• Print

By JOANNE SEIFF In March Rabbi Sid Schwarz visited Winnipeg to offer innovative ideas for building community.

In his Saturday Limmud lecture, he focused on his book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future. These megatrends resonate with “next gen” Jews (Gen X, Y and Millennials): Hochma/Wisdom, Tzedek/Social Justice Issues, Kehillah/Community, and Kedosha/Holiness. How would Winnipeg congregations look if they reflected these megatrends? The buildings might be busy with energized lay-led Jewish micro-communities. Here’s the second column, reflecting on what the future could be.

Social justice: Fixing our world
Ask a 13-year-old about his bar mitzvah project …he’ll light up with excitement. He’s raising money for rescue dogs or providing sports equipment for disadvantaged kids. That bat mitzvah girl supports “Because I am a Girl” or fundraises to provide clean drinking water. Clothing drives and school supplies–we collect many things to help others. Many Jewish kids learn how tzedakah works and immediately do their part to fix the world.
My twins are so keen to fill up their tzedakah boxes that before Shabbat dinner (and other meals, including breakfast), they climb up on a chair to grab their tins. They march around rattling the boxes until we empty our pockets. Not every Jewish person feels motivated by prayer as a way of participating in Jewish community, but many are motivated by the notion of Tzedek…social justice.
As Rabbi Sid pointed out, younger Jews heed that call for social justice. Yet, mainstream Jewish organizations are sometimes slow to get on board. In part it is because well-established agencies don’t make change at the drop of a hat. Embracing new kinds of social justice requires flexibility.
In the past, many Jews made donations to Jewish community organizations (Federations, foundations, UJA) that distributed money as they saw fit. Next gen Jews would prefer to know exactly where to donate their money and time and how and when it will make specific change. We (I’m a “next gen Jew”) are savvy media consumers. We also want to know who spends too much on advertising and overhead.
If you look at the b’nai mitzvot tzedakah projects above, we also aren’t tied to giving money only to Jewish or Israel-oriented charities. This has caused a sea change in Jewish life, because some Jewish organizations are seeing a significant decline in giving. If the established Jewish institutions want to survive, they have to reshape themselves to appeal to the Next Gen Jewish giver/congregant.
In part, this decline in “Jewish giving” is because younger Jews recognize that in general, North American Jews are doing just fine. Tzedakah from many younger Jews goes to organizations that help the needy, no matter their religious affiliation.
Yet, synagogues could be a place to mobilize our strong interest in social justice. If Jewish institutions want to engage and involve young Jewish members, they must embrace this activist energy. There are easy ways to start…begin with opening up that building to new Jewish groups. That means being flexible enough to make this possible and easy. If it takes a synagogue board six months to vote to allow a new social action group to meet and decides to charge a $100+ rental fee, the meeting will happen tomorrow at Starbucks instead. If synagogues include these NextGen groups as important parts of congregational life, it could catalyze a new generation of involvement.

For Jews motivated by social change, there are many choices. Once you identify your “thing” – hunger, eco-Judaism, human trafficking, Jewish-oriented political activism, etc., your working group could meet at the shul. Start each meeting with some learning about the Torah or Talmudic text or connection to your activism…and give younger Jews ownership of the synagogue building as a way to make Jewish change.

In the meanwhile, there is also room for individual action. Everyone who drives to shul and carries a purse/diaper bag/wallet could bring a Winnipeg Harvest donation to the bins there EVERY TIME you go. If you’re carrying anyway, why not carry extra so others might eat? For some, feeding the hungry is pikuach nefesh (the principle of saving a life) so the need might transcend Shabbat prohibitions.
Note: If you don’t carry anything on Shabbat or push a stroller, I’ll assume you go to shul at other times, too. Bring your food donations another day!

To suggest some friendly competition, there’s a program started by Canadian Muslims in Toronto in 2012. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims voluntarily fast all day and eat only at night to empathize with and help those less fortunate. The “Give 30” initiative to help the hungry (http://www.give30.ca/) now reaches nine food banks in five provinces, including Winnipeg Harvest. Its premise is simple:
Give 30 wants everyone, regardless of faith, to donate to the Give 30 Campaign Food Banks during the month of Ramadan so we can fight hunger in our community. This initiative is about caring for our neighbours and making a difference, together.
Jason Booth, who works at Winnipeg Harvest, explained that this amazing campaign energized both the Winnipeg Muslim religious community and its non-Muslim neighbours. Shwarma Khan’s owner, Obby Khan, hosted a Fast & Feast fundraising event to support Give 30 and Winnipeg Harvest. Sachit Mera, General Manager of the East India Company, donated hundreds of dollars of food to the cause. In 2014, Winnipeggers of many faiths (including four mayoral candidates), joined together to contribute.

Many young people lose their synagogue connections right after Bar or Bat Mitzvah. They don’t see adults embodying values that they learned during that required tzedakah project…in fact they see the opposite: big parties which prioritize lavish spending and grown-ups who aren’t modelling working for ‘tzedek’ or social justice.
Shouldn’t our congregations be a hotbed of activity - a place to think about positive change, inspired by Torah? Tikkun Olam is about fixing the world–how are we going to do it?

 Joanne Seiff is the author of two books and works as a freelance writer, editor, designer and educator. See more of her work on her blog: www.joanneseiff.blogspot.com and check out her designs on Ravelry.com.