By Rabbi Michael M. Cohen
In his 1925 Rosh Hashanah sermon, Rabbi Israel Herbert Levinthal of the Brooklyn Jewish Center prophetically preached, “We build here in America magnificent synagogues, centers and temples. Very good! But if you think for a moment that that will bring back the Jewish world, I say to you that you are suffering under a great illusion. That is the mistake we are making in America. We are working and spending, but not upon a solid foundation. All our work must crumble unless we shall first have as our foundation: the Jewish home!”
A hundred years later, his words and analysis should give anyone concerned with American Jewry reason to pause and reflect. As he said, we built magnificent religious structures, mistaking those cavernous synagogues as a “solid foundation” for Judaism in America.
In his important 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, director Davis Guggenheim took the thesis that poor neighborhoods are the cause for poor schools and stood it on its head. The same can be said about the synagogue and the Jewish home. Synagogue life is not the cause that affects the state of the Jewish home, but vice versa.
Those synagogues were built for a host of reasons, including statements of Jewish pride and expressions of the ideal of American religious freedom. But over time, somewhat modeled on churches, congregants found it easier to let the clergy, in our case the rabbis and cantors, do everything. And too many rabbis and cantors were more than happy to oblige. With that the clergy and synagogue became the surrogate address for Jewish life. Over time, a Jew could more easily find the Arts & Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times than the weekly parsha in a Chumash.
The weakened Jewish home as a depleted cornerstone of Jewish life is reflected in the growing reality that more and more American Jews identify themselves as not being religious. Some 32% of millennials see themselves this way, compared to 19% of baby boomers, and only 7% of Jews born before 1927.
Birthright understands this paradigm shift.
Birthright’s vision reads, “To insure the vibrant future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with Israel.” Note the key words and phrases: “vibrant future,” “Jewish people,” “strengthening Jewish identity, and connection with Israel.” No mention of religion at all. Rather, it presents a focus, to borrow from Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, on the peoplehood of Judaism.
Writing in his magnum opus, Judaism as a Civilization, Kaplan astutely and provocatively wrote, “Paradoxical as it may sound, the spiritual regeneration of the Jewish people demands that religion cease to be its sole preoccupation.” While Kaplan believed in the centrality of religion to Jewish self-understanding – an evolving religious civilization, as he described Judaism – he appreciated the multi-dimensional qualities of that identity. The approach of Birthright is also based on that orientation. It is time to create a Birthright-level program for the Jewish home. Millions of dollars have been invested in Birthright, the same needs to be done for the Jewish home.
The concern here is not with the American Orthodox Jews whose communities for the most part are vibrant and strong. Today, 10% of the American Jewish population is Orthodox, and within those numbers the percentage of Orthodox children has tripled from 5% to 27% of the Jewish children born in the United States in the last three generations. The Orthodox world has its own structures that allow it to deal with the challenge of “Judaism under freedom,” as Ira Eisenstein aptly describes the Judaism of the United States. However, by the end of this century, only 80 years away, if present trends continue, the non-Orthodox Jewish population in the United States will plummet from 3.5 million today to 1.5 million! What would a Birthright program for the Jewish home look like? It would teach and show ways to increase touch points with Judaism within the rhythms of home life. Those touch points would include engagement with Jewish writings ranging from the Bible, Mishna, Talmud, philosophy, theology, history, poetry and novels. To this list would be added artwork, songs, poetry, movies and other expressions of Jewish creativity. Subscribing to one or more Jewish newspapers or periodicals would be fundamental. Works from contemporary Israel would be an important element. Finally, there would be exposure to the cycles of Shabbat and the Jewish holidays.
To address the shrinking number of Jews who do not see themselves as religious, the framework and approach could also be the secular kibbutz model. That is to say, while many aspects of Jewish people come out of a religious foundation, those elements can also be treated and understood and engaged from a rich secular perspective.
Almost 100 years ago, Rabbi Levinthal correctly foresaw that the focus on building synagogues as the foundation of a healthy Jewish community was an illusion. Perhaps, as with addressing the effects of climate change, it may be too late. However, Hillel taught, “If not now, when?” We are obligated to respond.
Rabbi Michael M. Cohen is rabbi emeritus of Israel Congregation, Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and at Bennington College.
First published on JPost.com; reprinted with permission.