Disrupted Judaism – High Holidays 5777

October 20, 2016

We are living in a time of Disruption. It seems to be the phrase of the day. There was a time when if your phone service was disrupted, you were upset. But today, we strive to disrupt industries, products, ideas, and services. Disruption means to end one way of doing things and reinvent the process according to new criteria.

Forbes magazine declared that we are in the “Era of Business Disruption.”1


The global consulting firm Accenture held a summit at Harvard University called “Leadership in an era of Disruption.”2

The term, coined by Clayton Christensen, is applicable across industries and platforms. While this is not an MBA class, it is worthwhile to spend a little time explaining ‘disruptive innovation theory’ because it perfectly applies to the Jewish community.         In brief, companies, even well run companies, focus on their main client base. Think regular shul goers. These are the people who are the most frequent user of whatever widget the company makes or provides. It makes sense for the company to focus attention and innovations around these “frequent flyers”, as I will call them. After all, these are the clients who continually upgrade their services, extend their contracts and invite in more similarly placed clients into the company’s fold. For synagogues, it would be those who regularly attend services or are involved in the religious school or adult education classes.

Christensen says this strong focus on core users leaves a place in the market for innovators or disruptors to address the unmet needs of the “less than frequent flyers.”

The Jewish community is not immune from the experiences of disruptive tendencies. I want to look at where we are and stimulate thought about areas of disruption we can embrace as we move forward.

For over 160 years, the American Jewish community has been structured in a particular way.3 Federations and their agencies, JCCs, and synagogues, have been focused all that time on engaging Jews and building the infrastructure of our community.

While dedicated and creative Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders were vigorously focused on the incredible work which has led the Jewish community to being a leader of community development on the macro-level within America’s ethnic communities, a quiet sub-straight of Jews were indicating on the micro-level that the formal institutions were not speaking to them.

I imagine Clayton Christensen would say the experience of new pop-up independent Jewish groups, advocacy organizations, minyanim, publishers, theaters, and even Jewish Movements is a good thing. These new groups on the scene – JStreet, Jewish Renewal, minyanim by the names of The Kitchen, The Library, Hadar, IKAR and more are both grassroots expressions of unmet needs and a push for legacy organizations, synagogues included, to think in new ways.
This is a disruptive moment… and I could not be more excited. Let me tell you why.

Today is the greatest time ever to be Jewish. It may not always feel that way but it really is.  Despite many articles on newsfeeds, there are more Jews, doing Jewish in more creative ways than ever before. Jewish culture and art is flourishing; the creation of Jewish books, plays, and movies are at an all-time high; more people are doing serious Jewish learning at day schools and on college campuses than ever happened in the age of the Talmud.  From American University to York University, there are over 200 Jewish Studies departments across the US and Canada so I think Rabbi Akiva would be jealous.4

The second reason I am exhilarated about this disruptive moment is that while the ‘less than frequent flyers’ are discontent with formal institutions, most are still engaged in Judaism.  People understand there is a difference between a membership form and a faith.  People want to experience and express their Judaism in different ways and methods so they are creating new modalities. The Jewish disruptors are walking away from buildings, not beliefs.                                                                                                  They are creating institutions without walls.

I believe these new paradigms of thinking about Jewish community do not only apply to people of a certain age though. Whether you are post-college or a proud member of AARP, people are thinking differently about traditional aspects of Judaism. Reducing this to Millennials versus Boomers misses the deeper tectonic shifts.

The landscape of America religious affiliation has shifted across the country and we need to think deeply about this. Think Bowling Alone or Malcolm Gladwell, South By Southwest festivals or Adam Grant’s Originals. This new landscape is not a bankruptcy of faith, just the need for some re-thinking of institutions.

And therefore a synagogue like Beth El focused on articulating and nurturing beliefs is perfectly positioned to respond.

So how do we respond for this need for Shul 3.0?

Beth El should continue to be an incubator of fresh ideas. We will continue with the traditions which are meaningful to so many and add new opportunities as well. This is not a zero-sum game between traditional practices and new ideas. We can continue our Talmud shiurim at shul while also having video conferencing classes like we did over the past 4 weeks using new web based platforms.

Some new ideas will work and others will not but we will learn along the way to make sure Judaism is relevant.

Let’s think about three areas where the landscape has changed: ritual, Israel and community.


“For the most part (Jews in the past navigated) their way through modernity’s unfamiliar terrain much as we do today: via eclectic patterns of observance and varied, often individual, sets of meanings….”5 That is how Dr. Arnie Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary described how we use ritual today in his book Rethinking Modern Judaism.

I love this phrase – ‘eclectic patterns.’ This is exactly how we each create our Jewish experience. People say ‘I do this but not that. I do that but in my own way.  I do this but add my own twist.’

We celebrate people’s ability to create their own ‘eclectic patterns of observance’ with web sites, Apps and a Jewish DIY approach.

Synagogues must enhance these eclectic moments but a synagogue is no longer the sole arbitrator of rituals.  Our ancient rituals can add meaning to our lives in modern moments and circumstances but they need to be rethought and recontextualized. Vanessa Ochs calls this experience Minhag America – the American customs of Judaism.  In her book, Inventing Jewish Ritual, she says:

All these new American Jewish practices are the handiwork of a generation that has not allowed anxiety about innovation to hamper ritual creativity.

With verve, this generation has reshaped familiar practices and designed new ones.6

Now is the time for mainstream synagogues to embrace aspects of what was once on the fringes.

Mikvot, the ancient ritual baths. These baths can be seen when you visit Masada or tour the Temple walls in Jerusalem. This ancient practice was used for ritual purity and mainly focused around women.  Today though, emersion in the mikvah waters is being used for healing rituals during chemotherapy treatments or after pregnancy loss.  New prayers have been written for men or women to use the mikvah as a ritual of new beginnings after a divorce and not only before a marriage. Mikvah is used for traditional reasons and as a ritual for recovery from domestic violence and rape.

Beth El is a supporting partner of our Community Mikvah located in Cleveland Park.7 This ancient ritual is being rethought and new layers of meaning are adding to its richness.

The experience of prayer itself has also changed. Rather than the routine recitation of Hebrew liturgy, people want to be touched by the words and purpose of prayers in deeper ways. Our new Shabbat prayerbooks and High Holiday machzorim are example of how people want the tools to make meaning for themselves within the prayer experience rather than being told what that experience should be.

Anita Diamant has said, ritual “creativity springs up from imagination and need…. You can’t manufacture that.”8 In synagogues today, we have both – imagination and a need for its application.

Across the country, people like Shefa Gold, Vanessa Ochs, and Naomi Levy; Jonathan Slater, Menachem Creditor, Amichai Lau-Lavie, and Noa Kushner are creating new ritual bridges between Judaism’s ancient rites and modern moments.

We can be more bold in our attempts to balance the need to be an incubator of new ideas and approaches and simultaneously preserving the customs which are already meaningful for many.

In my vision, Beth El is able to uplift rituals for their traditional purpose and have the capacity to bring new meanings to the old rites.


The second area I want to think about together is how Israel is discussed at synagogue.  We need to be more confident in ourselves in order to have open conversations about Israel. Opinions about Israel have become a sort of litmus test of something within the community. Are you liberal enough?  Are you conservative enough? Are you too sympathetic with this group or that group?  It has become a disservice to the nuanced and hard conversations we need to have about Israel, Palestine and the Arab countries. Too many people live within the echo chamber of their own newsfeeds, selected cable channels and preferred columnists.

My vision is that our synagogue is a place where the complexities of Ahavat Yisrael, loving Israel, are expressed and explored. I want the synagogue to be a place which exposes us to broader ideas than we might naturally or comfortably encounter and support us as we evaluate their strengths and shortcomings.

But there are limits. Groups or opinions which work to delegitimize or undercut Israel’s right to exist are not welcome. BDS efforts, groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and intimidation tactics on college campuses are designed to stifle true debate and speech – they are not expressions of it.

With all the important conversations about Israel around the politics of land, borders and security, we cannot forget the inspiration and miracle of Israel. The political realities are true and Israel is so much more than the politics though.

Israel is about the soul of the Jewish love of Zion. The root of Zionism is the Jewish dream of 2,000 years.

This is the love and longing that inspired Yehuda Halevi in the year 1130 in Spain to write:

My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West;

How can I taste what I eat and how could it be pleasing to me?

Or the longing of Hayim Bialik in 1891 from Odessa when he wrote a poem speaking to a bird who has just returned from visiting the Holy Land. Bialik wants to know how the Land is faring and bemoans the plight of the Jews in the Diaspora.  He writes:

Do you bring greetings from my fellows in Zion, from my brothers near and far?

O happy ones! Surely they must know that I suffer, oh, how I suffer in pain.9

We too live in the Diaspora while our hearts are in Zion. The politics are real and nobody knew that better than Shimon Peres z’l. Just this past July at the ground breaking ceremony of the Technology Innovation Center in Jerusalem, he said:

The Innovation Center that will be established here will showcase our national pride and will advance peace between people… We will prove that innovation has no limits and no barriers. Innovation enables dialogue between nations and between people. It will enable all young people – Jews, Muslims and Christians – to engage in science and technology equally. Here we will emphasize that we can promote peace from childhood, and we will spark the imagination of every boy and girl and enrich their dreams.

(Peres continued,) They called me a dreamer. But today, when I look at Israel, we all can see clearly that the greater the dream, the more spectacular the results.10

So think of your last conversations about Israel. How many conversations did not mention Hamas, Iran, occupation, or BDS? What was the last Israeli poem you read or movie you watched? Just as America is based on foundational ideals which we often fall short of, Israel is our homeland, our inspiration, our muse.

When it falls short, I am not deterred though. We need to let Israel touch our soul again.

Like on the dreidel at Chanukah – Ness Gadol Haya Sham, a great miracle happened there. And it is continuing to happen. Let’s have the confidence to be part of it.

Community of Purpose

And now my last part. We will think deeper about how we use and create rituals. We will embrace our love of Israel through the diversity of our conversations and open ourselves up for inspiration. And now, we need to think about creating a community of purpose.

We talk about community all the time. We say it is our goal to create it and it is what attracts people here. But you don’t need a shul for community. You can go to a country club if you only want community.

At Beth El, you are part of a community of purpose.

We come together and enjoy the social aspects of seeing each other. I am told there is even a robust social aspect in the hallways at services too!

But, there is a greater purpose to being here as well. Rabbi Avi Weiss, a modern Orthodox rabbi and activist points out:

The last word of the creation story is la’asot, ‘to do.’ God, in effect, tells us, ‘I’ve created the world incompletely, imperfectly, and leave it to you to finish that which I have started.  In partnership, we will redeem the world.’11

Our purpose of the congregation is more than simply congregating. Our purpose is to make a difference and to draw closer to the Divine.

Paraphrasing Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: We look around and know there is a gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought’ to be.12 We have the capacity to close that gap for ourselves and others.

There is a gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ when I look at hunger, education, violence, abuse of power, addiction, bigotry, sexism and other problems.

I also know there is a gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ when I hear the loneliness people feel right here in our congregational family. When someone is sick and nobody calls or notices they are missing. When I go to a shiva house and we barely get a minyan. When people feel they were not welcomed when they come to a program.

‘What is’ and ‘what ought to be’ – We are a community of purpose and we must close that gap.

We live at a time when Judaism is needed more than ever. We need the grounding of our faith, the inspiration of our tradition, and the rituals to make moments sacred. But, we need to expect our Jewish institutions, including synagogues, to create spaces for alternative ways of thinking and new foundational assumptions.

In an era of disruption, we will discover what Shul 3.0 looks and feels like together. We are on an exciting path at Beth El. I am confident about our future. As we think deeper about rituals, Israel and community, I pray that 5777 is a year of health and fulfillment for you and that it is filled with sacred moments.

Shana Tova



1 Forbes Magazine December 3, 2014

2 www.accenture.com/us-en/insight-leadership-era-disruption

3 www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/philanthropy.html

4 www.ajsnet.org/jewish-studies-america-baskin.pdf

5 Arnold Eisen, Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community p2

6 Vanessa L. Ochs, Inventing Jewish Ritual p34

7 http://adasisrael.org/mikvah-2/

8 Interview with Anita Diamant, podcast, “Judaism Unbound” Episode 12 May 6, 2016


10 http://www.peres-center.org/?categoryId=104155&itemId=263416

11 Avi Weiss, Principles of Spiritual Activism p3

12 Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World p134