American Judaism is in crisis. But it isn’t the crisis that mainstream American Jewish leaders would have you believe. It is at once much better and much worse.
The false crisis — declining Jewish continuity, caused by assimilation and an intermarriage rate of 52 percent — has become the rallying cry of institutional Judaism. But fundamentally, it is a red herring. The real crisis is one of meaning and engagement. For the first time in centuries, two Jews can marry each other and have Jewish children without any connection to Jewish heritage, wisdom or tradition.
Part of the problem is that there are very few places that offer Jews an opportunity to experience the power and mystery of Jewish tradition firsthand. Even people who are in-married by and large have little connection to Torah, Jewish practice and values. They are dependent on others to translate Judaism for them, and they trudge to High Holiday services to receive the requisite “Be good!” sermons, only to return to their lives unchallenged and unchanged.
They have been sold a world in which Judaism is a bunch of platitudes, at best matching their existing modern liberal values (but adding nothing beyond what they already know), and at worst completely irrelevant to the struggles they experience day to day. Who can blame these Jews for disengaging from Judaism?
This is the legacy of American Judaism in the 21st century — a Judaism that has been undersold and watered down. It is a Judaism where those who know its beauty are often unable or unwilling to connect to the larger Jewish community, and those on the front lines of the welcome wagon to Judaism have little skill or facility with Jewish texts to elucidate the beauty to others. People want deep meaning and connection, but they move through life thinking of Judaism’s contribution to the world as “Seinfeld” and guilt. Many would be shocked to find out that Judaism has vigorous debates about the most central existential problems facing people today.
Jewish Engagement Fades.
The tragedy is that although there is a very weak supply side to the equation of Jewish meaning, there is very strong demand. Take young Jews returning from Birthright Israel. After a 10-day trip, they have been opened to the possibility that there is real substance in Judaism. But upon returning home, they have no clear educational option. They want to learn Hebrew, but there are not enough high-quality Hebrew classes. They are interested in basic Jewish knowledge, but are unable to connect to synagogues. The Jewish community does not have the teachers and the leaders who can step forward to meet this need. So what do Birthright alumni do? They get funded to have beer nights, ski trips and at best a Shabbat dinner (with no intellectual or traditional content necessary or encouraged). Because their enthusiasm for deeper Jewish engagement has no substantial outlet, it eventually fades away. This is just one example among many. There is simply no coordinated effort to educate the Jewish people in a way that empowers them.
It is time for us to start meeting the demand for meaning and substance. It is time to stop short-selling Judaism. What does that look like? The strategy is straightforward.
Invest in Empowerment Education.
We do not have the luxury of assuming that Jews will feel engaged in the Jewish tradition just by experiencing a few inspiring programs. Jews must become self-directed translators of the Jewish tradition — for themselves and their peers. This means less focus on “experiences” and more focus on the building blocks of educational discovery. This is not about religious indoctrination. This is unlocking the power of Jewish heritage.
American culture supports so many forms of creativity and experimentation — but this rarely extends to Judaism. We believe that an education must include Shakespeare, Joyce and knowledge of the Civil War, yet not the Mishnah or Psalms. What would it take to promote a deep engagement with the building blocks of the Jewish tradition and to make this pursuit an acceptable pre- or post-college endeavor?
Educate Toward Meaning.
Education cannot only be about grammar and technical skills. It must have an eye toward translation into meaning. But meaning is not just an affirmation of our existing values. Rather, it is the belief that these texts can both challenge us and bring us closer to the Divine will. Part of the difficulty of supporting Jewish empowerment is the legitimate fear many of us have of feeling ignorant. But this is not a way forward; it is a recipe for stasis. Those engaged in a life of study know that the consummate orientation to the Jewish tradition is one in which you will never know enough. This should not, however, prevent us from challenging ourselves and our peers to start down the road of learning how to learn.
Part of living in the 21st century is engaging with data firsthand —the unfiltered access to information that is the gift of the Internet. Judaism cannot survive without real engagement by hordes of Jews in the substance of the tradition itself.
Create the Pathways to Support Empowerment.
So many Jews have been turned on to the tradition of Judaism but have no path to become empowered. The options are these: become an academic, a rabbi or Orthodox. Yet the infrastructure is in place — we have synagogues in every city and town that often stand empty during the nine-to-five work day. Imagine a world in which those synagogues were hothouses of learning for people who had time to invest in their Jewish heritage. Imagine if all our post-college students spent six months or a year immersing themselves in Jewish texts and traditions, gaining the skills to become Empowered Jews.
Train Better Rabbis,
But Don’t Rely on Them
to do Everything.
The focus of rabbinical school training has often been on how we can attract more Jews to Judaism. But the secret is this: Jews are attracted to Judaism — the unadulterated, complex and nuanced, powerful Jewish tradition. We just don’t have enough teachers out there who can speak their language and transmit the beauty and intricacy of Jewish tradition to those hungry for some meaning in their lives. We have been working so hard to pull people back from complete repudiation of Judaism — or worse, apathy — that we don’t know how to meet the demand of those finally interested in the conversation and looking to own it themselves.
The answer has to lie in peer engagement — through hosted meals, through study classes and pairings, through grass-roots communities and learning circles. In this world of social networks and mobility, our only chance for real engagement involves an empowered, educated corps of peers who have not devoted their lives to becoming Jewish professionals, but who can live out a rich Jewish culture and heritage and connect others to that experience.
Focus on the Substance,
Not the Institution.
If institutions are performing their mission well, and their mission is still relevant, they will thrive. If either of these is not the case, let’s not put them on life support. American Judaism is in need of revival now, and it behooves us to look to whatever energy is coming forward and encourage it without the constant check on how it will or won’t support an existing institution.
Accept That There is
No New “Big Idea.”
The Jewish community is obsessed with the “next big idea.” But the crisis is not one of theory — the power of Judaism is clear to those truly engaged in its complex struggles and searchings for truth and divinity. Instead of focusing on new ideas, the Jewish community would be better served by connecting to the original “big ideas” of our heritage: Torah, avodah (rituals) and gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindess), for instance. To put it another way: there is no “new big idea.” There is just investment in the old, but in a serious, meaningful, and thoughtful way.
Recognize that a New Jewish World is Possible.
The biggest challenge before us is one of imagination and vision. Do we really believe that Judaism has something to teach? Are we prepared to articulate why it is important to be Jewish? As we entered this new century, the independent minyanim gave us a glimpse of a world of Empowered Judaism. But the real legacy of the independent minyanim extends beyond these local communities. In fact, the independent minyanim are ultimately important because they make a bold claim: a different kind of community is possible, and we are capable of building that community. Our task now is to imagine a world in which every Jew has the potential to take hold of the gift of Jewish heritage. Imagining that world is the first step to building it.
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