Spiritually Homeless

urjbiennialThe following is a transcript of Ron’s remarks at the 2009 Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial in Toronto. This was during S3K’s program introducing Next Dor

It is wonderful to be back at Biennial!

For me, this Next Dor initiative is personal…

I have two young Jewish professionals in my family…

My daughter Havi. She’s 33 and recently married…say Mazal Tov! Thank

My son Michael. He’s 31 and living in New York City.

They are both homeless.

Oh, they have apartments….

But, they are homeless.

Spiritually homeless.

They are completely unconnected to a spiritual community.

And these are day school graduates, summer campers, trips to Israel, a warm Jewish family…and Daddy is in “the business.”

Nothing. Nada. Rien.

Oh, sometimes we convince them to come to L.A. for a holiday

And after my Mom, of blessed memory, died this summer, we all gathered for Yom Kippur in my hometown of Omaha to be with my Dad…

I shlepped them to Kol Nidre at the Conservative shul where I grew up.

It failed to grab them. Michael came a little late, and as he approached the entrance of the sanctuary, all five doors had the same Xeroxed sign:


Then, when the service ended at 9:58 p.m., everyone walked to their cars, many parked on a grassy overflow lot…and at precisely 10 p.m., the automatic sprinklers turned on! Everyone was running, getting drenched.

My idea of a “welcoming congregation!”

It got better when we went to the big blow-out break-fast hosted by my cousins Don and Nancy Greenberg. Their daughter, Wendy Goldberg, is in the room today. The star of the evening is the smoked fish imported from Barney Greengrass – the Sturgeon King of New York City. More than 100 people are invited to this event, including our friends Jane and Harlan Rips – so you can imagine the platters of Nova lox, the huge whitefish, and the pickled herring in cream sauce. Of course, my kids would have preferred sushi.

I once had a meeting at Barney Greengrass. I went to pay the check and a stocky man was sitting behind the counter, with his head down, looking at bills and orders, paying absolutely no attention to me. Later, I learned it was Moe Greengrass, the owner. So, I tried to make conversation with him:

“Hey, my name is Ron Wolfson. I’m from Los Angeles, but you may know my cousins from Omaha, Don and Nancy Greenberg.”

This guy slowly lifted his head, looked me straight in the eye, and said:

“Good account….9104 Davenport.”

Good account.

The goal of Yom Kippur.

And the goal of our Forum today – to encourage us to stop and reflect on what we are leaving our adult kids. This is one of the “Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven:”

Did you leave a legacy?

The truth is our daughter Havi will not likely show up at a synagogue until she has a kid ready for religious school. As Steven M. Cohen, our Synagogue 3000 Synagogue Studies Institute Director of Research likes to say: “The best predictor of synagogue affiliation is for a couple to give birth to a seven year old child!”

 I know I’m not alone in this. I bet a lot of you have 21-40 year olds.

Are they homeless, too?

 Because they are waiting longer and longer to get married, it could be twenty years between the time they graduate college and they show up at our synagogue doors – maybe…

 Twenty years! That’s a generation.

 Will this be our legacy? That we ignored our kids for twenty years?

I know some of your congregations have good young adult groups and programming. That’s great. But, very few invest the kind of resources, the kind of effort we’re talking about in this initiative.

I want to tell you why I’m excited about the Next Dor Network.

It can be the first step towards creating what we have needed in our communities for a long, long time:

A “liberal Chabad.”

Let me be blunt. I’m tired of Chabad kicking our butts. I’m tired of watching Chabad become the fastest growing religious movement in Judaism. And I’m tired of them doing it with our money!

You know why Chabad and Aish ha-Torah are so effective? Because they are missionaries who believe that the greatest mitzvah is to welcome the stranger, the spiritual seeker, and to build a relationship with them – one person at a time. Because they have spectacular programs and marketing and websites rich with content that speaks to your deepest concerns…but they never forget that it is the warm, personal relationship that brings people in. Because Chabad sends a rabbi into a community for life…and they build relationships with everyone.

Why can’t we do what Chabad and Aish do?

We can. Yes, we can! Yes, we can!

Can we identify, train and equip a cadre of our very best rabbinical students to be Next Dor rabbis in cities all over North America, working out of our very best mainstream congregations?

Yes, we can!

Can we use the strategies of engagement employed so brilliantly by the Orthodox outreach groups – primarily their warm and personal invitation to be in relationships with a rabbi, with a spiritual community, with Judaism, and yes – even with God, to build our communities, and ultimately, our congregational membership?

Yes, we can!

I’ll tell you why the time is right for this to happen now. There are three reasons:

First, last May, when all the rabbinical seminaries held their ordination ceremonies, there were large numbers of rabbis who were not placed. Even a surprising number of rabbis ordained by HUC did not have jobs right out of school. Eventually, most were placed…some picked up another academic degree…but the truth is that in the liberal movements we have an abundance of talented people becoming rabbis, cantors, educators and communal workers who can be recruited to do this work. We see this as a tremendous opportunity to identify a group of these professionals to receive specialized post-graduate training in interpersonal skills, entrepreneurship, and engagement techniques – and become our own  “shlichim,” outreach messengers for liberal Judaism.

Second, although there are a few good creative initiatives to reach young Jewish adults, many of them depend on funding from foundations and individual philanthropists. But, what happens when the foundation tires of the program…or, God forbid, the philanthropist dies. This just happened to a terrific initiative called the “Professional Leaders Project – PLP.” The idea was to identify and train young Jewish professionals for lay leadership in the community. It had a great run…until their major funder – Bill Davidson, died this year…and his estate was tied up…and literally overnite, $1 million in funding disappeared…and they had to close down PLP. Synagogues aren’t going anywhere. We represent the largest infrastructure and investment of any institution in the Jewish community.

And that brings me to the third reason we must do this. As Larry Hoffman so eloquently put it, we have an obligation, a responsibility, to marshal the energy and creativity of our young Jewish adults to engage in the ongoing creation and repair of the world…to inspire them to be God’s partners on earth.

 We cannot afford to sit back and wait for them to get married in their 30’s and 40’s…and then give birth or adopt…and then hope they show up when their kids are ready for a religious education. I’m not convinced they will show up. Maybe they will…maybe they won’t.

You know what’s happening in Los Angeles” And, please, don’t dismiss this…because what happens in L.A. will likely come to your town soon enough!

 Backyard Bar Mitzvahs. Families who have decided it’s cheaper than years of synagogue dues and less pressure on their very busy kids to hire a tutor and a rent-a-rabbi and do a quickie Bar Mitzvah, literally in their backyard.

 Here’s another scary thought: Jewish home schooling – an alternative to religious school. “I’ll just teach my kids at home…there are all sorts of resources on the Internet and support groups on Facebook, maybe send them to one of those great Jewish summer camps, take them on a trip to Israel. Why should I join a synagogue?”


If we can engage young adults before they get to that point…inspire them, empower them, and invite them into a relationship with Judaism – through serious study, through music and prayer, through social justice work…and most importantly, through a personal relationship with a Jewish mentor – then I am convinced we will have a better shot at them eventually joining our congregations.

My friends, this is a big idea, a big vision. It will require a huge investment by all of us. We are thrilled that Bernie Marcus and the Marcus Foundation is supporting our first group of five pilot sites and the development of the national infrastructure for the Next Dor Network. We are honored to stand hand-in-hand with the URJ as Synagogue 3000 continues its mandate to be a catalyst for excellence in synagogue life. And we thank you for your interest in our work. We hope you will follow what happens on our websites: www.nextdoronline.org and www.synagogue3000.org.

I can promise you this:

We will study this. We will scale it up. Our dream is that in whatever city in North America your young adults end up, there will be a Next Dor professional eager to reach out to them.

When that time comes, we will be able to look back and say: We met the moment. We served our adult kids. We left a legacy we can be proud of.

 Can we do this?

 Yes, we can!

 Welcome to Next Dor!

ronwolfsonDr. Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education at the American Jewish University and President of Synagogue 3000.

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