Drop the Ambivalence – It’s All Good

By Jerry D. Isaak-Shapiro

If Jerome Chanes had written “Orthodox “Retention” and Kiruv: the Bad News and the Good News” (eJewish Philanthropy and Contact Magazine, 8.20.14) for a newspaper, veteran editors would have said that he had buried his lead. After opening with a focus on the ostensible “bad news” (emulating another adage from media: if it bleeds, it leads) of poor intra-Orthodox retention, he only gets to the good stuff two-thirds into the piece.

“But it’s not all about the numbers,” he writes (finally) – but while he explicitly calls for us not to overemphasize the numbers, he only implicitly praises an increase in aggregate Jewish engagement. Do we really need to mourn the “loss” of ___ Jews (fill in the blank – Conservative Jews; Orthodox (any flavor) Jews; “just Jews” – if those leaving one column choose to align themselves with another segment of the Jewish community? Clearly the division between Hasidim and Mitnagdim was a Very Big Deal in the 18th century, but frankly primarily for Hasidim and Mitnagdim. The outside world couldn’t have come up with any serious differences, nor could they have cared much to do so; years later, too many of their their co-religionists would have been hard-pressed to come up with distinctions among them either. Of course we know that later still Europeans would laugh at the thought of separating out Jews from Jews – all, irrespective of how they interpreted the Talmud or from which siddur they prayed, were singled out, as Jews.

Our denominational qualifiers have served us well. It is intellectually healthy to fine-tune our hashkafot – perspectives – on theological and sociological matters; it can focus our minds and our emotions, and when we’re truly open-minded, offering different interpretations can even elevate our commitments to thought and action. And yet: when we speak and write and bemoan a “loss” when one Jew chooses to check a different affiliation box on a survey – a different box, not no box at all – then our divisions have run amuck. I’ve sat in on too many discussions in too many denominational settings and have heard too many “Jewish leaders” speak of losing members and numbers to another affiliation grouping – when the Jewish People haven’t “lost” anyone at all. Did they leave for Reverend Moon (these conversations have been going on for a long time) or the Church around the corner or the faith community around the block? Do they now light “Shabbos” (as opposed to Shabbat) candles or do they wear another type of kippah or none at all? Are they choosing to eat differently (either way) or pray differently (same)? How much, at the end of the day, does any of that matter.

How about other questions: Are they fully and enthusiastically embracing the history and Gd and language and Texts and land of the Jewish People? Are they connecting their personal present with our collective past and future? Is the noun – Jew – more important and vital than any of the adjectives that precede it? Like Lenny Solomon’s hopelessly hokey song (and hokiness by definition has a foundation of truth embedded within): ani Yehudi, pashut Yehudi (I am a Jew – simply a Jew).

Jerry D. Isaak-Shapiro is Head of School at The Agnon School, Beachwood, Ohio.