By Rona Shapiro
A couple weeks ago, in response to the 2nd anniversary [of the Pew Report release] luminaries of the Jewish community issued a paper entitled “Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: A Call to Action.” Despite the fact that it was signed by illustrious Jews, many of whom I know and love, it is one of the worst documents I have ever read.
To summarize, the document, written in the passive voice, by no one in particular, purports to respond to the Pew Study that augurs the growing disaffiliation of Jews and the shrinking of the Jewish community. The document asserts that without a response, which has not been forthcoming, we are essentially giving up. The document then goes on to prescribe so-called solutions, all of which are, well about 30 years old: fund day schools, get kids to stay in religious school longer, fund Jewish summer camps and more trips like Birthright, fund youth groups, fund Hillels and Chabad, Moishe Houses and projects like the PJ library.
The document’s proposals fall short in so many ways. They are not new. It is not clear that money is the reason Jews do not send their children to days schools or Jewish summer camps and that throwing money at these problems will solve anything. The authors, at best, prescribe a pediatric Judaism – we have raised a generation who, at best, will bring their children to synagogue, but they have never been told that Judaism might have meaning for them.
But the most painful aspect of the document is its failure to answer the question: why? “Is there a reason to walk in God’s path, to do what is good and just … to care for the stranger, to perfect the world – and to do so as part of a reinvigorated and relevant Jewish community?” As Elcott notes, he himself can trace his family’s lineage for 15 generations back as cattle handlers – does that mean that is what he should do?
In sum, the document reads like a technical manual – here are the various technical fixes we can engage which will repair the Jewish community. A technical problem with technical solutions. Strange language for a document which calls itself a call to action.
In that sense, it made me think about the end of this week’s torah portion and the story of the Tower of Babel. The people, in remarkable unity, seek to make a name for themselves and build a tower to heaven. What kind of name do they seek to make? Is it their legacy of kindness, tremendous learning, a just society? No. It is a tower that will reach to the heavens. They are very good at the technical – they have bricks and presumably architects and workers. But their vision is only technical.
God is also not impressed with their unity of purpose. Like the authors of Strategic Directions, they are nameless and speak to the nameless masses – come let us make, come let us build. The nameless dictate; the people they purport to serve are not consulted. The Torah, it seems, regards this as a kind of fascism. There is something wrong with everyone speaking with one voice, with no dissent, with their nameless, soulless purpose.
And God destroys their tower, mixes up their languages and scatters them across the world. I fear a similar fate if this is the vision we have.
Of course, if I could prescribe exactly what to do, I would be the most sought after Jewish professional in the world. I cannot nor do I believe that technical solutions – big programs, throwing money at the problem – will get us there. I want to offer some vision, but before I do I want to tell you about my Hillel career.
I began working in Hillel in 1990, at the end of what was termed, the old era of Hillel. At that time, a campus was often served by a single rabbi. These guys were quirky and intellectual. You know their names – Al Axelrod, Jim Diamond, Jim Ponet, Chaim Seidler-Feller, Eddie Feld, Danny Leifert, Irv Saposnick. None of them ever would have made it as a synagogue rabbi. But they were able, year after year, to gather a small group of Hasidim around them who caught fire with their message. Maybe it was 30 kids a year on each campus – not impressive by the numbers. But I can tell you that each of those 30 kids became a rabbi or a Jewish educator or a Jewish communal leader or made aliyah. They led rich Jewish lives and gave birth to Jewish children steeped in Judaism. Their lives were changed and they changed the Jewish community.
But along comes Richard Joel, for whom I have only the greatest respect. He did not believe that this old model of Hillel – quirky rabbis in tweed jackets, mimeograph machines, run down buildings – can sustain us. So we build a new Hillel with beautiful buildings and beautiful flyers and websites and we get rid of the quirky rabbis. We succeed in part. We do banner programs, we attract more kids to Hillel, things look better. I don’t diminish this success. Truly. It had to happen. We had to enter the next century. I don’t think we were going to survive on mimeographs. But something great was also lost. A 22-year old kid who works at Hillel (we used to call them an engagement fellow) now gets an email from the national office in Washington with the torah lesson of the week and goes out on campus to teach it. That’s not the same as a walking torah. Programs with Jerry Seinfeld or Sushi in the Sukkah are fun, but it’s not the same as a world of meaning that changes you forever.
What can we do? The question is not how to fulfill some retro-vision of making the Jewish world look like it used to, but rather meeting the needs of a new generation who is oriented toward choice not obligation, who seeks meaning, intellectual stimulation, and desires to make a difference, albeit in different ways than our grandparents did. I don’t want to propose technical solutions. Rather, I want to propose seven habits of successful Jewish endeavors.
Seven habits because there is no technical fix. Seven habits because creative individuals and communities can and are doing this in a myriad of ways and there is no one size fits all. People are motivated by their own passions, interests and quirks.
1. Intimacy – People have to matter as individuals. They have to be known as individuals. They cannot be a number – a number of members, a number of donors, a number on a spreadsheet. In a faceless world, we have to provide old-fashioned face to face, spacious time to be human.
I was thinking about this at a recent shiva. No synagogues tout their shivas and we don’t advertise and put it on our program calendar and make it the central focus of our activities. But it is. When we sit at a shiva and just talk to someone and provide comfort and listen to their stories of their loved one who has passed away, we do some of the most beautiful, meaningful work people can do.
2. Choice – Jews today by and large, young and old, are less motivated by obligation. They want choice, they want autonomy, they want personalization. If you can order a half caf doppio, no foam, they want to do the same Jewishly. We can’t just serve up a single package. We can’t say this is the way to be Jewish. We have to create more ways for people to engage meaningfully with the pieces they want, whether it is Torah study, or prayer or lunch or building houses for the homeless. We need to allow for more fluid boundaries and create more pathways in – it can’t just be you are a member or you’re not. I believe we need to move away from the current model of membership. I believe that we can still maintain a meaningful definition of community while personalizing what we do to the needs and desires of the people we serve and hope to serve.
3. Authenticity – A lot of people seek out Chabad or other outreach Orthodox programs, because they see their leaders as more authentic than our leaders or for that matter more authentic than themselves. Authentic Judaism is a Judaism that is honest and real and true, not a Judaism that closes its eyes to the world around us or its science and literature. It is a Judaism grounded in love and curiosity and not in fear.
Authenticity will not happen, however, if our prayer services are watered-down pablum, “where no one is changed, no one is challenged, no one gets hurt, no one cries and no one dances. How am I supposed to trust that the rabbi or cantor will take me to the deepest places if they are not themselves deeply moved by their own prayer experience?… We imagine that young people need services that are short, sexy and conveniently located.” We imagine that young people will only go to Israel if we buy the ticket. But those same young people spend hundreds of hours and significant amounts of money on their yoga practice. Why? Because they value it; because they perceive it as authentic. Why do we undervalue what we have to offer and teach them to do the same? If nothing is asked of them, why should they waste their time?
We also can’t serve it up in bite-sized chunks. So often when we do, we make the Torah into a silly storybook or a little cute lesson and we leave people feeling that that is really all we have to offer. The Torah and rabbinic literature are so incredibly deep and rich. Our prayer tradition is deep and rich. Our community is deep and rich. We have to make sure that people experience that – we have to teach them, pray with them on the highest level and bring them there – not turn it into babyfood.
4. Creativity – Creativity is the handmaiden to authenticity. We have to be willing to try things even if they might not work. I have no idea what will work until we try. And even if it works today, it may not work tomorrow.
When Moses argues with Pharaoh back in Egypt, Pharaoh tells him at one point that he can go – he just can’t take the sheep or cattle. Moses says no dice. He says he doesn’t know what God will want until he gets there. In other words, we have to be ready to do what the moment calls for, not what yesterday dictated. We need to let 1000 flowers bloom, we need to create a culture that says “yes” much more often than it says “no.” We need to be God’s partners in creating a Judaism that matters.
5. Moral Courage – According to the Ishbitizer, complacency is the greatest sin. Saying the world is this way, I am this way, we can’t do anything about it, and it’s OK. Being Jewish means being God’s partners in transforming the world. Nothing less. Our prophets from Abraham to Moses to Isaiah saw their relationship to God as the impetus to change the world; they were not afraid to take on God Himself to ensure that justice be served. Our institutions cannot just be about navel gazing and the propagation of our customs and species. Spirituality detached from justice is, to paraphrase Isaiah, a shanda. Judaism, to quote Elcott and Himmelfarb, “should feel radical, an assault on all the complacencies in the world, not an antidote to zero population growth.”
6. Sacred Purpose – The reason to be Jewish is not to perpetuate Judaism. It is not because your bubbe’s soup is really good. There has to be a sacred purpose. The Rebbe believed that the Jewish people were chosen by God for a mission on earth, and he sent shluchim around the world with that mission.I do not think one must believe in God or the chosenness of the Jewish people to do God’s work. I do believe that one must believe that Judaism is something infinitely precious that is necessary and transformative to the world and that its loss would be an irreparable breach in the cosmos. Judaism cannot just be a nice side hobby. It must be something of depth, meaning and passion. If I woke up tomorrow morning and discovered that I was no longer Jewish, I would not know who I was. Judaism has to mean at that level. It has to be a transcendent, sacred force of meaning and purpose. If it is just nice recipes or some cute folk habits, it’s not worth preserving and frankly, in the ethnic mix that is America in the early 21st c, it won’t stand a chance.
7. Ahavat Yisrael – Our Torah demands this attitude of us. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. More than that, we understand the Torah to have been revealed to all of us at Sinai – all 70 or 600,000 faces of it. Each of us carries a unique understanding. Each of us is a letter of the Torah. Without any one of us, we are not whole and our Torah is not whole. The loss of a single Jew to the Jewish people is a tragedy and what each of us contributes to the whole is precious and unique.
These days, we are not very good at ahavat yisrael. We denigrate those who are less observant than we are – they are lazy slobs. We denigrate those who are more observant – they’re crazy zealots. We denigrate those who do not stand exactly where we do on Israel – they are either self-hating Jews or crazy warmongers.
If we are going to rebuild the Jewish community, we will have to love each Jew. We will have to see each person – even the one’s who annoy us most – as infinitely precious – and we will have to be willing to do whatever we can to reach to those who are hardest to reach.
“Be kind: everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Everyone reflects a unique aspect of God’s essence. I believe we need to look for that essence and trust that it is always there. I believe that we will have to build a Jewish community in which each person is valued for whatever contribution they make and no one is diminished. Everyone is in God’s image. Every face gives us the chance to see God’s face. It is all love.
I am not so naïve as to think that these seven habits – intimacy, choice, authenticity, creativity, moral courage, sacred purpose, and ahavat yisrael – will transform the Jewish community overnight or that we will suddenly reach everyone on the fringes. I believe that our numbers will inevitably be smaller. But I also believe that for those who are engaged, they can and will be engaged at deeper levels, that they will lives of Jewish meaning and purpose in even deeper and richer ways than their grandparents did. That is worth fighting for.
Rabbi Rona Shapiro is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Jacob in Woodbridge, CT. She was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1990, among the first classes of women, and has served as Executive Director of Berkeley Hillel, as Senior Associate at Ma’yan: the Jewish Women’s Project, and as rabbi of a synagogue in Cleveland, OH. Rabbi Shapiro is the founding editor of ritualwell.org.