The newly released Pew findings on Jewish continuity paint a bleak future for American Jewry (“Fast-Growing Jewish ‘Nones’ Seen Reshaping Community,” Oct. 4). It reports that 58 percent of respondents who married since 2000 have married a non-Jewish spouse, and only 20 percent of those who have intermarried are raising their children Jewish by religion.
One cause I have seen in my 20 years of outreach to the young and less affiliated: the sheer lack of joy or meaning that so many young Jews associate with Judaism, which they see as a faith of rules and restrictions. And why shouldn’t they?
How many American Jews are present for the somber Yom Kippur service, complete with fasting and chest-pounding but are nowhere to be found the next week when joyous singing and dancing in honor of Simchat Torah takes place? That balance of reverence and joy is vital to keep our interest and it is so authentically Jewish. Like most synagogues, MJE has always drawn larger numbers for its Yom Kippur services than for Simchat Torah. This year, however, for the very first time, we had approximately the same number of participants for both holidays. It took us 15 years but we did it. The same number of previously less affiliated 20s/30s, who were willing to fast and pray with us on Yom Kippur, returned to sing and dance with us on Simchat Torah.
Young Jews desperately need to experience both the serious and lighter sides of Judaism. We can no longer allow our beloved faith to be marketed as a religion of guilt and restriction without even trying to present it for what it truly is: a path which can ultimately bring joy and meaning to contemporary life.
Jewish educators need to be better trained to invest more explanation and inspiration into our prayer services and provide greater depth and insight as to how living a life of Torah can actually improve our lives and make us happier and more fulfilled people.
Otherwise, for most American Jews, why bother?