The Individual and the Community: A New Synthesis

Richard Lederman
November 20, 2014
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When I was in graduate school, working part time in the Jewish community, I belonged to an informal, traditional, egalitarian, lay-led minyan that was part of a Conservative synagogue in Philadelphia. There were two separate minyanim meeting in this shul, in addition to the service led by the rabbi in the main sanctuary. The vast majority of us were members of the shul, and in more recent times, a number of presidents of the congregation have emerged from these minyan groups. In the early days, there was a certain disdain for these groups among the mainstream sanctuary crowd. We were seen as aloof, separate, violating the injunction attributed to Rabbi Hillel in Pirkei Avot not to separate oneself from the community.

Then, for 20 years, I was what is often disparagingly called a professional Jew; I worked full time as a Jewish professional. Now I could see the world through the eyes of those mainstream sanctuary goers. Communal and institutional obligations and loyalties were values vital to my professional success. Since I was working within the congregational world, I read lots of books, articles and communal reports decrying the decline of synagogues in America. Concepts like “post-modernism” and “the sovereign self” slipped off my tongue with the same ease and confidence as the morning benedictions. Ethnic identity and institutional loyalty were on the wane in American, not just among Jews. People were looking instead for personal spiritual fulfillment. There was a certain ambivalence among Jewish leaders in the face of this atomistic, individualistic perspective. On the one hand, congregations knew that they needed to face it and embrace it. On the other hand, they felt both a bit insulted and even more threatened.

Having retired from the Jewish professional world, I guess you could say I’m back at it. I’ve left my mainstream Conservative shul and have joined an independent, traditional, egalitarian lay-led minyan in Washington, DC. My biggest problem with the minyan is that I’ve probably raised the average age by about 20 or 30 years. But it doesn’t matter. The energy and passion that emerges from the worship in this community is breath taking. Though I have done no formal survey, I sense that the vast majority of the members are former day school graduates, and Jewish youth groupers and summer campers. They’re doing what we taught them to do—lead their own worship services.

I’m still getting some push back from my former fellow congregants. They feel betrayed. Why can’t these young people bring their energy and passion into the synagogue, they ask. Aren’t they separating from the community, rejecting their responsibility to what one plaintiff called “organized Jewish life”?

The answer is they are organized Jewish life. While we’re wringing our hands over the decline of our synagogue communities, our young people, exercising their sovereign selves, fulfilling their individual Jewish aspirations, are creating new and vibrant communal forms. There are all kinds of informal communities, publications, websites, and cultural events. The fact is, the mainstream synagogues that I worked with for more than twenty years were formed by my parents and their peers seeking to fulfill their personal desires to leave behind their parents’ shtetls and enter the mainstream of American life. They weren’t rejecting their parents’ Old World community; they were reforming it and reconstructing it (no denominational preferences implied).

So the binarism of “individual” vs. “communal” proves to be a false one. It turns out to be more of a Hegelian universe. The old communal structures are both fed by but ultimately rejected by the next generation seeking personal fulfillment only to be reborn in new, more vibrant, more passionate, more energetic communal structures—a new synthesis. We should not only embrace it; we should celebrate it.

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Richard Lederman holds a BA in Religion from Miami University (Ohio) and a Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literature from the Annenberg Research Institute, now the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylania. After nearly 30 years as a Jewish communal professional, most recently as Director of Public Policy and Social Action for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Lederman now teaches courses in Bible, Religion and Comparative Mythology at Georgetown University and Montgomery College, Maryland, as well as online Bible courses for Gratz College in Philadelphia. He blogs at

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