Tribal Judaism vs. Covenantal

phil_jacobs_small“Street Torah.”

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz taught my Beth Israel Congregation and Judaic Academy teens a different way of experiencing Judaism.

The lesson occurred when I took a group of Beth Israel students and students from the former Judaic Academy of Baltimore to Washington, D.C., more than 10 years ago to participate
in Panim: The Jewish Institute for Leadership and Values. The best part of the experience was when we gave peanut butter sandwiches to the homeless on a freezing slate-gray winter’s morning.

Students who had hardly any desire to connect with our ancestral Biblical heritage saw themselves as “practicing” Judaism with each sandwich they handed out.

Rabbi Schwarz, Panim’s founder, was building a basis for discussion that forms the very core of his latest book, “Jewish Megatrends, Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future.”

Rabbi Schwarz writes about two camps of Jews.

There are the “tribal Jews” who see their Jewish identity in political and ethnic terms. Tribal Jews are concerned about the threats to Jewish survival. They have a strong connection to Israel, because they see it as the most “public manifestation and validation of the Jewish peoples’ existence in the world.”

Rabbi Schwarz writes that “covenantal Jews” affiliate less with institutional Judaism and feel an affinity to their faith because of its ethics and value system that seeks justice, compassion, human dignity and the protection of the vulnerable.”

Rabbi Schwarz offers four platforms as connecting points for tribal and covenantal Jews:  wisdom, social justice, community and living lives of sacred purpose. He then invites 13 Jewish leaders from different organizations to write in response.

Rabbi Schwarz asks, “Can we transmit a tribal Jewish story in a way that the next generation of American Jews can hear it?”

Wayne Firestone, former president and CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, talks about myths concerning the younger generations. One of those myths is that the “younger generation doesn’t care about Jewish life.”

Firestone writes in Rabbi Schwarz’s book that younger generations indeed care deeply about Jewish life but in different ways.

“They are not yearning to fit in,” he writes. “Rather, they are actively seeking to carve out safe spaces to be different. They want to find their authentic voices.”

Not all 13 contributors agree with Rabbi Schwarz.

Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, sees Rabbi Schwarz’s differentiation of “covenantal” and “tribal” Jews as “inaccurate.” Shrage writes that he sees younger Jewish generations as defying any easy categorization.

Rabbi Schwarz leaves us with the question, “Can we transmit a tribal Jewish story in a way that the next generation of American Jews can hear it? Or, as Dr. Jonathan S. Woocher, the chief ideas officer of JESNA (Jewish Education Service of North America) writes, the key question is, how can Jews fit into 21th-century America?

Rabbi Schwarz’s book is an important read because it is a platform for teaching, dialogue and debate.

It’s also what Panim taught me: The best learning is out of the classroom, it’s street Torah.

Phil Jacobs is executive editor of Clipper City Media — pjacobs@clippercitymedia.com

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