Archive for the ‘New Jewish Realities’ Category


The Old Jewish Neighborhood – Daniel Cotzin Burg

Posted on: May 4th, 2015 by Hayim Herring



rabbi-daniel-cotzin-burgBy Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg


The Old Jewish Neighborhood


I live in a Jewish neighborhood called Reservoir Hill. It used to be two communities: Eutaw Place, the grand boulevard with its elegant town homes and Lake Drive, which included several blocks east of Eutaw with still beautiful, but more modest row houses. For a number of reasons, Jews moved away from Reservoir Hill toward Baltimore County. By the 1970’s, the neighborhood was now predominantly African American and increasingly poor. By the 80’s, crime had become endemic and sidewalks abutting the former Jewish shops played host to open-air drug markets. By the 90’s, the entire commercial center of the neighborhood was demolished. Reservoir Hill resembled a bagel with a gaping hole in the middle.


The New Jewish Neighborhood


In recent years, Reservoir Hill has enjoyed a general resurgence and modest Jewish renaissance: young Jewish singles, couples and families have begun to move back. Crime is down, and vacant properties are at their lowest numbers in decades. A team of 350 volunteers built a new playground in 2011 – the community’s first clean, safe play space in years. Whitelock boasts an urban farm and farm stand, a community garden and a new park – the community’s core, empty lots now an emerging as green space. The school, remembered fondly by numerous congregants, is again on the upswing and slated for a total redesign next year. Druid Hill Park across the street, Baltimore’s grand Central Park, once filled with shul-goers from dozens of nearby synagogues on Rosh Hashanah afternoon, boasts a refurbished zoo and conservatory, a new playground and swimming pool, a farmers market and weekend festivals from art fairs to dog-walkers and various ethnic celebrations.


When Does Debate Cross a Line from Health to Pathology?

Posted on: May 13th, 2014 by Hayim Herring

I’m not looking for some nostalgic Jewish past when we were all unified. That would be fiction, not historical fact. (Item: think we’re not unified now? Remember that when the Romans besieged Jerusalem in early 70 C.E., extremist Jewish factions burned storehouses of the little food left in an effort to provoke Jewish moderates into war against the Romans and out of potential negotiations). Debate, discussion, dissent and disagreement are in our DNA — and for the better. These attributes help us hone our ideas, challenge our assumptions, and collectively and progressively refresh Judaism.


But like much of America today, we have divides, not spectrums:


• Open Hillel/Safe Hillel
• J-Street/AIPAC
• Religious/Secular
• In-married/Intermarried
• Mainstream/Start Up
• Growth/Decline
• Modern Orthodox/Extreme Orthodox
• Boomers/Millennials


Divides create a mentality of, “you’re either for us or against us,” while spectrums of belief can help focus energies on areas of agreement. Divides turn people off, while spectrums bring people in.

Note that most of these divisions aren’t new, although their labeling has been updated in some cases. But I think that social media have heightened the question, “At what point will dissent impair our ability to act collectively? Why might it do so? Because just as the Internet bestows the blessing of instantly spreading great ideas, it is equally potent at spreading disdain for one another. (Sometimes the web feels like a 24/7 global la-shon ha-ra or gossip factory.) And ill-will may linger well after any specific incident and turn into hardened opinions and stereotypes.

The minor festival of lag b’omer is celebrated this Sunday. Legend has it that a massive number of students of Rabbi Akiva died because of internecine fighting several weeks before that time, as Divine punishment for lack of mutual respect. They forgot that they needed each other–that’s my interpretation. Clearly, even a “big tent” has its limits. But if we want a dynamic and healthy American Jewish community, we’re going to have to cool the rhetoric we use in speaking of differences and warm the embrace within our respective belief system.


From Network Judaism to Platform Judaism

Posted on: October 8th, 2013 by Hayim Herring



In 2000, I wrote a paper called Network Judaism, later published in 2001. MySpace was launched in August 2003 and Facebook in February 2004. While not long ago at all, it’s hard to recall that social media platforms didn’t exist. But if you were tracking possible significant trends carefully, you could anticipate the potential emergence of the networked organization. What no one was able to grasp was how social media sites would be enable societal changes of major magnitude.


Today, here are a few stats on some popular social media platforms:

Facebook-1.15 billion registered users

Flickr -87 million users, 8 billion photos

Pandora – 200 million registered users

Twitter – 500 million registered

Word Press – 66 million blogs

Angie’s list – 2 million users

Yelp – 12 million users per day

YouTube-500 million visits per day


The numbers tell a story of how rapidly socially media sites have been adopted and how embedded they are in our lives. Yet, synagogues, federations and other historic organizations have not shifted their structures to enable themselves to become platforms for people to connect socially, spiritually, philanthropically and educationally.


As we are now in the networked era, Jewish organizations need to shift their paradigms to a platform model. Otherwise, the great the work that many are doing around making Judaism more relevant, inspirational, meaning-saturated and beautiful will be inhibited or fail. Unlike many Jewish start up organizations that have blossomed over the last ten years, established Jewish organizations need Platform Judaism, or more accurately, platform Jewish structures.


What is an organizational platform (and I can highlight only a few dimensions in this space)? A platform is an enabling space for people to interact and act upon issues. An organization that becomes a platform enables individuals to self direct their Jewish choices and express their Jewish values within the organization’s mission. That is a radical shift from organizational leaders directing people how, when, where, why and with whom to be Jewish- in other words, the dominant paradigm of more established Jewish organizations and synagogues!


Becoming a platform is also a mindset. It means embracing the desire of individuals to co-create their experiences, opt in and opt out of Jewish life, do new things and old things in new ways-of course, within the organization’s mission. This mindset operates within the building, outside of the building, on the website, and anywhere else. It also requires a much more creative and intentional use of technologies to tell individual stories and organizational stories and a redefinition of professional and volunteer leaders’ roles, new governance models and even new professional and volunteer positions.


Most critically, restructuring as a platform requires a relentless focus on a compelling mission and purpose. When organizations can clearly define their purpose, they have the opportunity to help individuals activate their latent hunger for community, experientially educate them about the difference between a discrete cause and an enduring commitment and provide opportunities for deeper relationships that transcend Facebook-type “connections.”


Talking about organizational structure isn’t sexy. But the payoff for paying attention to it is potentially huge, enabling:


In part, I wrote my book, Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today. Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life, to stimulate thinking around the urgency for organizations to move to a platform model. Within about two weeks, UJA-Federation of New York’s Synergy Department and the Alban Institute will be releasing a study and action guide to help synagogues and organizations practically apply the concepts of Platform Judaism, one of the central concept in Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today, to their real world settings. Then, several weeks later, the Alban Institute will be publishing a companion volume to Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today, with a deeper discussion of some of the core concepts of the book and even more practical resources. If you’ve registered for ongoing information, you’ll learn how you can access these new resources-one of which will be downloadable for free. If you haven’t, you can sign up here.


And in October, I’ll be presenting and facilitating number of sessions in Baltimore at United Synagogue’s Centennial; in Westchester, Manhattan and Long Island through UJA-Federation of New York; and the Rockland County Federation’s Rockland Jewish (Synagogue) Initiative. You can click here for more details on these presentations and if they’re in your area and open to the public, I hope that you’ll participate. Looking forward to working together with you!


Crossed posted on eJewishphilanthropy in a modified form.



Resetting the Rabbinate

Posted on: May 20th, 2013 by Hayim Herring



In the past few months, I’ve read at least six articles or blogs about rabbis and the contemporary rabbinate. (Just search sites like eJewishPhilanthropy, The Jewish Week, the JTA and the Jewish Daily Forward for a sampling of results.) Any rabbi will tell you that there’s structural change occurring and the media now seems to have picked up this story. Some of the stories suggest new roles that rabbis are fulfilling, others are about gender and the rabbinate, or prognostications about the future of the rabbinate and the rabbinical seminaries’ challenge in keeping up with what they perceive as new skills that rabbis require.


(Disclaimer: I’ve written about the rabbinate over the years as well in publications like Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today. Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life and “The Rabbi as Moreh Derekh Chayim: Reconceptualizing Today’s Rabbinate”. But why so many articles in such a short time?


Rabbis are experiencing significant role ambiguity and the 20th Century paradigm of what defines a rabbi is clearly inadequate for this century. A few examples will suffice:

Rabbis used to have primary or heavy involvement in the examples above but now, much less so.


And it isn’t just that functions are changing. Relationships are changing as well. In speaking with colleagues, they sense that they are increasingly being treated more as employees and less as individuals with a sacred profession. As one colleague wryly commented, he felt that “evaluations” had become “devaluations.”


This lack of role clarity is a symptom of a paradigm change. As renowned futurist, Joel Barker, says: “When a paradigm shifts, everyone goes back to zero. Your past success guarantees nothing in your future.” And all of these conversations about rabbis’ roles certainly have the feel of “going back to zero,” that is, accepting that the assumptions that undergird last centuries’ rabbinate will not support today’s rabbinate.


I believe that rabbis have significant roles to play. Some will be the same as the last generation of rabbis, and others haven’t even yet been imagined. But I’d like to hear your thoughts about the unique roles that rabbis can play. By unique, I mean what is it by virtue of their training that they alone can do, or that they can do with greater ability than others with Judaic knowledge and experience? All are invited to respectfully weigh in and thanks!



A Preliminary Theology of Social Networks

Posted on: January 2nd, 2013 by Hayim Herring
A Preliminary Theology of Social Networks

photo from: Master isolated images,

One of my findings from  interviews with rabbis that I conducted for my book, Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today,was  their lack of specific, intentional connections between their personal theology and their congregation’s organizational structure. I asked them how their personal theology influenced their congregational governance, how they worked with volunteers and similar types of issues that are often labeled as the “business” or “administrative” side of congregational life. This lack of conscious connection really didn’t surprise me because structural issues and theology don’t naturally mix. They require a leader to constantly work at making those connections and creating patterns of organizational behaviors that are infused both with spirituality and effectiveness at getting work done.  And it’s difficult for rabbis who are juggling many balls to reflect on how their theology can amplify their work on the structural side of congregational or Jewish organizational life.

As people like Beth Kanter and Allison Fine made clear in their book, The Networked Nonprofit, networks are the new form of organizational structure in the 21st-century. (Actually, Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps predicted in 1994 in The Age of the Network that networks would be the signature form of organizations in this century and I wrote about network organizations for the Jewish community in 2001 in Network Judaism). The bedrock of social networking sites, the platforms that support network organizations, is relationships. Social networking sites enable many different levels and types of relationships. They allow people who know one another well to remain in closer touch, permit people who know one another casually to deepen relationships and facilitate brand new relationships. They encourage people who share common interests to collaborate in sharing resources and solving problems. Social networks are blind to issues of socioeconomic class, race, gender, sexual orientation, levels of education, professional titles – and the list goes on. In theory, social networks give individuals an equal voice regardless of difference and they enable people to transcend national boundaries.

Networks are really beginning to reach their potential to reshape organizations, so now is the time to ask, “What role can a theology of networks play in our awareness of synagogues and Jewish organizations?”

As I reread the first chapter of Rabbi Art Green’s most recent book, Radical Judaism, I began to glimpse what a Jewish theology of social networks could be like. Green, one of today’s most original contemporary theologians, describes himself as a neo-Hasidic Jew and a religious humanist.

On page 18 of his book, he writes:

My theological position is that of a mystical panentheist, one who believes that God is present throughout all of existence, that Being or Y-H-W-H underlies and unifies all that is…’Transcendence’… (in this context) means rather that God-or Being-is so fully present in the here and now of each moment that we could not possibly grasp the depth of the presence…There is no ultimately duality here, no “God and the world,” no “God, world, and self,” only one Being and its many faces…There is no end to its unimaginable depth, but so too there is no border, no limit, departing that unfathomable One from anything that is. Infinite Being in every instant flows through all finite beings…”

And again on p. 29, he writes,

Every creature and every life form is a garbing of divine presence. The way in which we treat them and relate to them is the ultimate testing ground of our own religious consciousness….The purpose of our growing awareness is to reach out and appreciate all things for what they really are. This is especially true with regard to our fellow humans.”

Without meaning to reduce Green’s deep theological thought, he makes the case that the same One underlying unity is within each of us. That awareness is precisely what social networking can reinforce within congregations because networks have the potential to span significant differences. I wonder what the experience of being a part of a congregation would be like if rabbis maintained a vigilant awareness that God’s presence was actually pulsing through all aspects of the congregation and that the current structures and organizational divisions that characterize congregations actually conceal their inter-connectedness and make the parts less than the sum of the whole. Social networking as an organizing concept can enable participants in a congregational community to connect with one another, to share, to learn, to solve complex problems and to see the possibility of each part of a system contributing to a transcendent whole. And if that is not a manifestation of the divine, I don’t know what is.

I understand that social networking has a very dark side to it as well. My point is not to argue the benefits and the detriments of this relatively new way of organizing. Rather, it’s to encourage rabbis and Jewish theologians to bring our theological beliefs to this new form of organizing. Compartmentalizing our beliefs from one aspect of organizational life diminishes the overall power of that organization to have a deeper impact. And that is especially true of congregations.

These are some preliminary thoughts about a Jewish theology of networking.I realize that they are a little amorphous and preliminary. So I’m asking you: what other theological stances do you bring or aspire to bring to congregational life so that belief can animate the structures of your congregation in a way that nourishes them?

cross-posted at

Jews, Tattoos & Holocaust Taboos: Some Possible Implications

Posted on: October 10th, 2012 by Hayim Herring
Jews, Tattoos & Holocaust Taboos: Some Possible Implications

photo from:

My daughter and I were discussing a story that recently appeared in the New York Times about younger Jews inventing new ways to remember the Holocaust and communicate its history to people who either don’t know it or want to forget it. Some have decided to have their forearms tattooed with the same number of surviving older family members. They’ve done so in the spirit of zakhor-remembering Nazi genocide and making sure that horrific atrocities are not perpetrated again. (No comment now about democratic nations standing idly by the blood of Syrians being massacred.) This imperative is even more essential as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles while the prominence of Holocaust deniers increases.

I’m going to leave the Jewish legal issues aside on the question of permanent tattooing. If you want to learn more about them, just search online for “Jews, tattoos, rabbis and Jewish law” and you’ll see the opinions. The bottom line: the weight of Jewish legal precedent is against permanent tattooing and has generally viewed tattoos as desecration of the body and not “body art.” Note-there is a minority view, never adopted, that prohibits only those tattoos used for idol worship, a view that some rabbis are now re-examining to reconsider their stance against this practice.

My daughter’s thoughts moved my needle from “opposed” to “uncertain” about how I feel about Jews taking tattoos with the numbers of Jewish Holocaust victims. I do think this phenomenon should awaken us to the feelings about tattooing that younger generations have and their admirable response to taking up the challenge of remembering the Holocaust in their way, in an age when there will soon no longer be living survivors. But I also think that we need to think further into the future about possible implications. For example:

What’s your thinking on this issue? Please respond- remembering Holocaust genocide in a post-survivor era, when governments still brutalize populations, is a pressing matter.

The Hoagie Generation

Posted on: August 22nd, 2012 by Hayim Herring

Recently, some of my close friends and I have been talking about a new iteration of an older phenomenon. In 1981, Dorothy Miller coined the term the sandwich generation to describe middle-aged individuals who were taking care of older parents and younger children. They were sandwiched in between two generations. Perhaps it’s time to rename this phenomenon the hoagie generation. Hoagies are longer than sandwiches, and with adolescence lasting longer and parents living much longer, the image of a sandwich, with regular size slices of bread, misses a change in this phenomenon.

One of the largest growing populations is the old elderly. Additionally, a new understanding of adolescence suggests that it goes well into the mid-20’s. That means that if you are currently a member of the Boomer generation, you can be parenting your parents who are easily in their 80s and older, while still parenting older adolescent children. Adolescence lasts longer, parents live longer and therefore the sandwich resembles more of a hoagie roll that sandwich bread in terms of length.

Those of us who are in the middle recognize the difficulty of children struggling to acquire independence in a new economic reality. At the same time, we can identify with the frailties of our parents, as we begin to experience some early signals. Their task is to safely keep their independence. Government alone can’t meet the challenges of each of these generations. Rather, this is the kind of situation that is well suited for a congregational community. Congregations have the potential to be multigenerational communities. They can give dignity to the elderly, faith to younger generations that they will come through this economic storm and support to those in the middle. Additionally, they provide an opportunity for generations to celebrate transitions in time, marked by lifecycle events and holidays.

With the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Elul, it means that the Jewish New Year is just around the corner. At services, all three generations will be well represented. If you’re at services, take a look around at the crowd. And think about the opportunity that synagogues have to address these kinds of complex issues.

Downsize Institutions and Upsize Imagination

Posted on: June 4th, 2012 by Hayim Herring
Creative brainstorming

Photo: opensourceway, on Flickr

Kudos to Dr. Stephen Windmueller for his piece last week in eJewishphilanthropy, entitled to the unfolding of the third Jewish revolution. Windmueller provides us with a rich framework for analyzing major historical turning points in Jewish communal life, including the one that we’re experiencing now. I want to focus on one of his points – the one that preoccupies many in Jewish communal life today.

Money: who isn’t concerned about having sufficient financial resources to maintain or launch high-quality programs, needed services or simply pay for administrative overhead? Windmueller says it best when he writes, “the American Jewish system is a $9.7 billion annual enterprise that cannot be sustained as a result of the current economic realities.” (We should ask if it should be maintained, but that’s another issue!) It is no surprise that many of our institutions are being downsized. That’s a tough reality for those who are experiencing it.

Precisely because we have to downsize our institutions, we have to upsize our imaginations. All the money in the world wouldn’t solve many of our challenges if we continued to do things in the same way. So this transition can challenge us to think about how to do critical work differently and better. It can also help us prioritize the issues that will have the greatest impact so that we can focus on them and sunset less essential activities.

Upsizing our imagination is one strategy for making our way through the transition successfully. Another is embracing the idea that it is possible today to do more with less in some cases. And that’s a fact that is easy to forget in the current economic environment. For example, it used to take thousands of dollars to build a quality website. Today, a pre-teen can build a website without effort. When we wanted access to a book or periodical, we used to have to spend time going to the library. Today, the library is at our fingertips. One of the ways to do more with less is to fully exploit the advantages of time and cost savings that technologies enable.

I don’t want to minimize the pain that many are feeling as our Jewish community undergoes a major revolution. While this transition may cause momentary paralysis, I hope that it will ultimately energize us as we move further into the 21st-century.

Rabbi Hayim Herring

What do a CNN Anchor, a Rabbi, and a Museum CEO have in common?

Posted on: May 11th, 2012 by Hayim Herring
Little River Baptist Church Sign. Prayer - Wireless Access to God Without Roaming Fees.


You’re probably waiting for a punchline, but this is not a joke. Rather, it was a panel discussion topic of a continuing education program for rabbis in which I was involved last week. (You can read more about the program in Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Arnie Eisen’s most recent blog post.) The issue underlying the program was the challenge of engaging younger generations, weaned on social media, in Jewish learning that is spiritually relevant and authentic. Other professions, like broadcast and print media, have had to migrate to multiple channels to reach out to and cultivate younger audiences. And that’s also true of the museum world.

For religious communities, which are conservative by nature, the challenge of engagement is even greater. No matter what the religion or denomination, religions are in the business of preservation, transmission, adaptation and trying to remain faithful to an inherited tradition.  Yet, America is the land of hyper-innovation. So, Ali Velshi,  CNN anchor and chief business correspondent, and Michael Rosenzweig, President and CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, gave us their respective perspectives on this challenge.

What’s the common thread that unites these three different professions? (more…)

“Investing” or “Ordaining” Cantors: What Does it Really Mean?

Posted on: May 6th, 2012 by Hayim Herring

A few days ago, the JTA carried an article about Hebrew Union College’s decision to change the title of cantors from “invested” to “ordained.” Based on some interviews that it conducted with rabbis and cantors, HUC explained that one of the reasons for the change was to reflect the reality that cantors and rabbis studied for the same length of time and that cantors had multi-faceted roles and were not just “singers.”

Having just spent some time learning with a group of Conservative cantors, the article peaked my interest because of what it didn’t say. What I heard from the group of cantors I was with was a desire to re-conceptualize their roles so that congregations would understand the true value that they added. Their concern seemed to stem as much from a need to appropriately acknowledge a lengthy course of study as it did from anxiety over a profession that is contracting.