No, we Jews aren’t about to go the way of the dodo bird. We’re not going extinct anytime soon. But almost all Jews agree there is a problem, a serious one. We’re losing Jews. Our synagogues, our Jewish federations, our fraternal organizations like the ADL, AJC and others are hemorrhaging members and their coffers are depleted. What worked in the past doesn’t work anymore. There was a time when Jews were satisfied with joining a synagogue, joining the ADL, giving to federation, giving to Israel. These were once meaningful expressions of Jewish identity.
But Jews have been ‘afflicted’ with success. The American Dream has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. Assimilation and acculturation have had an impact too. We are accepted more than ever, alienated less than ever from the society around us. But as we are drawn ever more strongly into secular American society, we are pushed inexorably away from commitments our parents might’ve made. Where once there was no competition for our time and energy because the Jewish community was the be-all and end-all, now our universities, museums, symphony orchestras and professional careers beckon for us. Success may kill American Jewish life. Unless we do something. Something different than what we’ve tried till now.
What should we do? Virtually every Jew has an answer. And they’re all over the place. Naturally, the wealthiest Jews have the loudest voice because they can afford to put their vision into action. So Sheldon Adelson and Michael Steinhardt have invested $80 million in their answer, which is Birthright–the idea that if we only sent our young people to Israel in sufficient numbers and inculcated in them pro-Israel values, that they will come away with a renewed commitment to Jewish identity, including marrying Jewish spouses and having lots of Jewish babies. This is a view that largely replaces Judaism with Israel as the center of Jewish identity. It’s not only a view I reject, I don’t think it’s going to change the dynamic of acculturation.
This was the subject of my synagogue rabbi, Jill Borodin’s Yom Kippur sermon today. She asked what we could do to save Jews and ourselves. But the problem was, that she pitched a very narrow tent. One that only included those Jews she was addressing in shul. She focussed almost solely on how to improve their Jewish lives, how to make them more committed Jews. Except for a fleeting reference, she hardly addressed the millions of American Jews outside that tent, the ones who weren’t in shul listening to their rabbis’ sermons.
The problem with her focus is that it gives her an ever diminishing target. While I don’t deny the importance of making Jewish life better for those already committed. Why confine our efforts only to them? There are indeed many Jewish academics and leaders who believe that the uncommitted or unaffiliated are as good as lost. They say, address the ones you still have. They are and will be the “saving remnant.” But that won’t work. Eventually, they too will be swallowed up in the maw of American success.
We should be bold. Get outside our comfort zone. Do things we’ve never tried before. Even do things that scare us as Jews. More on this later.
What shouldn’t we do? Here are two small examples from Rabbi Borodin’s speech. She began by talking about supposed external threats which American Jews face (over which we don’t have much control). Among them she mentioned:
Iran wants to destroy Israel.
We all know about the horrible anti-Zionism on American campuses.
These are two commonly accepted ideas among affiliated American Jews…and they’re both wrong. First, whatever one may say about Iran’s attitudes toward Israel, the feelings of animosity are returned many fold by Israel toward Iran. Virtually all polls say that Israelis by a wide margin expect their country to attack Iran. Israeli generals and political leaders talk regularly about doing so and about overturning the current Iranian government.
The problem with the common consensus and common wisdom in the organized community is that it sees issues facing Jews in terms of sound bytes. But reality is far more complicated than a simple sound byte of the sort offered by the Rabbi. Things are complicated, not simple. Unaffiliated Jews understand that. And they’re turned off by the nostrums and the simple solutions.
Now, let’s turn to the supposed anti-Zionism running rife on our campuses. Are some of our young people concerned about this problem? Undoubtedly. But they’re the young people whose parents (and not all of them by any means) were sitting in shul today. They’re the kids Rabbi Borodin hears from. I doubt she spends a great deal of time herself on the University of Washington campus. I doubt even the many professors sitting in her audience would agree with her about the danger this phenomenon poses.
If you took a poll of all Jewish students on campus (affiliated and non-affiliated) and asked them what are the issues of most concern to them, what are the things that trouble them most about their campus experience–I doubt anti-Zionism would be very high on the list, if it appeared at all.
But again, the commonly accepted view in the “mainstream” community is that our kids are flooded with anti-Zionist propaganda. These are notions the organized community is fed a constant diet of by pro-Israel advocacy groups like Stand With Us and Aipac. It becomes part of their raison d’etre. It proves their relevance.
But is this relevant to most Jewish young people? No. Young Jews, the ones who we don’t necessarily see on the High Holidays may not be able to articulate clearly why they’ve opted out. They may not be able to tell you what their view is of Israeli Occupation or Operation Cast Lead. They may say instead, the issues are too complicated for me. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a visceral feeling about it. That they don’t realize there is something deeply wrong with a community who bets the farm on a narrowly-focussed commitment to an Israel. They may not be able to tell you the Occupation is unjust. But they know there’s something wrong. And they’re simply not going to drive their father’s pro-Israel Oldsmobile just because dad did.
You can’t insult the intelligence of the young unaffiliated Jew by expecting that what motivated their parents will motivate them. It won’t work. You might have been able to scare the older generation with the threats of anti-Semitism and the vulnerability of Israel. That’s because there was genuine anti-Semitism in this country at one time and because one time, decades ago, Israel did face a threat. But what worked once, works no longer. We’re trying to sell these Jews a bill of goods and they’re not buying. And I don’t blame them.
Another example: the San Francisco Jewish federation is holding a Jewish Heroes online poll in which anyone can nominate someone for their important work in the community. A young rabbinic intern nominated the Jewish Voice for Peace’s Cecilie Surasky. She was very popular, in the top ten in terms of votes. One of her rivals was Chabad Rabbi Manis Friedman, who I’ve written about here. He’s the one who told Moment Magazine during Cast Lead that Israel was justified in killing Palestinian civilians, including children. He added that he didn’t think democracy was everything it was cracked up to be either. This is a Jewish Hero.
But until yesterday, at least Cecilie and Rabbi Friedman were in competition and Jews could vote for their own respective visions of Jewish heroism. Then someone at the Federation got wind of Cecilie’s nomination and the next thing you know, Cecilie was disappeared. Phht, she was gone. No word about why. No explanation. Just gone. What did she do wrong? Was she not Jewish enough? Not pro-Israel enough? Do our heroes all have to be pro-Israel in the way WE determine it? Or is there room in the community for Jewish heroes who offer an alternative vision?
If there isn’t, that doesn’t mean that a Federation apparatchik pressing the Delete button gets to decide for all Jews who are and are not proper heroes. No more than a Jewish community nowadays can get away with doing what the Amsterdam community did in the 16th century when it put Baruch Spinoza in cherem. We Jews don’t do cherem anymore. Oh yes, sure there are some crazy rabbis who do. They’re the same ones who incited the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by invoking a pulsa di nura against him, which made his killing halachically kosher (in a bizarre sort of way).
But do we really think unaffiliated Jews will be drawn to the ranks of the organized community by such nonsense? Do we really think that making the tent smaller will make Judaism more attractive?
Now, let’s return to my statement above about what prescriptions might work, if the ones outlined above won’t. In a Jewish world in which we increasingly focus inward, our unaffiliated realize the world is facing outward. The world is becoming more and more global. People are more interconnected, whether they want to be or not. What may’ve frightened us (and rightfully so) in the past doesn’t frighten us any longer. Old fights, old enmities arouse less and less interest.
So why shouldn’t Jews interested in reaching out to the unaffiliated try to address some of the thorny issues that have divided us from the rest of the world? Why not reach out to historic enemies and search for common ground? This is what I’ve done in speaking at the Islamophobia conference organized at St. Mark’s Cathedral. It was what I hoped to do with Rabbi Borodin and my synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom and the Muslim Association of the Puget Sound (MAPS) a few years ago, when we planned to twin our institutions. But I believe that Stand With Us members of the congregation persuaded the rabbi to back off her commitment and this exploration never happened.
This is precisely the sort of bold stroke which will arouse interest in our synagogues and draw new people to them. It is the kind of rule-breaking, ground-breaking project that fires up the imagination. In this world, we need to break barriers, not allow them to paralyze us. Hillel said: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Those Jews who are alienated from the community would be inspired by an outward-looking Judaism.
That doesn’t mean forgetting our traditions, forgetting what makes us unique and special to the world. But it does mean that we can’t stop at this. That we must engage the world. We must engage our old fears. We must engage our old enemies whether they be Muslim or Palestinian. If we don’t, then we risk becoming irrelevant. And if we become irrelevant to our unaffiliated, we do risk disappearing. And if that happens, it will be our own fault.
This article appeared at Tikun Olam