An Israeli Response to the Jewish Vitality Statement

By Frieda R. F. Horwitz

I have followed the conversation about the October Statement on Jewish Vitality and its subsequent responses with strong interest but a concomitant sense of distance, having lived in Israel for half of my life. Originally reluctant to enter a conversation about American Jewry, I have recently begun to feel that many of the concerns had recognizable echoes here in Israel. Although several months have passed, the situation still seems to be worth more discussion.

“The disappearing middle,” the search for spiritualty and for meaningful ritual practice, and above all, the search for community, are issues that also resonate strongly within the Israeli population. Rabbi Eugene Borowitz once stated at a Brandeis Hornstein Seminar: “I believe that soon there will only be two kinds of Jews, neither based on denomination or ritual practice: those very committed and involved with G-d, or those not at all affiliated. The middle will disappear.” His belief has now become prophetic.

The Statement highlights intermarriage as the major focus for the American Jewish community; the PEW study reports that 80% of those raised within the Reform movement, and 40% of those raised within the Conservative movement are now intermarried. Intermarriage is a serious Israeli concern as well, due to the significant number of Russian non-Jewish immigrants whose Israeli children have integrated into Jewish society. The angst and appropriate response to intermarriage feels personally very relevant, as my own extended American family has intermarried cousins, avowed secularists, and friends with both converted and unconverted spouses.

The Statement on Jewish Vitality raises intense concern about the crisis of 40% of Jews not identifying or affiliating with our community, and urges targeting adolescents as a solution to creating adult identified Jews. Adolescents, separating from family as they form their own adult identities, choose from past behaviors shared with parents and peers and adopt those that are meaningful. That process obviously occurs in Jewish identity development, be it religious or cultural.

The traditional developmental process of Jewish identity can be construed from the blessing given when a Jewish child is born, and then named: “May the parents be successful in raising the child to the knowledge of Torah, to marry and to do good deeds.” Education, creation of a family and doing good are thus three central and age old “authentic” goals for Jewish children – and should be policy goals for the Jewish community.

Those three goals in child-raising are important across the Jewish religious spectrum. Parents want their children to have the best education available – but seriously Jewishly engaged parents will seek an intense grounding in continuous Jewish studies as well as secular studies for their children. Their offspring are also encouraged to engage in mitzvot and good deeds. But 56% of those polled in PEW, notwithstanding denomination, state that being Jewish means working for social justice – i.e., a strong form of good deeds. Parents may not agree on what constitutes “social justice,” but the concept of making a difference via active tikun olam and giving tzedaka is a strikingly common theme in both affiliated and non-affiliated Jewish households; a recent survey indicates that 76% of American Jews give $1600 annually to charity.

However, charity and outwardly directed passion for social justice are facets of other religions – and are not unique to the Jewish community. Indeed, those passions often form part of the connection for an intermarried couple; their shared community becomes that of people working together towards a common goal of social justice without a necessarily Jewish context. Jewish identity clearly cannot be centered solely on social justice.

Orthodox children are raised with the additional concept that everyone has responsibility to become G-d’s active partner in finishing Creation; they are nurtured to create solutions to what was left unfinished – physical, medical, social, environmental, etc. That sense of mission also energizes a tangible relationship with the Divine Creator, and is expressed in ritual practice; that interactive connection with G-d has unfortunately been left out of much of this discussion.

We know that Jewish parents place importance on Jewish education that leads to Bar/ Bat Mitzvah celebrations, but often ends after those celebrations. Other activities then take precedence, especially those deemed helpful for college applications such as music, volunteer activities, sports, science clubs, dance, etc. SO we need to ask, how does the community entice parents and their adolescents to see Jewish studies post the Bar Mitzvah celebration as important and significant? What are some policies that will create a Jewish context for social justice and community for families, regardless of denomination or affiliation? What activities will nurture a passion for social justice, create a sense of mission, engender enthusiasm for increased Jewish knowledge and connect the three?

Only in that way will religious knowledge and activity become associated with adulthood, and not only with childhood. Study that competes with experiential activity is losing. It doesn’t take rocket science to determine that Hebrew school curricula needs to veer towards experiential activity, interwoven with theoretical knowledge.

So here are five proposed solutions that do exist and work in many Israeli schools:

  1. Required Volunteer activity in the “social justice vein” of 1-3 hours weekly, supervised by teachers or by the local Jewish Community Center for each student in a Jewish educational framework.
  2. Assigned “Roots” project, as part of pre-Bar Mitzvah studies, to encourage adolescents and their parents to research their family history – where their grandparents and great grandparents came from, and what differences and similarities existed in their lives.
  3. Weekly Parent-child textual study in evening hours beginning 6 months before the Bar Mitzvah (and related to what child is studying) that can continue past the Bar Mitzvah celebration – and thus tangibly show that study is not only for children.
  4. Take historical Holocaust study, the notion of “Never Again” and apply it to a current genocidal event ( e.g. the Yazidi group or the Kurds); create a group activity that might make a difference right now – even with another school or institution.
  5. Formulate Israel Study with the concept that neither the land nor the State nor its people are perfect; but not being perfect does not make it horrible. Man is not perfect – only G-d is perfect and everyone who cares about Israel can be part of making it better.
  6. This suggestion is directed at young adult activity. The PEW study states that 51% of American Jews aged 25-39 are unmarried and without families – to me, there is an obvious connection to the diminished numbers of identified Jews. Perhaps finding a partner and companion for life can be a trigger to heightened Jewish identity, and should be another area for focused Jewish public policy. as suggested by this quote from an anonymous author:

I sought my God and my God I could not find, I sought my soul and my soul eluded me, I sought my brother to serve him in his need, And I found all three my God, my soul and thee.

Reading over the responses written over the last few months, I thought about four spectacularly successful programs that have brought both Jewish post adolescents and their families to heightened Jewish identity and enhanced Jewish activity: Birthright, Limmud, Chabad programs and October’s Shabbos Project which involved ONE MILLION JEWS worldwide – almost 10% of the Jewish population in the world. What factors actualized positive Jewish feelings in these programs, feelings maintained long after the original experience? How can they be adapted to regular life?

All involve very intense voluntary experiential activity, and created a sense of belonging to a much larger communal group that included exposure to Jewish knowledge and practice. As Jonathan Sarna said in the Brandeis Seminar, “Stop asking why be Jewish? Get up and do something with your Jewishness”! They did – 3000 people on Pico Blvd in LA ate a Shabbos meal on 300 tables, 1000 women participated in public challa baking events in Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro and other cities; pick up points were marked on a Melbourne synagogue trail for people to walk together to a local synagogue – these are only some of the activities reported from 900 cities in 84 countries that participated in the Shabbos Project. (See Simon Appel’s article in The Jerusalem Post)

However, my favorite activity was reported from the San Diego Jewish community. As reported in the San Diego Tribune, four synagogues – Chabad, Conservative, Reform and Humanist – held a joint outdoor Shabbat picnic where 20,000 people participated! This occurred in a community where only 17% are affiliated and only 3% characterize themselves as Orthodox in practice. And this is my seventh suggestion – more interdenominational activities that focus on meaningful Jewish projects for both adults, families and adolescents and that show there is more that unites us than divides us.

Peter Berger writes that pluralism rather than secularism is the defining feature of our contemporary society. Pluralism has been a defining feature of Jewish life – there have always been many acceptable paths to God and community; the question inevitably was what and who defined the acceptable boundaries. The PEW Study reports that 34-42% of Americans are now in a different faith than the one in which they were raised; that means one third of Americans are searching for a meaningful religious or spiritual experience, but within a new faith community. This same searching exists within the Jewish community, as people search for spirituality and meaning, and perhaps how to express it in ritual practice. Israeli young adults often travel to the Far East, hoping to find a spirituality that evaded them at home.

That search needs to be integrated and not detached from a passion for social justice – and I believe that may give us a direction for solutions to the crisis we are looking at in world Jewry. Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik once asked in a session on the Amidah prayer, “Why does the opening paragraph read “My G-d and God of my fathers – isn’t that repetitive? He then taught, No, for each person needs to create his own autonomous relationship and not be satisfied with that of his ancestors.”

One last footnote: Policy makers need to ask themselves what is causing hundreds of young American Jews to come to Israel to be drafted into the IDF? I believe that each soldier feels that he/she can make a difference and play an active role in the defense of the Jewish homeland. Many come after a Birthright trip; more come after studying in Israel or after being in the MASA program. Young adults in their twenties show little interest in affiliating with large synagogues and organizations in the US, but they are willing to join the large Israeli army or large Israeli organizations. This active interest in Israel seems to be in contraindication to data that younger Jews are not interested or identifying with Israel – a paradox worth exploring.

Frieda R. F. Horwitz is a Brandeis Hornstein graduate who has been involved in education, social welfare and public policy ventures both in the USA and in Israel.