Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Synaplex Syndrome

There is a growing concern among the Jewish professionals that the “millenials”, those Jews in their twenties and thirties aren’t affiliating with the Jewish community and there is a growing fear that assimilation is on the rise. So, what’s new? This has been happening for as long as I can remember!

There were the same concerns growing up in the sixties and seventies. The concern however wasn’t coming from the Orthodox community and for several reasons: The Orthodox community invested their money in day schools and yeshivot, while the liberal communities were committed to the public school system with supplemental after school religious education. The orthodox were role models for their kids. There was a consistency between the Jewish practice at home and that taught in the day school and yeshivot. Children had the feeling that they were living their lives without mixed messages. In contrast, the liberal movements consistently demonstrated a gap between t Jewish practices at home verses what they were taught in the religious school, synagogue or camp programs.

The liberal movements haven’t learnt much over the past forty years. While they have studied their past mistakes, for some unfathomable reason they can’t get it right. They seem to have locked themselves into a cycle and can’t manage to orbit out. To their credit they have built day schools and invested in the development of overnight camps modeled after the orthodox camps. In a way it feels like buying “knock off” Christian Dior sunglasses. The “knock offs” don’t have the same weight, glitz or finish. When you look at a pair of “knock offs” you can intuit that they’re phony. The liberal schools pattern themselves after the Orthodox but somehow it doesn’t ring genuine, and you can intuit it. Many of their teachers are drawn from the Orthodox community. One can well imagine the gap between what the student learns in school and what is practiced at home.

An example of this problem is inherent in their overnight camp programs. Ironically one of the camp systems in particular does not offer an option of one month, but all campers are required to attend for the entire two month program. The reason as explained to me is that they require the two months, the maximum, so as to inculcate in these kids the maximum and give them what they don’t receive all year at home. That is probably one of the principal reasons why there are so many young adults who feel disaffected and disenfranchised from the Jewish community.

The sixties and seventies were no different. What saved many of the disaffected from Jewish oblivion were some of the causes that crossed over all denominational lines. The Save Soviet Jewry movement and the Israel’s popularity after the six day war served as magnets to Jews who hitherto hadn’t been associated formally with the Jewish community. Others were attracted to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who appealed to that very generation of disaffected and was able to communicate with them in a language they understood.

Unfortunately, it appears that much of the concern these days amongst the Jewish leadership isn’t so much about the issues, but more about concern with the future financial support of our institutions in light of so many disaffected. Less is their concern for genuine core Jewish values, and more is their concern for the drop in synagogue membership which translates into less money collected for federation and other Jewish organizations. After all, buildings, infrastructure and Jewish bureaucrats that has been built over the past fifty years requires increased membership and revenue in order to fuel the machine.

The problem has never been with young adults. The problem has always been with the adult leadership, who haven’t a clear notion as to where they want to lead the community. The lack of altruism is alarming. One of their latest ploys is the “synaplex” approach to increase synagogue membership.

The “synaplex syndrome” is really symptomatic of a systemic problem running through the leadership of the Jewish community. Realizing that there is a problem with interesting young adults in synagogue life they sought to solve the problem by employing marketing strategies. Their hope was that enhancing synagogue membership would be a crucial step in increasing involvement (giving money) in Jewish organizational life. The Jewish community has invested millions in analyzing the “market” as if it were the Gap Stores competing with Banana Republic in increasing its market share. These issues won’t be solved by marketing strategies.

Young adults like anyone else respect honesty and integrity. When the Jewish community moves off of marketing strategies and commits itself, body and soul to Jewish values, then will there be a chance of influencing the disaffected. Until then we’ll continue to invest our money and energy in misguided enterprises such as “synaplexes” which haven’t a snowballs chance in hell of succeeding.