Rockville, Md., Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, 47, directs the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values and has a doctorate in Jewish history. His new book, “Finding A Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews Can Transform the American Synagogue,” was released this month by Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Here are excerpts from a recent interview:
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: I have met thousands of Jews who care deeply about being Jewish and about their spirituality. I have come to the conclusion that synagogues were not acting as the places in which spiritual needs were being fulfilled for our generation. If the synagogues are not doing their job, then people will pursue their spirituality elsewhere, both in secular and nonsecular areas.
Q: What do you mean by the “new American Jew?”
A: They are people starting at the boomer age and younger. Our generation has lived through a very dramatic break in the Jewish community. Our parents’ generation had a survivalist agenda for the synagogue. They had to fight against anti-Semitism. They had to fight for acceptance in American society. They were constantly working for the support of Israel and working to protect Jewish communities around the world.
The issues of the Holocaust also loomed around that survivalist agenda. The new American Jew is no longer motivated by those same things. Instead, they care about matters of membership, meaning in life, spirituality and God. We, as Jewish leaders, have to follow the new priorities.
Q: The Jewish people have a very rich heritage. Why now, when they finally have religious freedom, are they turning their backs on Judaism?
A: I think we are seeing the habits of baby boomers in regards to religion. Boomers are classic religious shoppers. No one, in general, seems to be committed to just one religion anymore. To say the Jewish people are ‘turning their backs’ is a harsh term. In American society, we have moved to a point where at least white minorities are all accepted. We no longer need to stick with the tribe, if you will, because the outside world is no longer threatening to us or our religion.
Q: What opportunities and challenges do you see calling the synagogue into action?
A: First, we need to move away from service providing to building relationships. Second, we need to make the people that are members of the church into owners. It is a good thing when people feel they are contributing to what is happening in their church body. Things need to happen from the bottom up; it has a way of empowering members and moving them to action. Third, we need to move away from the definition of inclusivity we operate under. Our agenda cannot be just ethnically focused. People are in search for a meaning and a purpose. If you open the issues up for wider discussion, you will receive a lot more feedback from different people.
Q: What other religions are appealing to, or drawing from, the Jewish community and why?
A: Synagogues still have a great deal to offer. The biggest challenge is that synagogues are run by people who like things the way they are, and this presents a problem in the area of transformation. If certain things do not change, then we will never reach a good status quo.
It is hard to say there is one place in which the Jewish people are going. There are a number of alternative spiritual communities and practices, and we are avid consumers of different religious experiences. Across the board, everyone is going to everyone else. We are a generation of seekers. I want to use the illustration of “E.T., go home.” E.T. stands for eternal truth and people are searching for that everywhere but in their own homes.
Q: Do you feel experimenting with other religions is a problem exclusive to the Jewish community?
A: I have talked with many other pastors and rabbis and they are having the same problems. They are trying to bring the same message to the Protestants that I am trying to bring to the Jews. We need to change the way things are done, and we need to get the churches and the synagogues to realize the urgency in which they should be acting.
Q: What do you suggest as a good way to reach the new generation of believers?
A: We need to give them empowerment; make decisions and foster involvement from the bottom up. Allow people to tap into their spirituality and do not place the program above the spiritual needs of the church body. It would benefit all American churches to heed the warning we are seeing evidenced in this spiritual unrest.