From the Outside Looking In

by Roland Roth

For the past decade I gave my life to the Jews.

A little over a decade ago I was just another uncertified public school teacher in NYC unsure on how I was going to pay for my Master’s Degree when an friend said “why not go to JTS and get your MA in Jewish Education?” I had taught Hebrew School on and off for about ten years prior (started when I was 15) but the thought of working for my People, a People who had been inbreeding for thousands of years… well, that simply did not appeal to me. Yet I went to JTS and spoke with the Dean and in a nutshell he says “we have fellowships available… your MA will be FREE” and suddenly I have a deep, deep passion for Jewish education. Honestly, that’s what I was thinking: get the free MA and go back to public school teaching. Yet within a few weeks of starting my studies I realized I could combine a love for Judaism (as quirky as it is) and a love for Teaching/Education (as, well, insane as that is).

Fast-forward a decade as a Professional Jewish Educator… and I’m out. I no longer work “full-time” (24/7/365) for my People.

I ran a religious school in Seattle (they thought I was 30 when they illegally asked me during my interview… I was 26), did the same in Wilmington, DE, and did the same thing here In South Florida. Along the way I also was in charge of synagogue programming, youth groups, high holy days programming for children and family, and more. Through the advent of Facebook I kept in contact with many of my classmates from graduate school and noticed how each year fewer and fewer of my compatriots were staying in the field. “They never taught us about the politics of working in a synagogue,” some would excuse. The “fishbowl life”, the never having weekends, the needing an MBA in accounting, the difficulties in finding a partner and starting a family, the impossibility of making lay boards and Rabbis and Cantors and Executive Directors happy, the pay cuts and job cuts and just the lack of affordable income were all just fine reasons why friends told me they “got out”.

But I, and a few (less than five of 27, I think), kept on keepin’ on.

And I loved it. I really, really did. I figured if I could make the Jewish educational experience for today’s children better than what I experienced, then I had professional reason. (Kids used to ask me “how did you know you were going to be a good Hebrew School principal?” and I would respond “when I was growing up I spent a lot of time in the principal’s office.” Truth.)

So I took a pie to the face at Hanukkah fundraisers and slept on the roof if the children read a certain number of books with Jewish content.

And I created contests where my head got shaved if the children had good attendance and behavior.

I officiated as my children’s parents renewed their wedding vows, I led blessings at a bris… and I led mourning at shivas and at unveilings.

I counseled parents going through separation and I read bedtime stories on the bimah.

I really did love it!

But now, I’m out. And, frankly, the view from the outside looking in is… crazy.

I realize now, more than ever, that to be Jewish is easy. It’s a birth thing, or a conversion thing, but once you’re in, you’re in. But to live a Jewish life… well, that takes work. It’s like sharks… they have to keep swimming, even when they’re asleep. To lead an active Jewish life takes effort. Unless you come from or have made good money, the Jewish community is not coming looking for you. And I don’t say that in a malicious way. There simply isn’t the focused energy (see: money) to make this happen. I get it. Synagogues and Federations put little attention (see, again: money) towards programming for 20’s and 30’s because 20’s and 30’s don’t give money. And they don’t give money because they don’t do programming. A crazy, vicious cycle (that, with the exception of Chabad, Moishe House, and islands like Next Dor STL and Third Fridays PBC, doesn’t seem to be changing).

So, I’m out now. And I see things differently. I see that I have to do, I have to make the effort, if I want to be a part of the community. I have to seek out and intentionally make connections with Jews my age and acknowledge that some are and some are not looking to make community with me.

From the outside looking in it’s really not a surprise that donations to the formal Jewish community are going down and the creation of smaller, intimate, home-centered Jewish communities are growing up.

From the outside looking in, I see my organized faith community needing more reserved slots on synagogue and Jewish communal organization boards for people under 40.

From the outside looking in, I see so many young Jewish professionals thirsty for opportunities to create community that come with as few hurdles to participation as possible.

From the outside looking in, I hope to see more free, more $50/year memberships, more we’ll come to you on your terms at times convenient for you as can possibly be offered.

It’s like the NBA Finals or World Series games being on tv starting at 9pm… it might make sense for advertising dollars, but you’re losing your future investors.

It’s time to start looking in from the outside.

Roland Roth, MAJE, is the Executive VP for Customer Service at Engineered Tax Services, based in West Palm Beach, FL. He has won honors for youth programming, religious school programming, and most recently for “Third Fridays PBC”, a free monthly Shabbat dinner for 20’s and 30’s (couples and singles) held in different homes in South Florida that now draws close to eighty people each month. Search for it on Facebook under Third Fridays PBC.