The responsibility for the future of Jews in America is on the shoulders of American Jews themselves.
by Rabbi Adam J. Raskin
I received a cascade of emails, voicemails, and messages relating the unsettling news of the Pew study of American Jews on the very same day as I got an email containing biographical sketches of the new class of 2013-2014 Avodah fellows. Working in an array of social service projects in Chicago, New Orleans, New York and Washington D.C., these 20-something Jewish college graduates are taking precious time out of their lives and career pursuits to work with underprivileged and needy populations throughout the country under the aegis of Jewishly inspired activism.
Almost instantly in the wake of the Pew survey’s prognostications of doom and gloom, particularly for the non-Orthodox Jewish community in America, came the predictable bromides about how Jewish institutions (synagogues are a favorite target) must change or die. Many of those who commented on the serially re-posted survey on Facebook demanded that Judaism in America must chart a brand new course, have the courage to completely rethink itself, and break with all previous assumptions about how to reach and engage Jews on the margins. But then there was that Avodah announcement sitting in my in-box as well. Avodah is a great specimen of radical creativity in the Jewish community. Now in its bar mitzvah year, Avodah has inspired hundreds of Jewish leaders and successfully fused Judaism’s message of social justice with deep Jewish learning and living. A survey of its graduates indicates just how impactful the experience has proven for them – not only as individuals or as leaders, but as Jews. This led me to consider all the remarkable Jewish organizations in America that are engaged in the most relevant, community building kinds of pursuits. I reveled in the family foundations and philanthropic generosity of committed American Jewish leaders who have established think tanks, fellowships and training programs to cultivate both lay and professional Jewish leadership in the most sophisticated ways. I perused my own bookshelves filed with recently published volumes about synagogue transformation and renewal. I thought about how many young Jews I personally know who are among the tens of thousands of Birthright Israel alumni; or how many whose spark has been lit by campus Jewish organizations, or before that by Jewish youth group experiences or summer camps. I marveled at the plethora of Jewish educational programs, schools and seminaries, and the myriad degrees pertaining to Jewish life they offer; the huge numbers of Jewish professionals of all denominations and no denomination that are being trained every day for service to American Jewry. I was in awe of the talented, diverse rabbis being ordained all over America eager to inspire Jews of every conceivable background and persuasion. I admired how much the American Jewish community has embraced everything from Synagogue 3000 (and 2000) to Synaplex! In my own community in greater Washington, D.C. there are remarkably experimental, exciting initiatives percolating in synagogues and Jewish organizations all over town. Doesn’t this count for anything? Shouldn’t the American Jewish community be praised for its adaptability and versatility? It seems easier to label all of institutional Judaism as out of touch than to acknowledge its many remarkable and recent accomplishments.
When the ancient prophets inveighed against a Jewish people that had become rife with assimilation and neglect of tradition, they did not recommend that the Torah or Jewish life be thoroughly altered to reflect changing societal circumstances. Rather they demanded that the change come from the Jewish people themselves. Renewal had to come from the very people who had strayed from tradition. “Return O Israel to the Lord your God,” pleaded the prophet Hosea. If the Torah was to remain important; if Jewish society and peoplehood were to be a priority; if the Jewish vision for the world was to be perpetuated, it depended on the Jewish people themselves to repent, return, and renew their covenantal allegiance to Jewish life. I believe that admonishment is in order today. Are there moribund Jewish organizations that still cling to the scene? Absolutely. Does the alphabet soup of Jewish communal life contain some who have passed their prime? No doubt. But Jewish life in America, though far from perfect, is more vibrant and accessible than ever before in Jewish history. There have never been more Jewish schools, learning opportunities for all ages, ease of travel to Israel, or Jewish books published in the vernacular than there are today. There has never been a Jewish professional leadership more sensitive and responsive to the diversity of Jewish life. There have never been more choices for how to be Jewish or where to be Jewish as there are in 21st Century America. This time, the onus is not on institutional Judaism. The responsibility for the future of Jews in America is on the shoulders of American Jews themselves. Do you want Jewish life to thrive for your children and grandchildren and well into the future? Do you want to perpetuate this religion, this culture, these sacred values? Do you believe that Judaism has something to say in the marketplace of values, ethics and religious teachings? Do you believe in the permanence of a sovereign, independent Jewish state in the world? If you answer yes to these and other fundamental questions of Jewish destiny, then it’s up to you to do something about it. It’s up to you to avail yourself of the vibrancy and vitality of Jewish life in this country. It’s up to you to make some serious commitments and even life style changes to embolden Jewish life for yourself and your family. Let’s not pass the buck to the anonymous conglomeration of Jewish organizations and synagogues. Rather, let each and every American Jew begin to take personal responsibility for the future of our faith, our tradition, and our culture in this great nation where so very much is possible.
Rabbi Adam J. Raskin is the spiritual leader of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, MD.