The following editorial is from the Thursday October 25, 2007 issue of The New York Jewish Week.
What’s The Big Idea?
There is something thrilling — yet also disturbing — about the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation’s new quest for The Next Big Jewish Idea, a plan to sponsor a two-year visiting post at Brandeis University for the contest winner to develop a proposal that will “change the way Jews think about themselves and their community.”
Thrilling because there is an air of creative excitement about the prospect of coming up with a concept as transformative as birthright israel, which the Bronfman Foundation helped found and which has inspired tens of thousands of young Jews from around the world who in the last decade have benefited from a free trip to Israel.
But what troubles me is the very notion that we
need, and can benefit from, a quick fix to the myriad problems that threaten the future of Jewish life as we know it in America.
We set a trap for ourselves if we think that any one project can deal with issues as complex as increasing assimilation, diminishing Jewish birthrates, less identification with Israel and American Jewish institutions, and a rise in secularism and distrust of organized religion, for starters.
The good news is that, while it’s true that most young Jews are not interested in affiliating with synagogues and organizations the way their parents and grandparents did, that doesn’t mean that they are not exploring their own ways of expressing Jewish identity. I for one am heartened, particularly this week after experiencing The Conversation — a two-day conference sponsored by The Jewish Week in partnership with CLI (the Center for Leadership Initiatives), bringing together more than 50 current and emerging Jewish leaders around the country from a variety of backgrounds to meet, network, and explore new ideas together.
I met a number of men and women in their 20s and 30s who are engaged in fostering and strengthening Jewish community in a variety of ways, from Internet projects to experiments in Jewish communal living to educational innovations.
One of the more memorable sessions — all of which were off the record so as to give the participants a sense of comfort to speak openly — was an hour-long discussion by the full group on what Jewish art means today: who produces it, how it’s defined, and what it expresses. It’s an especially rich topic since there has been a burst of creativity of late from young Jewish musicians, filmmakers, photographers, painters, comedians and others in the arts.
I came away more optimistic about the Jewish future, convinced that we don’t need a Silver Bullet but rather, as veteran University of Michigan Hillel director Michael Brooks says, “we need Silver Buckshot” — any number of small but sustained efforts to heighten Jewish identity and awareness.
The Bronfman Next Big Idea project echoes a 1929 contest sponsored by Julius Rosenwald, the Sears Roebuck chairman, to help Judaism “best adjust itself to and influence modern life.” The winner of the $10,000 prize was Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, whose seminal work, “Judaism as a Civilization,” led to the foundation of the Reconstructionist movement.
Almost eight decades later, we are still trying to help Judaism “best adjust itself to and influence modern life.” But that’s an ongoing process that can best be done by cultivating the natural blossoms of creativity that are sprouting all around us.
Jewish life doesn’t really need another Big Idea. It already has one, and it dates back thousands of years. Judaism gave the world the concept of monotheism, produced the Torah and a set of commandments and rituals that have sustained us as a people ever since, as well as the notion that we have a relationship with our Creator and are partners in repairing the world.
One big idea is enough. The challenge today is not to come up with another one but to fulfill our original role as “a light unto the nations,” not in the sense of superiority to others but rather as humble models, still and always dedicated to leaving the world a better place for our children than the one we inherited from our parents.
That’s an idea, and goal, that can and should keep us going forever.
Gary Rosenblatt is the Editor and Publisher of The New York Jewish Week.