An Interview with Rabbi Sidney Schwarz

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz will speak at Hebrew College on Wednesday, May 1, about his new book, "Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future." The event begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Alumni Dining Hall. In anticipation of his appearance, Schwarz sat down with Rabbi Or Rose, director of Hebrew College's Center for Global Judaism and a contributor to the book, to discuss the highlights of his research and findings.

What motivated you to write this book?

rabbi sidney schwarzIn 2000 I published my first book, "Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews can Transform the American Synagogue" (Jewish Lights). In it I developed a new paradigm for the American synagogue based on studies I conducted of four synagogues from different denominations that were breaking new ground in attracting a generation of seekers that most American synagogues fail to attract. I called that new paradigm the “synagogue-community” (as distinct from the “synagogue-center,” which still is the predominant model in the American Jewish community.) The synagogue community is based on four principles that I detail at some length in the book. Since 2000, I have had the opportunity to train hundreds of rabbis and dozens of congregations about how to implement this new paradigm. It has been most gratifying for me to see a proliferation of new paradigm synagogue-communities emerge around the country, attracting Jews who never would have set foot in a synagogue before.

In "Jewish Megatrends," I use a similar methodology to provide a set of four principles to guide a broader range of organizations and institutions that serve the American Jewish community. I analyze both the marketplace (the American Jewish community and the American social landscape) and the market (Next Gen Jews) to suggest how the Jewish community can not only survive but how it is capable of bringing about a renaissance of Jewish life, culture and religion in America. One of the unique aspects of "Jewish Megatrends" is that I invited 14 leaders of different institutional sectors of American Jewish life to reflect on my analysis through the prism of their fields, and then I synthesized the themes that emerged in a closing essay. It turns the book into a dynamic conversation that draws the reader into the issues that will define the next generation of Jewish life.

What surprised you most in your research?

I did not approach the topic as a detached, objective academic. I am a “participant-observer” of Jewish life, having worked in many of the fields that I analyze in the book. Institutions that I have led have been affected by the trends the book details. But when you are the CEO of an organization or the rabbi of a synagogue (another type of CEO) it is sometimes hard to get on the balcony to see the larger trends that affect your institution, not only at a given point in time but in the next three to five years. I think that my biggest surprise when I dove into the research was how wide the gulf is between legacy Jewish organizations (e.g., federations, synagogues, JCCs and Jewish membership organizations) and the innovation sector of younger Jewish organizations that have carved out discreet niches serving Next Gen Jews. The former have suffered more serious decline than most Jews imagine, and the latter sector is far more robust than most Jews imagine. Part of this misperception is due to the fact that so much of the Jewish media (such as it is) are still targeting older and more committed Jews who continue to support and be active in the legacy organizations, and so they cover that sector much more than they are inclined to write about the innovation sector. It results in the fact that the entrenched professional and lay leadership in the Jewish community is not sufficiently mindful of the very megatrends that my book sets forth and that is necessary to factor in if a Jewish institution hopes to remain relevant into the future.

How have people responded to the collection thus far? Is there a particular issue that has captured people's attention?

It is hard to believe that the book has only been out for two months. The interest in the book is through the roof. The great thing about the Jewish community is that it is populated by professionals and lay leaders who care deeply about Jewish life and the Jewish future. They are distraught over the symptoms of communal decline and desperate to find a way to reverse the decline. The interest in the book is driven by the fact that I offer a recipe for communal re-vitalization that is eminently achievable. One of the early reviews of the book said: “'Jewish Megatrends' is neither apocalyptically despairing nor mindlessly naive — the twin weaknesses of contemporary writing on the Jewish future...The book is sober and hopeful, realistic and idealistic, temperate and optimistic, pragmatic and visionary.”

What has writing this book inspired you to do next?

I joke with my friends that I wrote the book neither to get tenure (I am not an academic) nor to make money (I’d need to write about a topic far more salacious to achieve that!). My hope was to spark a conversation in the Jewish community about how it can better retool itself for the future. I am in conversation with dozens of institutions around the country that are interested in moving in that direction, and I see that as the next chapter in my own professional trajectory. Institutional change is not easy and it does not happen overnight. But I have taken great joy in helping rabbis and synagogues retool their institutional frameworks so as to become more vibrant and relevant to Next Gen Jews. I now hope to do the same with Jewish communal organizations.