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Preaching Beyond The Choir

Leonard PetlakhFilmed at UJA-Federation of New York 2014

We, the affiliated/engaged Jews quite often preach to our own choir, as we purport to serve the needs of those who are increasingly disengaged. There is a great dissonance between OUR expectations and THEIR reality. We expect them to engage with us on our terms, we know what medicine should be prescribed for them.  Yet, as the number of those who are uninspired by our communal offerings in the non-Orthodox Jewish world continues to grow, we need to find a way to build upon what those disengaged and uninspired want. We need to let them design,  we need to adapt to them on their terms. Can we acknowledge that many of our models are not relevant for those who are Jewishly indifferent? Can we overcome our turf issues and egos to create new products beyond our diminishing core?

Leonard Petlakh has served as the Executive Director of the Kings Bay YM YWHA in Brooklyn since December, 2006. The Y is a JCC with multiple locations in Brooklyn from Sheepshead Bay in South Brooklyn to Windsor Terrace near Park Slope and to the newest branch in North Williamsburg in North Brooklyn.   Prior to this position, Leonard served as the Associate Executive Director of the Hebrew Free Loan Society in NY from 1999 to 2006 and a Hillel director. He attended Hunter College (where he still teaches an undergraduate Jewish history class), majoring in Jewish studies as well as Baruch College as a graduate student, studying business management.  Active in many Israel-related causes,  Leonard serves as a Vice President of the American Zionist Movement, a national Zionist umbrella organization. He lives with his family in South Merrick, Long Island.

“I left, I quit, being Jewish, at the age of 13, after my parents who didn’t care about that Hebrew school anyway finally had that bar-mitzvah boat extravaganza for them and for me.”

“I went to a Jewish event in college, and I did not understand a single thing they were saying.”

“Our marriage is not interfaith. I’m a Jewish atheist and my wife is a Catholic agnostic. Our kid is half-Jewish.”

If you are in my line of work in the Brownstone Brooklyn and North Brooklyn you hear these lines all the time. These are the voices from those who are not in this room; those who are not in our communal choir. But I hear the increase in number of those voices that come from outside of our choir, and they represent the increasing majority in non-Orthodox world.

My professional life is spent around the Jewish communal table, where WE — the super Jews, the engaged, the Jewishly knowledgeable, the Jewishly committed — pay lip service about serving THEM while we continue to preach to our own choir. Yet WE believe – forget about it, we KNOW – what’s good for them. I sit at planning tables and discussion groups where WE determine what should be relevant for THEM. How we can engage THEM into things that are relevant for US?

Why do we fail to notice the increasing market share of those unengaged non-Orthodox Jews? Because THEY are not at our communal table. What do they know? We care about them, but on our terms.

It took the great chacham in the business world, Jim Collins, to produce that book “How the Mighty Fall”. Zenith, Blockbuster – great companies failed because they never adapted. They took their customer for granted.

Our institutional model sometimes…quite often…is based on that Zenith/Blockbuster model. We expect them to be like us. Quite often, they don’t know what they want. And then we really need to ask ourselves that question that I heard once from Chip Edelsberg : “ How do we know what we don’t know?” There are a lot of things we don’t know.

I entered this community as an outsider, an immigrant teenager whose Soviet Jewish identity was based on anti-Semitism, on all the negative experiences. I had the privilege of having meaningful Jewish experiences and I’m grateful, absolutely grateful to those Rabbis, Rabbi Bob Seltzer and Bob Kaplin and Alvin Mars, those who really understood, and they were not pulpit rabbis. I was lucky that I met them. Yet, in my family, where my four Jewish Russian grandparents produced 5 Jewish children, produced two Jewish great-grandchildren (mine) – American great-grandchildren, and three American non-Jewish great grandchildren, I see the pattern, and that pattern is replayed constantly in non-immigrant American Jewish families. It is a struggle and it’s a challenge.

When we came to the States, we encountered this great community that expected US, the Russians, to be like THEM. And financially many young people succeeded. Yet Jewishly, they don’t in many ways resemble this community.

But wait – maybe it’s the Jewish community itself that has changed. When I entered the community the Conservative movement was the largest denomination, and the highly engaged made the decisions on what was good for these immigrants.

Well, fast forward to now. Few in the non-Orthodox Jewish world stay beyond their bar/bat mitzvah and most importantly few can safely say “my grandchildren will choose to be Jewish.”

And the Russians? Interfaith marriage is not rising, Jewish identification is high, Jewish affiliation is low. What’s their problem, then? They are cheap. I can say that, I can get away with that. No tradition of financially supporting the community proportionally to their income. The Russian model is not sustainable unless it can exist within the larger American Jewish community. And it also creates great opportunities for the larger Jewish community.

How many Conservative synagogues would be alive today if they would have invited that customer into their doors? But that would require going outside of your communal choir.

In my work, I constantly have to overcome my personal bias of knowing what’s good for them by reminding myself that I was an outsider once. I remind myself that the figures who impacted American Jewish life in the post-World War environment were all immigrant outsiders — the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Avraham Joshua Heschel, Rav Soloveichik, Shechter Shalomi.
No, I am not comparing myself to them. I am a shallow kid from Brooklyn and, Baruch Hashem, I am not a rabbi! But being an outsider helps me question the assumptions.

Judaism is NOT a religion, as Avraham Infield once noted. We are primarily in the business of creating Jewish memory for a lot of people who lack that memory. And it’s our job to sell, to sell that memory to them. Because this new community, this new merchant community does not owe us anything, as Rabbi Joanne Samuels once brilliantly pointed out to me.

The uninspired, as Louis Jacobs calls them, are often are not seeking anything in particular but rather a Jewish memory long buried, or maybe something to keep the kids occupied. We have to strike a delicate balance in our sales pitch. That’s why the debate, whether rabbis should send a strong message against intermarriage from the pulpit, or officiate at an interfaith marriage, all for the sake of saving Jewish lives, that debate is relevant mostly for the rabbis, not for the customers.

They’re not disengaged, if you ask them – they were never part of that community. They don’t want membership. They want friends, values, they want to have a good time.

They want a “cultural” Jewish experience, whatever it means, and the only reason they would give us a second chance is because we can create an experience for them, not a lifestyle change. And we need to be realistic about our own limitations. We need them to guide us in creating a product that speaks to them as equal partners, not as tokens.

And, yes, they will tell us what we don’t want to hear, and they cannot create those experiences without us.

We need to train our gatekeepers, our super Jewish rabbis and leaders to understand the message of the unengaged and the uninspired.
We need to make Jewish history relevant and inspirational. If Gal Beckerman or Simon Sebag Montefiore can do that and produce bestsellers, we can do too.

Our communal surveys often ask about kosher food and lighting Shabbat candles, observance of Shabbat, all these ritual questions. Yet the one question that I found absolutely relevant in predicting your Jewish involvement is the question whether or not, or how many Jewish friends you have. That’s an indication of your future involvement, and that’s what we can produce for them: we can produce an opportunity for them to meet and to make other Jewish friends.

I wonder if combining the concepts of being Jewish and having a good time is what’s keeping us from growth? We believe that being Jewish is not compatible with coolness.

How do we provide Jewish entertainment, relevance and substance at the same time? The key is to find that right balance. Here are some strategies to consider. The Birthright/Taglit experience is giving us this unique opportunity to engage thousands of those who went to Israel and had a good time. They are changing the American Jewish paradigm, where you have more children than their parents went to Israel. They’re giving us a second chance. As a Zionist, and as someone who wants to end up living in Israel someday, I saw screw that, I’m not going to use the word Zionist, I’m going to pretend it’s irrelevant because I know that word might turn them off, but I want to capitalize on that experience.

Why do good Jewish residential camps work? Because they take kids out of their mundane environments and take them on a journey. Yet, I encounter so many in my work, when they hear ‘Jewish camp’ and they want to run away. We’ve created that image of ‘Jewish – is not fun’ and we need to change that. It’s an opportunity for us to repackage that image.

A free program for my toddler where I don’t have to pay to play? Yes – because there is no obligation.

Maybe we are better off having our Jewishness exhibited at a public library, at a public park or a shopping mall rather than waiting for them in our empty shrines.

If young Jews travel to study abroad, we can reach them in Rome, London or Paris. We can reach them coming here for a summer vacations, summer internships and summer sex and booze experiences. We should grab the opportunity to capitalize on their behavioral patterns, rather than trying to change them.

And if it means that our communal institutions are not worth investing our communal resources into – so be it. If it means that instead of creating ten adult education classes or rabbinic seminaries that compete for the same shrinking pool of people, having empty museums, maybe we are better off downsizing, not duplicating our efforts, going out of business. Is there a grant program out there that would offer our Jewish institutions this magic offer that they cannot refuse, an opportunity, a financial incentive to shut down?

Some might regard it as throwing a white flag, catering to the lowest common denominator, but are we better off having no choir, no opportunities for the uninspired? Why not bring their voices to our choir, or to bring our choir out into the street, by inviting new composers, and by creating this new music together?

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