The question of what the Jewish community looks like in the 21st century has not quite been answered yet. In an increasingly digital age, with younger generations that are less committed to traditional institutions, it’s a question with no easy answer.
But a new book, “Warm and Welcoming,” edited by Jewish Exponent contributor Miriam Steinberg-Egeth, attempts to answer it.
Steinberg-Egeth’s book, as its title alludes, tries to define those modern challenges under the label of inclusivity. There are chapters on welcoming LGBTQ Jews, interfaith families, Jews of color and Jews with disabilities. There also are sections on how to build Jewish life around the desires and habits of millennial and Generation Z Jews, with such chapters focusing on millennials and Gen Z people in general, education, fundraising and marketing.
If inclusivity is the unifying challenge, adaptation is the unifying action that Jewish institutions need to take, according to Steinberg-Egeth and her authors, five of whom live in the Philadelphia area or have Philadelphia ties.
“Warm and Welcoming,” published by Rowman & Littlefield, came out Nov. 15 and is available on Amazon.com.
Each author is an expert in the field in which he or she wrote about, Steinberg-Egeth said.
The Exponent contributor has been “a leader in the Philadelphia Jewish community since 2006,” according to her editor bio on the book’s website. She has worked for the Center City Kehillah, the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia and the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia’s Jewish Graduate Student Network.
Her co-editor, Warren Hoffman, is the executive director for the Association for Jewish Studies in New York, per the site. He worked with Steinberg-Egeth in Philadelphia for several years as the associate director of community programming for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and as senior director of programming for the Gershman Y.
“I care deeply about the Jewish community, and the Jewish community has to be a place where people feel comfortable,” Steinberg-Egeth said. “Being able to get this work out into the world was a really incredible opportunity.”
Hoffman came up with the idea for the book and was working with a publisher before the pandemic. But in May 2020, he asked his old friend to join him.
According to Steinberg-Egeth, Hoffman knew she was a capable writer who had done other writing projects. He also knew that she was used to considering deep and important questions about Jewish life.
For the Exponent, Steinberg-Egeth writes “Miriam’s Advice Well,” an advice column. Often, her answers to readers either have practical or moral implications — or both.
Recently, she has been getting a lot of questions about interfaith families. So as she thought about that dynamic, she realized that her answer applied to the modern Jewish community more broadly.
“The importance of inclusion and that welcoming spirit,” the writer said. “Valuing people’s experiences.”
The book’s Philadelphia-based writers, Gabby Kaplan-Mayer, Beverly Socher-Lerner, Rebecca Bar and Rabbi Mike Uram, all dig into those themes, too.
Kaplan-Mayer runs an inclusion program for Jewish Learning Venture, a Jenkintown nonprofit that helps Jewish families build Jewish lives. Her chapter focuses on disability access.
In it, she explains that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 does not apply to synagogues and religious buildings. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon those places to take up disability access as a moral imperative.
“Each community really needs to do the work and talk to their congregants,” she said.
In Jewish educational institutions, the challenge is slightly different, according to Socher-Lerner, who wrote the book’s education chapter. Jewish enrichment programs need to find their community members, she said.
Socher-Lerner is the founding director of the Makom Community in Philly, which tries to modernize Jewish education. Makom developed a program in which Jewish students can attend a Jewish program after school five days a week. It even organizes transportation to help working parents.
“It fits in their lives,” she said of the program.
And once Judaism fits in their lives, it starts informing how they live.
“Our Jewish education has to be one where we constantly reflect our Jewish wisdom onto our community and into our relationships,” Socher-Lerner said. “So we can grow into who we want to be.”
So to become more inclusive, and to adapt to new generations that don’t view institutions as worthy just because, Jewish organizations must change how they think about their relationships with community members.
Jewish life today is about filling a spiritual need more than a practical one.
“Investing deeply in people and relationships from a place of empathy,” Socher-Lerner said. “Not just getting them to invest more and donate more.”
Mazal tov on the new book!