People of the jargon
For those of you who live in the real world and not in professional Jewish circles, consider yourselves blessed that you don’t have to attend one of those all-day conferences on “The Future of Judaism.” I’ve attended my fair share, and what I remember most is constantly being on the hunt for another cup of coffee. It’s not that I don’t love the mission of these gatherings; it’s just that professional lingo has a way of putting me to sleep.
I was reminded of this weakness when I came across a report on a conference titled “Judaism 2030: A Working Conference for a Vibrant Jewish Future and the Steps Necessary to Get Us There” in ZEEK magazine. As soon as I read the term “New Jewish Culture activist,” I felt that familiar onset of drowsiness.
What on earth is a New Jewish Culture activist?
Apparently, it’s someone who likes to “talk with participants from a variety of institutional backgrounds about their visions of a ‘vibrant Jewish future.’ ” Sounds wonderful, I thought. So why does it put me to sleep? Consider this perfectly reasonable paragraph:
“We also wanted to ask the questions in order to bring the visions that are presented into reality. How do we first identify the needs of individuals, communities, organizations, etc.? How do we really step back and look at what we’re doing now and what we’ll be doing in the future to meet both the present needs and to be ready to meet future needs? What kinds of policy changes do we have to make, what kinds of cultural changes must we make in order, for example, to embrace the increasingly fluid nature of identity in the future? What kinds of programmatic shifts must we make, and how do our institutional agendas need to change? Our goal is really to bring people from all of these different kinds of institutions to have this conversation about the future. Because it’s really not taking place in this kind of context, and we want to really outline some of those steps so we can work to make these ideas and these visions — the viable ones — into reality.”
I think my problem may actually be deeper than mere boredom. Professional language can also be intimidating, as in: “What kinds of cultural changes must we make in order to embrace the increasingly fluid nature of identity in the future?” That’s scary stuff.
Sometimes, the lingo is just too hip: “Judaism can be employed as a tool in the world’s toolbox of wisdom traditions.” Other times, it just seems like you’ve heard it a million times, especially any sentence with the word “relevant” in it: “I think the vision for Judaism 2030 is: How do we, as synagogues and small communities around the country, manage to remain relevant to the lives of our constituents while they live in a global world?”
The Olympic champion of sleep-inducing jargon must be the word “paradigm.” It didn’t take long for the dreaded P word to make its appearance in the Judaism 2030 report: “My present concern is that Jewish community — and certainly Jewish education — has been in a totally isolationist paradigm for a long time.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with jargon. For one thing, it makes the speaker feel important. Saying “paradigm” sounds a lot more sophisticated than saying “mode” or “position.” Also, there’s something comforting about having an inside lingo — it helps you bond with your fellow professionals.
The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t help you bond with the community you’re serving.
Our community’s problems are already pretty intimidating. As I see it, intimidating lingo just adds needless weight and complexity to those problems, and creates needless distance between the professionals and the people.
Think of the most successful Jewish organization in the world today — the group that arguably has done more for Jewish continuity than any other. You know, those devoted “culture activists” who serve Jews around the globe? That’s right, Chabad.
As I waded through the sophisticated verbiage in the Judaism 2030 report, it dawned on me that the beauty of the Chabad approach is in its intimacy — and simplicity.
In my view, Chabad’s approach boils down to three words: Create. Invite. Serve. Whether in Uzbekistan or in Bakersfield, that’s what Chabadniks do all day long. They create Jewish activities, they invite Jews to participate, and they serve them with love. Organizations like Chabad don’t need fancy surveys to tell them that Jews need more Judaism; they’re too busy planning Shabbat dinners, Chanukah parties and study programs to worry about five-year plans.
They understand that ideas are worth more than paradigms, action speaks louder than surveys, and love conquers all.
Not every Jewish organization is the same, but whether you’re promoting spirituality, tikkun olam, Torah study, Jewish culture, Israel or Jewish ethics, you could do worse than throw away your strategic plans and follow this simple model: Create an idea or an event that fits what you do, invite the people you want, and serve them with love. Keep coming up with new ideas, and repeat until the Messiah comes.
And if it makes you feel better, you can call it The CIS Paradigm for a More Vibrant Jewish Future.