Book Review: Relational Judaism

Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community by Ron Wolfson primarily reasserts a core principle of life, business and community organizing: “It’s all about relationships.”

This was also essentially the theme of his 2006 volume, The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community.

His patience and willingness to restate his message is impressive, given how slow the uptake among congregations worldwide seems to be, at least in this reviewer’s experience. And as times are changing, the direction of relationship-building is changing, as Wolfson indicates in a telling quote from a congregational leader:

We thought Shabbat would be a doorway to relationships. We learned that relationships are a doorway to Shabbat.

More after the jump.
Or as in the famous quote from Martin Buber that Wolfson will quote further on: “All real living is meeting.”

Another powerful reversal is the story of Rabbi Zoe Klein, upon becoming senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah, Los Angeles:

[S]he was advised by the board to “tell her story to the congregation.” She felt differently:

“The way people feel really connected to you is not if they know your story, but if they feel you know their story. If the rabbi knows your story you feel like you are seen, you matter, you are in relationship.

“So I set up small groups in my study — six to eight people — to share a ‘Sacred Stories Haggadah’ experience; we had a little Kiddush, karpas, appetizer; we told the story of the congregation, and then I would invite people to add their own stories by answering the question: ‘What was your own journey that brought you to this place?’ We concluded with a blessing.

“Some 250 people shared their stories with me and with each other. It was powerful.”

Wolfson’s examples are solid and instructive applications of what those who have participated in support groups of any kind are well aware of: the sharing of personal narratives, stories from our lives’ joys, traumas, challenges, innovations and more, often supports the creation of sustainable communities.

He also offers encouragement to adopt the kind of volunteerism that engages participants in meaningful ways. As this reviewer is involved, she is aware that this area is being developed at Bar/Bat Mitzvah (R)evolution, and in the emerging Jewish Spiritual Education as well.

Wolfson further takes note of the ascendancy of Jewish interest in social justice efforts, and the relational opportunities and challenges of social media.

For anyone who is already trained in social work, group work, chaplaincy, or providing psychotherapy of almost any kind, it is initially bemusing to read of a leader in the field of Jewish education writing something that has been known and skillfully practiced in social service organizations since at least the days of the settlement houses:

Working with others on a project can bind people together, but only if attention is paid to relationship building. We learned this lesson in Synagogue 2000 when we insisted that the leadership team begin every session with “check-in,” a brief opportunity for every person in the room to share something about her or his personal life.

I am reminded of the power of the quilting bee, when groups of women would join together to craft beautiful quilts, but through sharing the stories of their lives as they worked, they crafted deeper relationships among themselves.

How is it possible that most clergy and educators do not have the core skill repertoire of social work, and seem to be trying to reinvent it from scratch?

This reviewer is a rabbi and a Master of Social Work (MSW) — a recipient of the Jewish Federation’s scholarship for such training. From this vantage point, the problem would seem to be that of an unfortunate split, almost a conceptual wall, between the domain of training for Jewish social service and that for synagogues, religious education, and religious-movement youth groups.

Wolfson is a PhD academic, and highly accomplished Jewish educator. His American Jewish University bio does not show evidence of Jewish communal service’s core — relational training, most of which is woven within MSW programs.

Here are a few possible examples: (Most other schools of Jewish communal service seem more oriented toward management than actual human services at this time.)

At the 2013 Biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism, President Rick Jacobs lectured on the importance of creating welcoming communities, and Wolfson gave a seminar on the topic too.

Friends walking out, MSWs walked over to me equally surprised at the obvious nature of the content and full of ideas for how to take it deeper.

It made me wonder, might a ready approach to effective change be to leverage the thousands of retired Jewish social workers to serve as community building, or welcome-training volunteers, as well as to increase relational social work-skills training throughout the field of Jewish education and clergy training?

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has recently begun to do so in their curriculum. This has also long been the case at The Academy for Jewish Religion.

The restoration of relational communities and consciousness is clearly emerging again as desirable. Consumer consciousness fades in recognition that welcoming communities and relationships that go more satisfyingly deeper require more of an investment of self than dollars.

As Wolfson points out, programming skills are substantial among leaders of all ages in Jewish life. Relationship-building skills and relational program components are needed.

In the age of social media, the pendulum of yearning for meaningful face-to-face relationships is already returning. We need to build upon and use our skillful professionals to deepen the many insights provided in Relational Judaism.  

Share:

Leave a Reply