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Q & A with Dr. David Elcott: Professor to lead community shabbaton

Dr. David Elcott

Dr. David Elcott will be the guest scholar-in-residence at a Community Shabbaton the weekend of Oct. 28-30, sponsored by the Try A Synagogue program.
The theme of the Shabbaton is “Meeting the Challenges of Change” and the weekend’s events will explore times of extraordinary transition, both past and present and include activities for all ages. Try A Synagogue is a program underwritten by Congregation B’nai Torah, Sinai Temple, Temple Beth El, the Federation, and a grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.  Additional funding for this event is provided by grants from the Jewish Endowment Foundation’s Ida & Harry Gaberman/Anne & Jonas Heit Fund and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.
Trained in political psychology and Middle East affairs at Columbia University and Judaic studies at the American Jewish University, Dr. Elcott is the Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership at the Wagner School of Public Service at NYU, senior research fellow at the Research Center for Leadership in Action and Faculty Director of Wagner’s Executive MPA program. He was formally vice president of the National Center for Learning and Leadership, a think-tank tasked with rethinking contemporary community and civic obligation.
The Ledger recently spoke to Dr. Elcott about change in the Jewish community.

Your talk in Springfield will be “Meeting the Challenges of Change” What is the change you are speaking of?
A: When we think about Judaism we kind of have this sense of it being this on-going tradition that goes from the very beginning until now and it is all linked and connected. And while that is true, in some ways in other ways there were moments in which the community had to face radical demands on it – radical changes – that were not really anticipated: the destruction of Jerusalem, being sent into exile, conquest, new cultures that came in to dominate. And the community  had to effectively find a way to “continue” in light of those changes. Some ways of attempting to adapt failed and some succeeded. We are the product of that success almost in a Darwinian genetic way of looking at the world. Not all species of what became human beings succeeded. Homo Sapien succeeded and the others died out.
So I am really interested in looking at those moments when there was radical transformation and trying to see what we can learn from the way our ancestors responded to that to see if we can use those responses to address the radical transformations we are facing in this world. So, while the specific decisions they made may not be appropriate for now, the prophesies were, so that is one piece of it.
The other is, where is there continuity? I use a covenantal theology which is that our people managed to experience itself as eras of a covenant, of a relationship. And so while the particulars of how they did it may change, we were able to maintain this notion of being among “Lechet Kohanim V’goi Kadosh” a kingdom of priests in a sacred nation.
So I am also interested in how you retain that type of identity in the face of radically different circumstances.

Are there radical transitions going on now?
A: What I am going to claim is that we live in an era of Jewish history unlike any other. We have a state of Israel, we have a powerful Jewish Diaspora, we have an inviting culture in which we live. It makes the ability to fully integrate into this culture very easy. We live in an age in which American Jews overwhelmingly are far better educated in American culture than they are in Jewish culture., and therefore the way we relate to the world of which we are a part is much more likely to be influenced by American culture. So yes, that is separate from events like the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel and like the remarkable relocation of Jewish people from where they had lived for hundreds of years to places where they had never lived before. So I am looking at the last couple hundred years.

There have been a few changes in the Springfield Jewish community in recent years – the mergers of the three Orthodox synagogues as well as the joining of two Conservative temples. What are your thoughts on the transitions in this community and is this happening in other Jewish communities?
A: Yes, sure because you are not in a growth area for the Jewish community, at least not at this time. We did see both a consolidation in certain key communities and a movement south and west. So, what was interesting from the historical point of view of American Jewry, is that places like Springfield or Wooster actually have a long history of multiple generations living there and therefore a kind of sense of community cohesion that you don’t have in places where Jews are moving to. That shift has significant implications for the national community. For the Western Massachusetts community, Springfield has a large number of doctors, people connected to the medical field, and they are not of the community. How do you adapt to a radically changing community that is going to be older, in which the younger people coming in aren’t the children or the  grandchildren of, and in fact don’t necessarily see themselves as coming to the community to be part of the Jewish community. So how do you adapt to that? What will Jewish community in Western Massachusetts look like over the next ten years? That is a real question.

The Community Shabbaton is open to the  public and kicks off Friday, Oct. 28 with services at Congregation B’nai Torah (Orthodox) at 5:35 p.m.; Sinai Temple (Reform) and Temple Beth El (Conservative) will host a joint service at Heritage Academy at 5:45 p.m.  A community Shabbat dinner will be held at 6:45 p.m. at B’nai Torah, followed by a talk by David Elcott. (Dinner: $18/adults, $10/ children 3-12; max. per family/$54.) On Friday and Saturday, a PJ Library program will be offered for children during the presentations, dinner and lunch. On Saturday, Oct. 29 at 12:15 p.m., a community lunch will be held at Temple Beth El with a talk by Elcott (no charge, R.S.V.P. required). Elcott will facilitate a program with teens at 3 p.m.   At 7:30 p.m., a havdallah and dessert program will be held for Federation’s Young Adult Division at the home of Harold Grinspoon and Diane Troderman. On Sunday, Oct. 30, a brunch with Elcott for synagogue and agency Board members (no charge, R.S.V.P. required) will be held at 9 a.m. at Sinai Temple. To R.S.V.P. for any of these programs, visit  For more information, call Debbie Peskin at (413) 737-4313 ext.121.

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