(Crossposted to Mah Rabu)
Consider this the next post in the “lilmod mah shetashiv” series for supporters of independent Jewish communities. We’ve all gotten into this argument before.
Abstract: Some people argue that new independent Jewish communities are harmful to existing synagogues. They’re wrong. Other people recognize the fallacies in this argument and advance a more nuanced version. They’re also wrong.
The Basic Argument: “Look at that new minyan, Kehilah Atzma’it. They’ve certainly been successful — they get n people every time, most of whom are young and energetic. It’s great that so many young people want to be Jewishly involved! But meanwhile, my synagogue, Rodef Kesef, is aging and struggling to pay the bills, and we’d love to have so many new members. And if Kehilah Atzma’it didn’t exist, all these young people would be going to Rodef Kesef. Therefore, Kehilah Atzma’it is harming Rodef Kesef.”
The Unspoken Assumption: The Jewish population is a zero-sum game. There is a finite and static pool of involved Jews. Therefore, any new community that starts is poaching its members from an existing community.
Why They’re Wrong: It’s not a zero-sum game. Most of the people who go to Kehilah Atzma’it now weren’t going to Rodef Kesef before KA started; they weren’t going anywhere. And if KA had never been founded, then they would still not be going anywhere. Therefore, the primary effect of KA on the broader Jewish community is an increase in the total number of involved Jews, not an exodus from one community to another.
The More Nuanced Argument: “Ok, that’s true about marginal Jews who wouldn’t otherwise be going anywhere, and it reminds us that we should all be doing better outreach efforts to bring them in. But I went to Kehilah Atzma’it one time, and let me tell you, these were not marginal Jews! These are highly committed and knowledgeable Jews, who make Judaism a major priority in their lives. Surely the committed core of KA would be going somewhere for Shabbat if KA didn’t exist. They’ve put a lot of energy into building KA, and we could really benefit from that energy here at Rodef Kesef.”
The Unspoken Assumption: There are two types of Jews: marginal and committed. Either you’re one or the other; people never switch back and forth between these two types. Marginal Jews are involved or not, depending on the circumstances, while committed Jews are always going to be involved. Therefore, while the Jewish population as a whole is not necessarily a zero-sum game, the committed Jewish population is — both in their numbers and in their commitment.
Why They’re Still Wrong: This version of the argument is taking a short-term view. In the long term, people switch back and forth all the time. People who used to be “marginal” Jews have gone to Kehilah Atzma’it and not only become involved at KA, but become “committed Jews”, to the degree that a casual observer (such as our interlocutor from Rodef Kesef) might assume that these people have been “committed” all along and might not recognize KA’s transformative role.
Of course, (since KA was not created on the sixth day along with the tongs [not] made from tongs) this can’t be true of everyone at KA. The original founders of KA had to have been committed and knowledgeable from the start, given the commitment and knowledge required to start a minyan. But just as it is fallacious to assume that “marginal” Jews will always be “marginal”, it is fallacious to assume that “committed” Jews will always be “committed”. Whatever one’s level of commitment in the short term, it can be context-dependent in the long term.
Hypothetical scenario 1: Ploni is a “committed Jew” who moves to a new city. Kehilah Atzma’it doesn’t exist, and Ploni doesn’t find any Jewish community that’s right for him, but he’s determined to make it work somehow, so he goes to Rodef Kesef and toughs it out for a while. However, over time, it becomes more and more difficult for Ploni to continue practicing Judaism in the absence of a Jewish community that shares his values and where he feels like part of the community. Ploni’s priorities shift, so that Judaism becomes less central in his life. Ploni thus ceases to be the “committed Jew” that he used to be. Far-fetched? I could easily see this scenario happening to me in an alternate universe in which I moved to a different city after college, or graduated from college a few years earlier than I did.
Hypothetical scenario 2: Plonit has a similar story to Ploni in Scenario 1. But Plonit is even more determined than Ploni, and she decides that if Rodef Kesef isn’t the place for her, then she’s going to make it the place for her. So she becomes an active member of Rodef Kesef, and sets out to make incremental changes, so that RK can be the type of community that she’s looking for. However, she runs into obstacles when she discovers that RK’s longtime members like things the way they are and oppose each of these changes. Plonit’s energy may be vast, but it is not limitless, and eventually she gets burned out and is no longer able to continue contributing.
Some people choose to become Jewish communal professionals, and are prepared to spend their careers devoted tirelessly to the Jewish community despite adverse circumstances. Ploni and Plonit chose other careers to devote their days to, and are also happy to put energy into the Jewish community, but can only sustain this in the long term if they are getting something out of this communal involvement.
Fortunately, these scenarios don’t have to come to pass. In our universe, Plonit founded Kehilah Atzma’it, and Ploni is an active participant in KA.
(Disclaimer: This post has been floating around my head for a while, and is not intended as a response to Elf’s DH’s post on Studentville, which is a recommended read.)
(Crossposted to Mah Rabu)