation in Bethseda, MD.  Rabbi Schwartz met a Pastor  who founded a church and a school in Leogane, (Less than 50% of Haitian children go to any elementary school all) His congregation  undertook a  Haiti Project with the primary mission of supporting the Pastor 's School which serves 170 children from K-6th grades. He noted, that Jews have really responded to this and "we sell the trip out every year. There's a waiting list." (To read more about the Mission to Haiti, go to


Rabbi Schwarz,  concluded, "If  Jewish community doesn’t  get into this [social activism] business, Jews will go elsewhere—they’ll find it elsewhere." for example, he said that Next Gen Jews will "go to Habitat for Humanity and others since "they want to walk the walk of prophetic Judaism."



PROVIDING "KEHILLA"-According to Rabbi Schwarz, the Jewish community and synagogues need to build "kehilla"-"community," as this is something that people are craving for.


"At a time when technology has made meaningful social intercourse much harder to come by, the Jewish community must offer a place where people can find support in time of need, communal celebration in times of joy and relationships that make life fulfilling."


According to Rabbi Schwarz "Just because you build a building and put a Magen David on the door", doesn't mean you have created true Kehilla.


Rabbi Schwarz referred to the fact that he has spent much time in his address for Shabbat Dinner at Etz Chayim Synagogue outlining how synagogues can engage people in a meaningful way and that a third of the people present for his talk at Limmud had heard him already in this regard the night before. (Editor's note: In my view it's unfortunate that Rabbi Schwarz did not go into far more detail on this point re: how synagogues can engage people in a meaningful way providing "kehilla" is his opening address in Limmud. Of course, presumably, his books will go into this in far more depth. Rabbi Schwarz has authored two ground breaking books Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews can Transform the American Synagogue and Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future, and has a third book due.)


PROVIDING KEDUSHA -Rabbi Schwarz spoke of the need to "create holy space and holy time" which is something he dealt with in more depth in the "out of the box" prayer service he conducted at Shaarey Zedek synagogue earlier on Shabbat morning March 14 (which had an attendance of some 300 people). He said that it doesn't matter how much you earn, "once you provide for a person's basic needs," they are looking for something "to fulfill the soul." He spoke of how the 


Jewish environmental movement is something which attracts Next generation Jews who "care about our planet " and "think about sustainablilty" and "food justice. He spoke of the popularity of organizations such as Hazon, which looks at creating healthier and more sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond.  Hazon's food conferences have only grown and grown, according to Schwarz. 



In regard to intermarriage, Rabbi Schwarz said that "tribal Jews" want to tell their children to date Jews, but Next Generation Jews don't understand why you would want "to privilege Jews over non-Jews."


At the beginning of his talk Rabbi Schwarz outlined some seminal moments in his own life as a Jew. He began by noting that he is "a boomer" and for his parents, who lived through the Shoah and the Birth of Israel, there was "no issue of identity." They were "tribal Jews", who identified with the history, present and future of the Jewish people. (This is opposed to "Next Generation Jews who see themselves as global citizens of the world.")


For Rabbi Schwarz, the Six day war was a "pivotal" event, and as a teenager he remembers his parents on the phone raising money for Israel and the "real fear" that Israel would not survive that war. After the 1967 war, Rabbi Schwarz noted that Jews were proud and "identification with the State of Israel skyrocketed." In his 20's, Rabbi Schwarz recalls being on a bus in Tel-Aviv going down Dizengoff when Jewish hostages were freed by Israel during the Raid on Entebbe in Uganda. In his thirties, he was involved in organizing what turned out to be a massive rally advocating for the freedom of Soviet Jewry on Dec 6, 1987 when Soviet President Gorbachev visited US President Ronald Reagan in Washington. "Reagan said there will be no detente" until Soviet Jews were let go. "These experiences represent the tenacity of the Jewish people to survive," Rabbi Schwarz noted.


He then contrasted his experiences with that of Next generation Jews, who remember "Israel invading Lebanon" which he said "became Israeli's Vietnam war" and they pulled out 15 years later.  He referred to how Next Generation Jews Israel have been exposed to the narrative that Israel is not a "David" but a Goliath, "dispossessing Palestinains" and "occupying Palestinians. "

"Next Generation Jews at best have ambivalent attitudes to Israel," Rabbi Schwarz noted, referring to the Pew Study.


[Editorial: When I get a chance I hope to examine Rabbi Schwarz 's outlook vis- a- vis Israel more closely. I am of the view that one is more likely to get a  Next Generation Jew to be involved in and committed to Jewish life long-term by sending them for an extended stay in Israel, (i.e. at Hebrew Univeristy's one year program) than having them spend a year  doing social justice in Nepal. But maybe that's just because I am a "tribal" Jew. Don't get me wrong. Spending a year doing Tikkun Olam in Nepal or India is a very valuable thing, but long term I do not believe that one can take Israel out of the mix altogether in preserving Jewish identity and continuity. In other words, I do not think Jewish life in the diaspora will continue long term if we only do tikkun olam by helping others without helping our own brethren, including those in Israel. I note that there was nothing in Rabbi Schwarz’s four pronged recipe for revitalizing Jewish life in North America in his opening address that spoke about ways to increase a connection of Next Generation Jews to helping other Jews and Jews in Israel. I would have liked to have heard him on this point.


Additionally, I for one do not think that Israelis defending their homes from rocket attacks in 2006 from Hizbollah, for example, has anything to do with occupying Palestinians (It has to do with Hizbollah wanting to destroy Israel) nor do I accept Rabbi Schwarz's simplistic analogy that Israel's invasion of Lebanon  was its Vietnam war. Vietnam is very, very far from America. Lebanon is exceedingly close to Israel. Unless we say that Israel ought to withdraw from the Galilee, then it’s not surprising that Israel would have tried in 1982 and onward to defend against katusha rockets  landing in the backyards of Israelis living in Upper Galilee. Similarly unless we say that Israel should withdraw from Sederot, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Be'er Sheva, or Tel-Aviv  then presumably defending against incoming Hamas missiles on Israel's civilian population and Ben-Gurion airport in 2014 is not about occupying Palestinians. It's about preserving the existence of the State of Israel, which Hamas wants to destroy. And it's hard from me to see how when it comes to the threat of Iran becoming a nuclear state, that Israel is simply a "Goliath" and Iran is a  "David." Unfortunately, I note that Rabbi Schwarz  referred to the narrative of dispossessing and occupying Palestinians but didn't challenge the narrative in any way in his address.

In fact in the Huffington Post on May 19 2010 Rabbi Schwarz wrote "I believe that the way our community has chosen to 'defend Israel' has profoundly alienated the next generation of American Jews." It seems that Rabbi Schwarz is saying here that had Jewish communal organizations enabled more free flowing and harsher criticism of Israel, more Next Generation Jews would be involved. I would be interested in seeing data to support this proposition. Should we organize some Israel bashing sessions and see if we get more Next Generation Jews attending than usual  ?]

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.