Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Future, Ed. Sidney Schwartz (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013) $24.99
In discussing the future of religion, many seek to address temporary concerns or hide behind trendy buzzwords. Those who are especially daring discuss global issues, such as the loss of religious involvement and what we can learn from other cultures. This is, in many ways, both a “daring” and safe decision. The author can indirectly philosophize about what they see taking place in the world. This creates an immediate risk, for if they are wrong, it is readily apparent. It is also safe because, should they speak broadly and make scatter-shot declarations, publishers and readers will be interested in their work for those discussions which are broad and general appeal to a wider audience.
Collected essays like the ones in Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (2013) are generally packaged with self-deputized experts. This is not such a book. The contributions here, from leading Rabbis and Jewish pioneers, are genuinely changing the way Judaism is being lived and embodied. Their thoughts are so challenging but achievable, scholarly but accessible, and aggressive but (at times) humorous that those seeking to find and create new pathways in their respective faith tradition will find allies and stimulating ideas for their own faith.
Rabbi Sharon Brous, in her essay” Synagogues Reimagined” challenges clergy to expect more – not less– from their faith communities. Almost a decade ago, Brous began IKAR in Los Angeles where she admits “there were already several great synagogues.” IKAR has struggled to stay away from institutionalizing their community, instead actively pursuing those disenfranchised, burned out, or listless among a high Jewish population. As she puts it, “Many American Jews – third and fourth generation immigrants – carry within them the distant echo of their parents’ and grandparents’ Judaism. They know that there are stories to tell but can’t remember the major plot lines, let alone the sacred details.” A Conservative rabbi, Brous candidly discusses the challenges she has experienced while also holding out a map for those who have turned their backs on the tradition their parents aspired to. How do we reclaim a vibrant story, when the one our parents told us is unappealing and foreign to the challenges we see around us every day?
Elise Bernhardt, in the essay “Jewish Culture: What Really Counts?”, discusses ways to revitalize, attract, and support the artistic and creative efforts of those within the community. While there are certainly reasons why culture-at-large is apathetic to “religious” art, Bernhardt challenges that assumption, pointing to the resurgence of meaningful film, personal narratives of artists, and the ability of a religious environment to support the innovators among them. One of the keys to success, she says, is not just proactively affirming creativity, but a “critically important demographic for nurturing and expanding Jewish culture are young adults.” How can Jewish – and other religions – inspire a new generation to support each other? As the Talmud says, “Fortunate is the generation in which the elders listen to the youth.”
The book culminates in editor Rabbi Sidney Schwatrz’s call for a Jewish Renaissance where the dozens of distinct issues and innovations collide into a more engaged global faith – a faith which unites those of distinct cultures and backgrounds and reminds them of their shared hope. For Schwartz, such a Renaissance begins with individuals who are willing to take up the mantle of the forbearers and continue the legacy in new ways.