Straight From The Horse's Mouth: Rick Marker On Anarcho-Judaism

Richard Marker is a Senior Fellow at NYU’s Center for Philanthropy and a co-principal of Marker Goldsmith Advisors, which advises foundations and independent funders on strategic philanthropy. He was previously the Executive Vice President of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, Vice President for International Affairs of Hillel, and has taught at Hofstra, Brown and Loyala Universities. Rick is also an advisor to Matzat, my non-profit startup which oversees Jewschool and its related projects.
Relating to my recent post on Mazal Tov Cocktail, he offers the following insight:
There are two converging trends in Jewish communal life – which together suggests that the nature of connections, identification, and association are profoundly changing from that which we have seen in the past several generations:

  • Self directed, non-affiliational, and non-denominational Jewish identification. Individuals have a moving-target range of influences and associations – no longer can it be said that one is exclusively identified as a “reform” or “conservative” or “orthodox” or “Reconstructionist” or “secular” or…; and on the whole, those institutional identities do not describe the ideological beliefs of their affiliates. With some very real but statistically minimal exceptions, when those affiliations do exist they are coincidental, social, or convenient. Moreover, identifies are fluid – American Jews – function within a number of overlapping spheres. Some of these may be Jewish, others may be professional, some may be geographic, and others may be social. At any given moment, the balance of which governs one ’s self- understanding and connections may lead to one’s identity looking and being quite different. And over time, these may look very different, even within the same family and same individual. Thus by definition, institutional identification simply doesn’t describe enough American Jews to be meaningful.
  • At the same time, there is a profound disillusionment or frustration with established institutions. They are [accurately] not perceived as agile, responsive, or innovative. And because they typically have a broad agenda, requiring consensus decision making, involvement within them runs counter to the most current behavior among the most creative or passionate. Once upon a time, patience was sufficient; today, few people are willing to be long term apprentices in Jewish communal life when the rest of life requires and rewards other attributes. Thus, the most interesting and interested younger Jews would much rather associate with a start up or special interest group which reflects them rather than with an established, multipurpose organizations.
  • Thus, what is emerging is a functional anarchy which is slowly and incrementally changing the way in which Jewish behavior functions. For many, it is more exciting and gratifying to be a part of a special interest start-up than to wait one’s turn in a wealthier and older institution. For many, the idea that some external institution defines who and what you are or believe is simply problematic.
  • Is this development good or bad for the future? If one believes that Jewish life is in need of genuine and endemic change, it is a very healthy and indispensable trend. Change requires outside challenges – some of which will prevail and some will fail but all will reflect the limitations of Jewish life as currently constituted. If one the other hand, one believes that only a well oiled and structured community can respond to external challenges effectively, then this development is self defeating. It depends how one understands the existential challenges before us today. I am among those who feel that our future strength and vitality require that we err on the side of deconstruction and anarchy.

18 thoughts on “Straight From The Horse's Mouth: Rick Marker On Anarcho-Judaism

  1. I think this is an excellent dissection of the dilemma facing Judaism/young Jews. I hadn’t really thought of it in these terms before: that the creation of these startup groups might be borne not only out of frustration with existing organizations, but also out of impatience. I think the real question is if young/dissatisfied Jews were able to let go of that impatience and strive to make changes in the existing institutions, would it do anyone any good? Would it cause any change at all? Would it just drive people away who draw something of value from the existing institution? But I, like the author, tend toward deconstruction, as I don’t feel that there’s really any place in the existing institutions for me. I’m still working on how to resolve that, but so far some sort of alternative organization/approach seems to be pretty much my only route. And considering there’s a sizable Jewish community in my area, that’s depressing.

  2. likewise. i am heavily involved in a deconstructive innovation here in san franciso (the mission minyan) but i recently had it put to me that as much as we’re doing a great thing by giving young religious jews a place to davven with some enthusiasm and likeminded community, we’re also suffocating local synagogues by leaching away their young adult community, making it ever less-likely that they’ll become a vital home for observant young people. i’m still devoted to building the things i’m building, but i definitely don’t want to go about it in a “tear down the institutions” mentality. federation is important. camps are important. jccs are important. and yeah, if you have kids and a big bankroll, synagogues are too.

  3. In what way has deconstruction or anarchy served the community from which it grows? The Jewish ideal is community itself- poreish min hatzibur (separation from the community) being a serious consideration in everything from starting a new synagogue to davening at a different time. Judaism by its very nature as a religion, as a culture, is something that’s objectively defined- be a part of an established community, wear a streimel or pierce your face in ornate and fashionable ways, if your mother is Jewish, you’re Jewish; the rest is commentary.
    The fact that so many young Jews want to contribute in their communities is fantastic: it’s also not a new development. It’s offensive that only the most “interesting and interested” young Jews start their own non-profits. I’m involved in several different ways in my community- which is well-established, and has a large Federation- and there’s always a way to contribute, to make a difference, to make your community activities unique. But to say “I’m sick of waiting for my turn to lead- I’m taking my ball (money, time, effort) and going home,” while it may be a popular sentiment now, is not positive for the Jewish community as a whole.
    I come to this site periodically, and I wonder against what you’re rebelling. What exactly is mainstream Judaism? Rabbinic observance? Conservative (religious) neo-liberalism (political)? Cultural “weekend warrior”? Secular self-hating apologetic? Insular ghetto-ization?
    Sarah- the Mission Minyan sounds a lot like Hadar in NY, DC, and the Washington Square Minyan in Boston, in that it’s a place for young modern religious Jews to come together spiritualy and culturally. Does that qualify as deconstructive, though? And if so, what is being deconstructed?
    Maybe I’m just not up on the jargon.

  4. The greatest danger to Judaism is race-mixing. Jews marrying non-Jews will dilute Jewish blood leading to a degradation of the race. I can trace my Jewish ancestor all the way back to the original 13 tribes. A registry of pure Jews is needed if our racial purity is to be maintained.

  5. Sarah, I would be genuinely interested in your thoughts on Charles’ questions. I don’t have much to add myself, as I’m pretty much a total outsider at this point, but I would like to say this: I agree, Charles, that Judaism is in large part about community. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about it. The problem, I believe, is that the existing communities don’t, by and large, give some people a place to turn. What if your mother isn’t Jewish and are troubled by the requirements of the conventional conversion process? What if you’re gay and Orthodox and don’t perceive the two as mutually exclusive? What if you’re living miles and miles from the nearest Jewish organization? What if you don’t agree with the pro-Zionist politics of your local synagogue? What if the nearest synagogue is too far to walk to on a Friday night and you aren’t comfortable driving? I think those points are where the myriad of alternatives that get discussed here come in and have to come in. I think that, in the long run, innovations such as those discussed here will be a positive thing. It’ll be fascinating to see what motivated people do with their ball (money, time effort) once they get it home.

  6. The notion of individualism in spiritual and moral matters is at direct loggerheads with the core Jewish belief in a binding covenant whose details have already been revealed at Sinai. Recent history has shown that the only Judaism that survives is the Judaism of the binding covenant.
    A lot of this is 2nd or 3rd generation assimilated Jews frustratedly thrashing around between liberal “orthodoxy” – and the vapid Jewish identity it led to – and the recent rediscovery of old-time Judaism’s rich depth, relevance, and appeal. There is additional tension between the atomized anomie and loneliness that have come in the wake of overweening emphasis on individual self-indulgence, and the rich sense of community that Jews experience in traditional kehillot.
    The notion that these well-intentioned ignoramouses should just frame their own Judaism can be seen as the last step into the abyss – the final triumph of American individualism over communal Jewish identification.
    It sounds great to make up your own Judaism as you go, cherry-picking the tradition for personally resonant and/or politically correct spiritual knicknacks. But this can quickly wind up as tangential – or even opposed – to authentic Judaism as the messianic churches. Bu-Ju, anyone?
    This is the old Ethical Culture Society dodge – with love beads. Why not leave poor Judaism alone, and go buy some scented candles at Walmart?

  7. Wow, did someone on a Jewish website just use the phrase “racial purity?” If you want to talk about intermarriage and the problems it raises for Judaism, there are legitimate aspects to discuss. But to use terms like “degradation of the race” is offensive and disturbing. (That post didn’t deserve a response in any way, but it’s so rare you get to see naked hatred and racism.)
    RB- the spectrum of Jews is broad and beautiful (for the most part). I agree that more should be done by the larger institutions to reach out to people and groups who feel marginalized, but don’t those people and groups defeat their own purposes by splintering from the larger community? It just creates more division. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be community services or organizations devoted to those groups, but if they decide to excise themselves from the larger community, how will the rest of the community learn to accept them? Worst case scenario- thank G-d there are thousands of cities around the world with every community imaginable. If you’re miserable in your present community, it may be time to look for a new one. I hear the minyan in SF is fantastic.

  8. Charles – More outreach should be done. We agree. But it’s obviously not being done, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation. The people who feel marginalized can present their case to the larger institutions, but what if their concerns go unanswered? What if the existing communities have no interest in accepting them?
    Ben-David – Please define “authentic Judaism.”

  9. Authentic (adjective):
    1. Genuine; having a claimed and verifiable origin or authorship; not fake, counterfeit or copied:
    2. Shown to be true and trustworthy;
    3. Legally valid because all necessary procedures have been followed correctly; executed with due process;
    4. In the style of the original period of composition or creation;
    Authentic Judaism is Judaism that grows organically out of the Judaism of the Ages – the core belief in one G-d and in that G-d’s revelation at Sinai, which has remained unchanged throughout Jewish history.
    Authentic Judaism is Judaism that responds to modern situations from within, using the ‘due process’ of Halacha.
    Authentic Judaism remains faithful to the style, faith, and G-d oriented thrust of “the original”.
    Post-Enlightenment attempts to reform or revise Judaism based on external value systems are, almost by definition, not authentic.
    Confused modern funkadelic attempts to suck the nectar of Jewish spirituality while discarding Judaism’s moral structure – or any cherry-picking selection of “politically correct” Jewish knicknacks – is, by definition, not authentic – because in all these cases Judaism is being hacked and deformed to fit an external value system.

  10. RB, if the community you’re in doesn’t offer the services you need on a macro scale- that is, you want the federation the help all of, say, ultraorthodox alcoholics- there are two ways to go, as I see it:
    1) convince the big moneyed donors that it’s a true priority, and it will get done. That’s a given in every community, even if you want to step outside the conventional federation system, because the people who have the luxury of money and time tend to have more of both.
    2) move to a community where your needs can be met. It’s a hard choice, but it’s like living in a community where housing prices are too high- if you can’t afford it, you’ll have to move away.
    Do you know of an example where a “deconstructive” (I still don’t know what that means) organization either a) provided long-term services to a specific minority in the Jewish community or b) provoked real change in the overarching federation? This is not a sarcastic question, I’m really asking.
    Ben-David- ever hear of kiruv? kol yisrael areivim zeh lazeh? Are you not your brother’s keeper?

  11. I think there’s another aspect of this that’s been missing from this discussion so far: it’s not ONLY the “content” (I’ll call it) of “mainstream” Judaism that seem people are looking to get away from; it’s also the structure and process.
    I am a member of a Havurah, rather than a synagogue, partially because I find the ru’ach, liturgy, and theology to be more meaningful than what I’ve found in any denominational body (and this is not a case of simply being “non-traditional”, but a case of drawing meaning from DIFFERENT traditions). All the same, there’s a major portion of the meaning of a community such as this one is that its organization–no permanent officers, consensus-based decisionmaking, etc. An affiliated/federated synagogue cannot, by definition, have that.

  12. Synagogues are different, I think. You can have a separate shul, and still be an active participant in the community as a whole. Taking your free time and starting a separate non-profit to help a specific minority in the Jewish community, explicitly divorcing yourself from the community federation, is a different, larger problem. To more effectively allow the denominational bodies to cohere, we should be working to bring the larger Jewish community together, not create organizations to keep us separate.
    Your Havurah sounds great- but how big do you think it will get before not everyone is involved in decisions, and the budget- for a place to hold services, have kiddush, buy ritual items- will require formal officers to be elected? As institutions become more successful, formalities become necessary. Not in the same way as other shuls necessarily, but to a certain extent.

  13. Sarah (and others starting independent minyanim):
    You’re not “suffocating local synagogues”; they have suffocated themselves by failing to be communities that are welcoming to young educated Jews. They shouldn’t be blaming you for their failings; they should be thinking about where they went wrong.
    The new independent minyanim have been much more successful at attracting young people than synagogues have ever been (in recent history). I take umbrage at the implication that, if the independent minyanim didn’t exist, I would have joined one of the existing synagogues as they are. More likely, I would have structured my life such that Judaism played a less central role.

  14. Charles:
    Ben-David- ever hear of kiruv? kol yisrael areivim zeh lazeh? Are you not your brother’s keeper?
    – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Kiruv means introducing snack food junkies to healthy food – not mixing additives and colorings into good bread.

  15. Charles,
    My Havurah currently has 30 members. It’s not one of the really hip, fast-growing, younger minyanim (my partner and I are the newest members; the most recent ones before that joined 3 years ago). We do have a treasurer, who has done the job for years because she’s willing to do it and no one else does. So I guess I don’t know exactly what you mean by “separate nonprofits”.
    I have to agree with BZ about having Judaism play a role in your life proportionally with what is available. Before college, my interest in Judaism was entirely formulaic, stagnating, etc. I had no interest in youth groups. And I was tickled pink by having a Havurah in college, which was made up of and reflected our local Jewish culture, rather than a local colony of Hillel.
    Belonging to a large, impersonal, non-member-led community might be right for me at a different point in life, but as of now it would kill my Judaism. The structure and process of a community is part of its message and character, not just incidental to it.

  16. Matan, (and BZ)
    no question, you’re right. If you don’t have a place where you can pray comfortably and meaningfully, it’s hard to rationalize going to the local super-size synagogue. But having a separate shul doesn’t preclude interacting with the larger community. I guess I’m coming from the perspective of the majority, whose major needs (social services, childcare and education, devotion to supporting israel) are being met by the powers that be, and that those powers have an obligation to bring in Jews who feel marginalized. It’s a bit disingeneous for me to say to those Jews “Keep banging your head against that brick wall! They’ll hear you sooner or later!” but I think the only way to change things permanently for the Jewish global/local community is for people to work within the existing framework toward change, because the division could do lasting damage to the existing services. I’ve seen a community take its hopes for generational rejuvenation all because a significant minority didn’t think a coed Jewish community high school was worth the effort. It takes both sides working together to improve the whole.
    Ben-David- whatever gets them in the door.

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