I started 2011 blogging about some of the critical issues that impact Perth Jewry. The second priority on my list was about community membership and participation.
As a starting point, I have never viewed Jewish community membership as a numbers game, but more of a qualitative matter. Even if there are 20,000 or 30,000 Jewish people in Perth (and truth to tell, there could well be), if only 5% or 10% of the Jewish population is sufficiently concerned about community affiliation and continuity, then the sustainability of Perth Jewry rests with this minority. It is in these sectors where the resources and investment of the community should be directed.
What troubles me more than anything is that, the world over, the Jewish world is for the most part bereft of big ideas for “reJewvenation”. There is an interesting article in the Australian Jewish News called “The Challenge of Continuity” by veteran correspondent Sam Lipski, who rightly identifies the home as the central pillar of Jewish values and identity. However Mr Lipski twice notes that it is the observant Orthodox sector that is most evident in sustaining Jewish identification without offering solutions for the balance of the Jewish community, aside from opening up “alternative pathways”.
There are indeed many doors to community affiliation outside of religious channels. In Perth the strongest of these are Zionist Youth movements and Maccabi. Internationally some of the biggest newly emerged ideas that have been successful in the past decade are movements such as Limmud, Nefesh B’Nefesh and Taglit, and Torah MiTzion. Their focus is on Zionist identity and Jewish education, which, when combined are a formidable force.
Any form of Jewish identity that is devoid of Judaism is destined to be unsustainable, and that is why I find calls for social justice, and surrogate or supplement programs that are by nature cultural “kosher style” solutions to be lacking real substance. If they spark the pintele yid of their participants then it is by indirect means only.
To be authentically Jewish, a personal effort needs to be extended. It can be hard, intellectually gruelling, and physically demanding. It can be ethically confronting, and socially challenging. But it is a unique, genuine, and utterly fulfilling experience to live in accordance with Jewish tradition. A passive participant will struggle to maintain their membership of the Jewish people.
If we are to look at Jewish community membership through this lense, we have to see Jewish identity as a verb, not a noun. It is about being involved as a leader, not as a participant. In the old adage, the President of Israel is the President of millions of Presidents. Herein lies part of the problem. Leaders who stay as leaders of their organisations and movements for decades do a huge disservice to their membership. Several years should be the maximum term for any organisational leader, and the committee structure should fully refresh itself every few years. If it doesn’t, then new leadership is not cultivated, old cultures become entrenched, and new participants tire quickly of the endless service accolades that become the focus and lifeblood of their institutional involvement.
The other part of the equation is that the basis of Jewish community membership needs to be built on positive variables. The critics of Jewish communities are often correct when the labour the “victim” mentality of the Jewish community. All the public airspace that we receive is in the form of defending the community, and combating negative messages. Jewish organisations perpetuate this culture by creating activity that is commemorative, ceremonial, and based on the tragic elements of our historic past. However the road of Jewish history is paved with far more victories than defeats. Across our 4,000 years of chronicled history, Jewish people have lived as free people far more than they have lived as subjugated people. We have been respected and welcomed into foreign host societies far more than we have been exiled. Jewish celebration is far more entrenched in our culture than is Jewish mourning.
Our community organisations can, to their detriment, feed off Jewish misery. Shules advertise that the reason for being in Shule is to say kaddish for the dead, not to immerse themselves in tefillah. Another recent example was an Israel appeal that I received an invitation to. The opening gambit was “As attempts to delegitimise Israel intensify and antisemitism grows worldwide, join us and show solidarity with and support of the Jewish homeland…”. I question whether this is a reason for my support. Far better that I should support a more successful ambition. A further example relates to the security guard who volunteers their time to stand outside of a Shule, yet could not confront their own objections to bring themselves to stand in Shule and participate in the Kehillah. They are comfortable with the need to protect the Jewish community from threat, but not at all comfortable to then stand with that community to uphold the very freedom that they seek to protect.
If we really want to encourage greater levels of participation, then the advertisement of the Jewish community to its membership must be a positive message. Let’s stop telling our kids that people hate us, and start telling our kids that our rich tradition is worth celebrating. Let’s stop having functions that reinforce a negative stereotype, and let’s start exposing our membership to the joyful side of being Jewish. Let’s stop filling our newsletters, publications, papers and blogs (ourselves included!) with articles about crazed anti-Semites, and start filling them with challenging perspectives on Jewish philosophy and wellbeing; about why it is fulfilling and meaningful to be part of the Jewish nation.
Nobody wants to be part of a club that classes itself as a perpetual victim. Whilst there is an historic truth that cannot be ignored and a real threat to security that cannot be dismissed, we risk being overwhelmed to the extent that this becomes the sole basis of our identity. I believe that this internal reticence is far more damaging as a self-perpetuating prophecy.
There is no reason for Jewish people in Perth to live in fear. There is every reason for Jewish people in Perth to be positive about living open, visible, and proud Jewish lives. There is no better time than the months of Adar to bring out the simcha and celebratory aspects of our tradition. So let’s try to attract greater levels of participation within the Jewish community by focussing on that which is positive.