Dr. Ron Wolf­son, vision­ary edu­ca­tor and inspi­ra­tional speak­er, is Fin­ger­hut Pro­fes­sor of Edu­ca­tion at Amer­i­can Jew­ish Uni­ver­si­ty in Los Ange­les and a cofounder of Syn­a­gogue 3000. His most recent book, Rela­tion­al Judaism: Using the Pow­er of Rela­tion­ships to Trans­form the Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty (Jew­ish Lights Pub­lish­ing), is now avail­able. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

As I trav­el around the coun­try vis­it­ing Jew­ish insti­tu­tions of all kinds, my wor­ry” quo­tient is grow­ing dai­ly. Near­ly every­where I go, I hear sto­ries of declin­ing mem­ber­ship, dif­fi­cul­ties in attract­ing the next gen­er­a­tion, peak­ing enroll­ments and flat fundrais­ing cam­paigns. This is unusu­al for me; I have been an opti­mistic cheer­leader for the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty dur­ing my career. Bot­tom line: I am not wor­ried about the future of the Jew­ish peo­ple; I am very wor­ried about the future of Jew­ish institutions.

What’s hap­pen­ing? In Rela­tion­al Judaism (Jew­ish Lights Pub­lish­ing), I out­line the many chal­lenges fac­ing any Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tion seek­ing to engage peo­ple. A big­gy” is the Inter­net. Once upon a time, rab­bis and Jew­ish edu­ca­tors held exclu­sive access to the wealth of Jew­ish prac­tice and tra­di­tion. Not today. In the zeit­geist of DIY — Do It Your­self,” the Inter­net offers enor­mous resources for just about any­thing some­one wants to learn or do. Anoth­er chal­lenge: why should I pay thou­sands of dol­lars in mem­ber­ship fees if I can rent-a-rab­bi” to do a back­yard Bar/​Bat Mitz­vah? In the larg­er Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion cen­ters, there are plen­ty of rab­bis who can­not find work in estab­lished con­gre­ga­tions hang­ing a shin­gle and offer­ing their ser­vices as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors. Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ters face increas­ing com­pe­ti­tion from well-equipped health clubs open 24/7. Day school tuition is so high it is pric­ing out a large seg­ment of those who would like to send their kids.

All this begs the cen­tral ques­tion fac­ing Jew­ish insti­tu­tions: What’s the val­ue-added of join­ing?” If the offer” of affil­i­a­tion is not tru­ly attrac­tive, I am afraid the mem­ber­ship base will con­tin­ue to nar­row as young peo­ple find alter­na­tive ways to do Jew­ish” and aging baby boomer/​empty nesters opt out.

For me, the val­ue-added must be a face-to-face com­mu­ni­ty of rela­tion­ships that gives my life mean­ing and pur­pose, belong­ing and bless­ing. Mean­ing” is an under­stand­ing of the sig­nif­i­cance of life. Pur­pose” is an imper­a­tive to do what you are put on earth to do dur­ing your life. Belong­ing” is a com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple who will be there for you and with you. Bless­ing” is a feel­ing of deep sat­is­fac­tion and grat­i­tude, a cal­en­dar and life cycle of oppor­tu­ni­ties to cel­e­brate the gifts of life.

In my research for writ­ing Rela­tion­al Judaism, I searched for orga­ni­za­tions and indi­vid­u­als who get” this, who under­stand that build­ing rela­tion­ships, not sim­ply offer­ing a cal­en­dar of pro­grams, is the task of the moment. The book presents six case stud­ies: Chabad, Hil­lel, con­gre­ga­tion-based com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing, next gen­er­a­tion ini­tia­tives, social media and fundrais­ers. In my next post­ing, I will share some lessons learned from their pio­neer­ing work, work that I believe is the for­ward edge of cre­at­ing a Rela­tion­al Judaism for the twen­ty-first century.

Find addi­tion­al JBC-reviewed titles by Dr. Ron Wolf­son here.

Ron Wolf­son, Ph.D., is Fin­ger­hut Pro­fes­sor of Edu­ca­tion at the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Uni­ver­si­ty in Los Ange­les. He is the author of The Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty of Wel­com­ing: How to Trans­form Your Con­gre­ga­tion into a Sacred Com­mu­ni­ty and God’s To-Do List: 103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God’s Work on Earth (both Jew­ish Lights Pub­lish­ing). Ron is also co-founder and pres­i­dent of Syn­a­gogue 3000, a nation­al insti­tute for cat­alyz­ing excel­lence in syn­a­gogue life.