Asking the Right Questions

asking-the-right-questionsBy Dr. Sarah Levy

A few weeks ago, I was asked to teach a class to a group of adults who were interested in learning more about the current trends among Jews. They had previously met several times to review and discuss the Pew study, and they invited me to facilitate a discussion, based on the findings of the Pew study, around the question of “Who are Jews today?,” not in a legal sense, but more in terms of what do Jews do or believe or say.

So, for about two hours, I facilitated a conversation, based on the data, with about 20 60-somethings, and during this discussion, three main questions arose related to their thoughts on the current state of Judaism:

  1. They were very worried about intermarriage and felt that more resources needed to be put towards preventing intermarriage because, as far as they were concerned, intermarriage would lead to the end of Judaism. They asked me, “How can we prevent intermarriage?”
  2. They felt that Judaism needed to continue because Judaism needed to continue. They were strongly invested in the idea of Jewish continuity, but when pressed to explain why, the only answer they could provide was basically because it needed to continue. They asked me, “How can we ensure Jewish continuity?”
  3. They were terrified of the Jewish community looking different than it has in the past. The idea of affiliation rates decreasing was shocking and scary to them as they couldn’t fathom Jewish life continuing if it didn’t look the same as it has for most of their lives. They asked me “How can we encourage synagogue affiliation?”

It seemed to me that this group of very passionate and very committed people were just not asking the right questions in order to make the impact and enact the changes in which they were interested.

As the Director of an adult education program that has been going through much transition over the last 18 months, I have been encouraging those around me to make sure they are asking the right questions in order to set the right goals.

We should not be asking ourselves, for example, “How can we prevent intermarriage?” Rather, we should be asking, “How can we engage students and potential students in such a way so that Judaism becomes an integral part of who they are and who they want to be?” We should not be asking, “How can we ensure Jewish continuity?” Rather, we should be asking, “What is it about Judaism that is so amazing that it should continue, and how can we spread that to our students?” And we should not be asking, “How can we encourage affiliation in order to maintain the status quo?” We should, rather, be asking, “What are the needs of Jews today, and how can we address those needs now and in the future?”

Once we are asking the right questions, only then can we move forward with our goals.

We spent most of last year surveying the community, asking many questions, in order to determine our role in the community, and we were very committed to making sure we were asking the right questions. Some of what we learned was in-line with what we expected and some surprised us, and (honestly) some of it hurt just a little. Regardless, only by asking these questions and being open to the answers did we obtain the information that we needed to move forward and to set our goals for the future.

Intermarriage may or may not be the downfall of Judaism, but we cannot hope to prevent it unless we address the underlying issue of making Judaism relevant and essential to our lives; we need to foster a deeper connection to Judaism and the Jewish community.

Jewish continuity may or may not be important, but we cannot hope that “because I said so” will be a compelling response when youth ask us why we care about Judaism continuing; we need to help them to understand what is unique and important, what Judaism can offer to them and others.

Synagogues may or may not continue to be a center for Jewish life, but we need to embrace the fact that many, many Jews do not feel connected to traditional institutions; we need to listen to interests and needs of those who are not connected and go to them instead of expecting them to suddenly change their minds and come to us.

Asking questions is sometimes difficult because we don’t always want to know the answers. We don’t always want to be surprised when the answer is something unexpected, and we don’t always want to change when the answers indicate that to be the way to go. Only by asking the real questions and using the answers to set our goals, however, can we truly move forward.

Dr. Sarah Levy is the Director of Delet (Adult Education) for the Colorado Agency for Jewish Education.