Playlist Judaism. That was the title of Dr. Kerry Olitzky’s presentation to approximately 125 Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders gathered for the Darrell D. Friedman Institute for Professional Development at the Weinberg Center’s Professional Leadership Summit at Temple Oheb Shalom on May 21.
But there were no iPods, klezmer bands or song leaders on hand. Instead, Dr. Olitzky used the phrase playlist Judaism to represent the trend by young Jewish adults and families toward “episodic involvement” in Jewish life — as opposed to the membership-oriented Jewish practice of previous generations.
“The generation of Jews in their 30s are the first generation of fully American Jews, and our Jewish institutions look completely different to them than they did to their parents’ generation,” said Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, and one of Newsweek’s “50 Leading Rabbis in North America.” Olitzky likened this transformation to the advent of the music-file-sharing
platform Napster and its impact on the music-recording industry.
“Napster introduced the notion of decentralization. It broke the stranglehold of the music industry on the public’s music-listening habits. Before Napster, you had to buy the whole album. You can organize your own playlist now.” said Olitzky.
“With the Jewish membership model, you had to buy the whole package, too. You want a bar mitzvah for your kid? You have to buy the whole package — synagogue, religious school, JCC membership or any other Jewish membership organization. Playlist Judaism is for people who want to take any aspect of Judaism that appeals to them. People want to know ‘What’s in it for me? What’s the benefit?’ not what’s in it for the community or the institution,” Rabbi Olitzky explained. “How do we as Jewish communal professionals move from the language of obligation to the language of benefit?”
In this new era, Rabbi Olitzky stressed, Jewish communal professionals and leaders must respond differently if they hope to engage younger Jews.
“The old way is not working. The saying ‘if you build it, they will come’ is a myth. If you build it, they won’t come. Instead, we must get out of our institutions and meet people where they are, not inside the four walls
of the Jewish community and its institutions,” he said.
Olitzky told summit participants that the future of the Jewish community and what it will look like in the years ahead will depend upon their actions.
“Our greatest challenge is engagement. This is the most difficult time for us, but it’s also the most exciting,” he said.
Cindy Goldstein, DFI’s executive director, said Olitzsky was chosen because DFI’s leaders select speakers who bring a communal perspective are relevant to the work we all do in moving our community forward.
“We try to keep on top of current trends that inform our work,” she said. “People are here from all of our diverse agencies, organizations, schools and synagogues. The key to our success is networking and sharing. That leads to collaboration, deeper thinking and action.”
Following Olitzky’s talk, participants were invited to form groups in which they could collaborate and process their reactions to his ideas. They discussed the pros and cons of membership — the financial challenges inherent in a switch from dues-paying to a pay-as you-go system. One question raised in several groups was whether the community has invested too much in the physical spaces that house our institutions.
“Do we need to stop building or to consolidate our spaces?” some wondered aloud.
Other participants advised the community to remove every obstacle that may keep the unaffiliated from engaging with the community. While some thought it unwise to dispense with membership organizations altogether, others believed that both models should be available.
Said one participant: “Even if a Jewish individual or family does only one Jewish activity a year, make it meaningful.”