We read with great interest “The Real Crisis in American Judaism” (April 9), in which Rabbi Elie Kaunfer articulates his vision for responding to the disengaged majority of American Jews today.
As educated, engaged, empowered and professional Jews, our own starting place may mirror Rabbi Kaunfer’s. Our experience teaching and reaching “unaffiliated” or “disengaged” Jews on opposite coasts, though, has led us to believe that Kaunfer’s vision, while powerful and compelling for some, is too narrow for most.
The “building blocks of the Jewish tradition” that he mentions, such as Mishnah and Psalms, as well as the classical settings in which Jews encounter these sources of inspiration and authority, such as the synagogue and the study hall to which he refers, remain core to many of us. We actively support the measures he describes to improve and expand them.
However, the reality of American Jewish life today is one in which the rabbinic paradigm and the halachic system are at best irrelevant and, more often, anathema. In our experience, it seems highly unlikely that any amount of resources invested in “selling” or “enriching” these concepts will change that for the vast majority of Jews.
If the soul of American Jewry is at stake, then the “real crisis” is the blind spot that has eclipsed the existence of equally authentic and legitimate forms of Jewish expression practiced by most of these “disengaged” Jews, namely: the “serious, meaningful, and thoughtful” engagement with Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasidim [study, service and acts of kindness] through cultural and philanthropic activities, ethical and social values — which all take place “off the grid” and “off the page.”
Kaunfer’s “Empowered Judaism” is thriving in places like Mechon Hadar, but also exists among Jews who are engaged in a search for “truth and divinity” in ways or places that are unrecognized or dismissed as superficial by those who themselves have been empowered through the rabbinic model. Unfortunately, all too often, these Jews have internalized the message that they are not “good” Jews and that, from our perspective, is more than a crisis of their own self-esteem, it’s a call to action.
Rabbi Adina Lewittes,
founder of Shaar Communities
founder of Jewish Milestones