In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera (Genesis 18), we read about the first “Jewish Supply Chain Crisis.” Basically, because of a fight within Abraham’s family, the first ‘Jewish’ family, half of the Jewish population is sent away. It is a complex and uncomfortable story. Abraham had been promised to be the founder of a great nation but his wife, Sarah, experienced fertility issues. Sarah, in turn, arranged for a servant wife, Hagar, for her husband who bore him a son, Ishmael and began to challenge Sarah’s primacy in their family system. Subsequently, Sarah gave birth to Isaac and persuaded Abraham to exile Hagar and Ishmael to keep the “chain of tradition” in her own line of the family through Isaac. Although Abraham tried to moderate between Sarah and Hagar, the split was bitter and half of Abraham’s family was lost to the Jewish people. The promise of becoming a “great nation” was thereby delayed not just for generations but to the present, as the Jews remain one of the smallest religious traditions in the world. At different times in our history as a people we continued to have various supply (and even demand) challenges.
By now, most of us have experienced some aspect of the current economic Supply Chain Crisis. In the drug store in our neighborhood in town, many shelves are half-empty or worse. On top of that, prices are beginning to climb. We are still well supplied compared to what I saw in stores in the USSR in the late 1980s (where the shelves were completely empty) but the usual level of super abundance has clearly been disrupted. Economists and others are debating the root causes of the current crisis (Covid, labor shortage, excessive consumerism) and how to fix the problem (less government regulation, sustainability) for both the short and long terms. All I know is that I could not find a regular size box of Cheerios the other day and that 87-octane gas seems to be on its way to $4.00 a gallon. Oy vey!
While the global economic supply chain mess is being increasingly debated, there is a second Supply Chain Crisis, which is taking place in the American Jewish community including our own Reform movement. In our case, the missing supply is in the desire of the rising generation to join synagogues as well as the shrinking resources to maintain our Jewish institutional infrastructure. Unfortunately, we do not have boatloads of young Jewish families waiting offshore to dock at synagogues of their choice nor do we have the traditional supply of Jewish philanthropic support to keep our ships of faith afloat. Like grocery and food stores, we have increasing numbers of empty seats and rising per capita costs to keep things “the way they are.” In this sense, Jewish Institutional Sustainability is a very significant issue in American Jewish life today.
Ironically, there is an adequate Jewish population supply to alleviate Jewish institutional problems but there is a lack of demand for affiliation. American Jews are increasingly secular (or Orthodox) or are looking for alternative ways of maintaining Jewish life like private B’nai Mitzvah celebrations outside of the synagogue or funerals without Jewish clergy. How to create more Jewish demand and how to meet that demand institutionally are the great institutional challenges that synagogues are facing today.
No one wants to downsize or defer but the current Jewish Supply Chain crisis is growing and fewer and fewer answers are being formulated to turn our boat around. Perhaps we are overbuilt and need to downsize our Jewish infrastructure. Perhaps our membership based congregational model is outdated and other business models need to be considered. Perhaps synagogue governance should yield to a more efficient management model. Perhaps we need to offer a different type of worship experience. Perhaps we need to learn about new forms of technology just as we did at the beginning of the Covid epidemic.
I believe the world and the American economy will survive the current Supply Chain crisis. I also believe that Judaism will endure beyond our current Spiritual Supply Chain crisis. Meanwhile, we need to be like Abraham and Sarah and remain faithful to the ancient call to faith, which launched our tradition and has sustained it in times even more difficult and more challenging than the present moment. I believe there is still a Promised Land awaiting the Jewish people, on the ground and in spirit.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.