Jewish Continuity – A Challenge throughout our History

A Modest Suggestion to Improve Ourselves

By Dr. Gary Coleman

At the beginning of the Torah portion Beshalach (Exodus, Chapter 13 verse 18), the second half of the verse tells us: “… the Children of Israel were armed when they went up from the Land of Egypt.” The word “armed” in the Torah text is “chamushim.” The root is “chamesh” which means five and the commentator Rashi brings a Midrash that says only 20% of the Jews left Egypt. The rest had assimilated and had no interest in leaving. We also know that when Ezra returned at the time of the second commonwealth and called for the Jews in Babylonia to join him, many did not want to, because they had no interest in leaving their non-Jewish wives.

Among other things I think we can learn from this that assimilation and intermarriage are not a modern phenomenon. They are part of the history of our People. Putting it bluntly, in every generation people have chosen to leave. In essence staying Jewish is a choice that people make. By looking at the issue in this context, the focus of our thinking and work should be, what are the strategies and implementation techniques we should develop to assure that everyone who considers themselves Jewish, no matter what their background, knows there is something in Judaism for them.

We know that this will not keep everyone Jewish, but we need to do our part and be proactive. We also know that people connect in different ways and for a variety of reasons. Connecting can happen from activities as diverse as ice cream socials to social justice trips, Israeli movies to birthright and other Israel experiences, from Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song to keeping Shabbat, text study or talk among peers. None of us can predict what will resonate with others. Our obligation is to offer as wide a range of opportunities as possible. The important ingredients for success are; that the atmosphere is welcoming and friendly, the experience positive, and the follow up professional. Accepting people for whom they are, being non-judgmental, while not dumbing down Judaism.

For this to be successful we also need to find a way to stop the confusion that occurs because of our need to label people. The need to categorize people in religious groups (Conservative, Masorati, Orthodox, Reform, Ultra-Orthodox, Unaffiliated), political affiliations (conservative, liberal, left wing, right wing, middle of the road), ethnic background (Ashkenazi, Sephardic, from where?), etc. makes our ability to be welcoming much more challenging, if not impossible. Why can’t all of us state that we are “just” Jewish? That is how most non-Jews view us, no matter what our background is or where we come from. We are Jews.

I know there are roadblocks to this idea including the fact that so many of us seem to have a need to differentiate ourselves from others. And of course we are not Universalists; we are Jews and should be proud of it! However since we know that many of us leave Judaism, if those of us who remain could call ourselves “just” Jewish and be accepted, we will be better able to create a welcoming and encompassing community and People. Throughout our history we have been at our best when we accept the diversity among us.

Dr. Gary Coleman is Director of Resource Development at the Yaacov Herzog Center for Jewish Studies. In July 2015 he returned to Israel after working in the United States for 14 years as founding Director of Hillel at Binghamton, Executive Director of the Cleveland Hillel Foundation, and a stint at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.