By Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss
In response to “Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: a Call to Action”
I consider myself a middle-aged Rabbi. Not that I think I am middle aged, but I guess I am. And for as long as I have been involved in the Jewish community as a professional, “Continuity” has been the buzzword of the day. Starting at least with the 1990 JPS study, “Continuity,” or more illustratively put, “Oh God, we pray that we are not the last meaning-filled generation of Jews,” has been our explicit and implicit goal. Despite the articulation of this rather banal destination, going on at least a quarter of a century, some of the smartest, most inspiring and most creative leaders throughout the Jewish world have declared from the middle as well as the margins, that the Jewish promise is so much more than securing Jewish or at least “Jew-ish” grandchildren. I am stunned to see how many of my most inspiring mentors have lent their name to a statement that at best reaffirms an empty rationale and at worst appears to simply cave to the gravity of our 20th century Jewish community “edifice” complex.
I read this statement and thought, “where’s the rest of it?” Surely this isn’t it!? Surely Jewish life and commitment come down to more than numbers. I couldn’t help but think, “Why does it even matter?” Continuity is an old and for so many in the American Jewish community, rather uninspiring reason to work so hard, to spend so much, to fret so intensely over the plight of our people. This statement, bereft of new wisdom, new research, newly imagined possibilities feels to me like just a white umbrella of surrender to Chabad and/or to our secular world. Its like we woke up, sensed that nothing has changed, and that truly, history has proven that the only things that have been successful at keeping us Jewish are xenophobia and paranoia – neither of which is anyone advocating (let me be clear) but neither, in this statement at least, is challenged by a worthy alternative in the pursuit of keeping the Jews Jewish.
Let’s pause for a moment and assess where we are. We are now several generations deep into the assimilation of Jews into American society, so much so that that we have not only become fluent in “American” but we are now some of the greatest producers of “Americana.” When chutzpah and shmutz and Jerry Seinfeld and Princess Leah are no longer even known for their Yiddish roots, we have arrived, it would seem. When churches left, right and center (no matter their stance on Israel) continue to adopt Jewish rituals such as Sukkah, Tallit, Passover and Shabbat in place of their old world tactics towards Judaism and the Jews, the world is fundamentally different. Yet, we seem to act as if the same methods and assumptions still prevail. And again, I am forlorn in yearning for more from this great list of leaders as to why it even matters?
Why would some of the smartest Rabbis, Philanthropists and Academics in the entire American Jewish community stake out as flimsy and empty an argument as this? Continuity? Really? Intermarriage? Really? Day School and camps? This is the best we can do? I do understand the stated desire to see some tempest in the teapot around the recent Pew Study. I know that it at least felt better, 20 years ago, when despite our not so stellar record of success (according to traditional measures), all of us were scurrying around debating the issues involved in intermarriage, disaffiliation, growing Jewish illiteracy and synagogue disaffection. Today, however, there seems to be so little being done, in response to some of the most interesting findings of all from the Pew Study – for example, that while 90% of Jews under 30 years old express little to no interest in synagogue affiliation, 90% also express “pride in being Jewish.” I understand the critics claims that Jewish continuity means nothing without Jewish content. But this is a massive statistic that because it defies our historical experience, it becomes an outlier worthy of little consideration. In the meantime, here we have young people saying, “I like being Jewish. What are we doing to meet them there?
The truth is, not much at all. This statement’s nostalgic references to what could be if we could have an impact on intermarriage, an impact on synagogue affiliation, an impact on “bringing them home” is as misguided as it is dense. For we must come to terms with a really tough truth – the truth around which we have danced for far too long. We have a much bigger fish to fry, that demographics, geographics, academics and genetics can’t hold a candle to – and that is this – the “Synagogue Industrial Complex.” The grand “building” of the American Jewish community from the mid – to the late 20th century has no historical precedent. It was an historical anomaly made possible by the American post WWII zeitgeist fueled by a “noble” passion for land and establishment. Our optimism was contagious and a little bit dangerous. Look at our sanctuaries built for four days a year and our classrooms for 8 hours a week. Our movement-based intransigence in almost every city in the US wouldn’t allow for cooperative infrastructural arrangements – the kinds of arrangements that would have been forward thinking, planful and necessarily humble. These arrangements would have encouraged shared space, shared resources and a shared ownership that could have gently and gingerly shepherded and ameliorated the deleterious and foreseeable pitfalls inherent in this Herodian building campaign.
We Jews in America have a major problem – the signatories of this statement are absolutely correct. We need to get moving and responding. But if a solution, a strategic direction towards the improvement of the public Jewish health is indeed our goal, we have a much deeper malady to address. None of the strategies championed in this statement will barely touch let alone fix what truly ails this patient until we recognize that the American Jewish community suffers first and foremost from a REAL ESTATE PROBLEM. We do not suffer from a lack of imagination, a lack of creativity, a lack of commitment or even a lack of nostalgia for yesteryear. We have a REAL ESTATE PROBLEM. Our Jewish communities throughout this country are saddled with far too much square footage with less and less people who are willing and able to continue to fund it and its necessary repair, upkeep and ironically, growth. Moreover, were it only a physical resources problem, it’d be bad enough. But the most severe symptoms of this anchored and moored reality are the practical implications. The “slippery slopes” and the “maintenance of status quo.” The need for appeasement that riddle the policies and decision making of our central Jewish institutions suck the wind right out of the sails that would try to propel us forward.
The bottom line is that we in the American Jewish community have a real estate problem. The necessary response that will happen, whether we approach it proactively or reactively, will be painful and it will break hearts. Nonetheless, until the leaders of our movements create and promote a plan for the downsizing of our national infrastructure such that we can liquidate assets to invest the time, talent and treasure into initiatives that both affirm why it matters and makes readily available the resources to do it, we’ll be geshrying into the wind. Let me reiterate – it is not American Judaism nor liberal Judaism nor intermarriage nor secularism nor a dearth of quality educators that ails us. It is not Israeli politics, the American economy or the lack of post Bnai Mitzvah supplementary education that clogs up the interior of our communal veins. Rather, the Jewish Public Health emergency stems from the fact that we are seeking to bequeath a far too weighty inheritance that this millennial generation is just not willing to carry on their shoulders. They find it causes them to crush their spines and slow them down. They want Judaism to be a journey not a museum. They don’t mind a home base and they don’t mind traveling when the tribe gets bigger. But they want something that stands for meaning and purpose and beauty and holiness on its own, without the requirement of fixed walls.
To my rabbinic and philanthropic and academic heroes on this list, whom I have learned from, read and admired. I know its tough. I know it begins to feel hopeless. But remember what you already know – you do inspiring work that changes lives. And the only difference between those upon whom you have had a life changing impact and those whom you have not, are the walls that have for far too long kept so many out and far too distant from your presence. Could they need you too? Could they too find beauty in a Jewish life? Could they have been healed by your inspired words and presence? Yes. The walls are just too tall, too rigid and too implacable.
If we want to set forward a strategic effort to revitalize the Jewish community in our time, we must discard our love affair with the walls of our Temples, take the rotten vegetables thrown our way in response and free up our resources to once again return to the essentially portable elements of our tradition. Asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham – Build for me a holy place (ANYWHERE!) and I will dwell among them. Take it from me. It can work and it can feel so great.
Why does it matter to me? It matters because Judaism is inherently beautiful and meaning-filled and challenging and at the same time, tolerant and affirming and respectful. Judaism is a wisdom tradition whose job it is to force us into a practice of gratitude that leads us to imagine, repair and create new worlds that are ever necessary for the sustenance and development of humanity.
Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss is the Spiritual Leader of Congregation Shma Koleinu in Bellaire, Texas (Houston metro area).