I moved to the Washington, D.C., area when I was in my early 30s. I can’t say that I was particularly engaged Jewishly. I came from New York where it was easy to feel and identify as Jewish. Here, I felt like something was missing.
We joined the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington (JCCGW) to send our daughter to preschool and eventually camp and other programs. We tried a couple of different synagogues, but we didn’t really connect. Much to my own surprise, we decided to send our daughter to day school and then connected to the Jewish Federation through its Heritage program.
For me, that sparked a Jewish journey that changed the course of my life and eventually led to my current role as the executive director of the JCCGW. Becoming part of the Jewish community enriched and added meaning to my life. I liked being Jewish and doing Jewish. When I am traveling and meet someone Jewish, I feel an instant connection. I feel a deep abiding connection to the state of Israel. Today, my wife and I belong to two synagogues and feel very connected to and enriched by each community. Personally, I don’t identify with a particular denomination — I always answer “post-denominational” on surveys.
My journey informs how I view my role as executive director of a JCC. Through informal and experiential education and identity-building programs, we want to spark Jewish discovery in ways that are individually meaningful and respect individual preferences. We build community by being welcoming to everyone (yes, everyone), inclusive, pluralistic and intergenerational. And, so, since July I’ve been following with particular interest the succession of opinion letters and columns in this newspaper addressing and questioning the importance of synagogues, synagogue membership and synagogues as the ideal place for the Jewish education of our children. In response, Meredith Jacobs, in her Sept. 11 column, asked “Do we need synagogues?” She answered “yes.” I agree, but I think we need to ask a different question to address what is happening in the Jewish community.
Since its release on Oct. 1, much has already been written about the Pew Research Center’s survey of U.S. Jews (“A Portrait of Jewish Americans”). I agree with those who were not surprised by most of the findings. We have known for many years that an increasing number of Jewish Americans identify as “just Jewish” rather than traditional denominational labels. We have known about plummeting affiliation rates and increasing intermarriage. The study confirmed these trends, identified some new trends and shed light on what we, ourselves, think about what it means and doesn’t mean to be Jewish in America today. I think the question that we have to ask is whether JCCs, synagogues and Jewish institutions can provide the means for unconnected Jewish Americans to find value in being Jewish and living a Jewishly enriched life.
That is exactly what we are trying to do at the JCCGW. I recognize that we have raised some eyebrows by partnering with Shalom Learning to offer an innovative alternative Hebrew school program and by offering a Rosh Hashanah program for families with young children. The programmatic lines between synagogues and JCCs have been blurred for a long time. I expect that they will only get blurrier as we each try to figure out how to engage those who are not connected. But, this is not about competing; it is about reaching out in new ways. We cannot view our respective outreach efforts as a zero-sum game. If the JCC connects a family to Jewish life and that leads to their joining a synagogue, I will consider that a success.
The JCCGW’s vision is to “build a welcoming, diverse and thriving community that enriches Jewish life for each generation.” We do not yet have the answers to accomplish that. I know that as a JCC we have to get out of our comfort zone in adapting to the ways that different generations connect and think about their identity and community. We have to meet people where they are — physically, virtually and spiritually. And, we have to continue partnering with synagogues and other organizations to bring the best thinking to Jewish engagement. We want to spark many Jewish journeys.
Michael Feinstein is chief executive officer Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington.