The future of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community
Guest ColumnistOpinion

The future of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community

A call to think in bold new ways

Here’s a proposal: Pittsburgh’s liberal Jewish congregations can no longer afford the polite fiction that they are so distinct one from another that all could not benefit from joining forces.

Indeed, I believe all of our city’s non-Orthodox congregations and minyanim share too much in common and stand to achieve so much more in partnership for us to remain committed to anything even resembling the go-it-alone mindset of yesteryear.

This is not a manifesto for merger nor a cri de coeur for collaboration; it is, rather, an urgent plea for our entire community to organize and prioritize in altogether new and bold ways.

I first called for a courageous conversation about our then-present circumstance in 2011. Nearly a decade later, once more am I calling for our entire community’s volunteer, professional and rabbinic leadership to abandon what Sigmund Freud referred to as “the narcissism of our small differences” and to encourage one another to think in wholly new ways.

Warning: “Thinking differently” is more difficult than it at first appears.

Thinking in new ways is hard because we find safety in the familiar and we are protective of what we know. Over millennia (and in each of our own lifetimes, to be sure) this penchant for the predictable has caused us to grow adept at creating and recognizing patterns that help us map our thinking.

Changing our thinking is, therefore, a challenge, because our relationship to our maps are embedded far below the surface level. And significantly, within these schemas, we have embedded assumptions and narratives upon which we rely to know both where and who we are.

How then can we move past the maps that took us this far and the patterns in which we have invested so much? And even more, how does an entire community pivot to achieve new outcomes?

There are three immediate actions we must take if our community is to overcome our own biases and blind spots and become that which we need now and, most significantly, that which we hope to bequeath to the next generation.

First, we must rigorously diagnose our circumstance; we must challenge our essential assumptions; and most painful of all, we must reconsider how our long-cherished, desired outcomes are best achieved going forward.

In the words of William F. Buckley, “The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. The next best thing is to take stock of reality.”

Easier said than done, of course. Change itself is never easy and thinking our way into new ways of accomplishing a goal is even harder.

Therefore, we must ask better questions. We must force ourselves to stop looking at the reality we face through the same lens we have always used.

As Albert Einstein taught: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

The core mission of every congregation, nonprofit agency and Jewish communal organization remains the same as it ever was, and yet we must now think and go about our work in wholly new ways.

Further, if Einstein was correct and the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, we would be crazy to double down on what got us here.

In crises, leaders have latitude to ask questions, to experiment, and to take risks on new outcomes with far less resistance within the system than systems at stasis typically allow. We must not allow this current crisis to go to waste.

So, ask not: “What keeps you up at night?”

Ask rather: “What gets you out of bed in the morning?”

Or, paraphrasing the words of the late Robert Kennedy, “Ask not, ‘why?;’ dream and ask, ‘why not?’”
Third and finally, we must work tirelessly for shared outcomes and the greatest common good.

Why? Because no one congregation can solve its own challenges if it goes about that work solo; it is simply folly to believe otherwise.

Thus, in a spirit of Clal Yisrael, before we begin to ask our new and better questions, we must stipulate that we are all in this together and only by our working together shall our Jewish community thrive (let alone survive).

Ten years ago Rodef Shalom, the congregation I’ve served for 16 years, adopted a strategic plan that presciently anticipated the synergies and new combined models of Jewish community that would be required going forward.

And now, with even greater urgency, I reiterate that we share far more in common with our neighbors than we have heretofore imagined. For I believe that it will be in our working together that we shall accomplish far more on behalf of the Jewish community than if we are to persist in working independently and, therefore, at cross purposes.

In the powerfully prescient words of William Jefferson Clinton, “building networks of creative cooperation… is the key to overcoming the challenges, both great and small, of our newly interdependent world.” PJC

Rabbi Aaron Bisno is spiritual leader at Rodef Shalom Congregation.

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