There’s a tendency in the Jewish world to look for big solutions to big problems. One of those problems is the disheartening fact that most Jews today are simply not that interested in Judaism.
This problem isn’t made up — it’s real. We live in a world where the options are so abundant that religion is seen as a choice, not an obligation. This is radically different from the world I grew up in, where every Jew in the Jewish neighborhoods of Casablanca would go to synagogue on Shabbat and follow the major rituals. Judaism wasn’t a choice, it was a way of life.
Here in America, in the land where we overdose on choices, Judaism has to compete for people’s time, and, more often than not, it loses. Why would someone go to a prayer house on Saturday mornings when they can take a beautiful hike in the canyon or have coffee with an old friend or go to a gym or yoga class? If the great American question is — “What will make me happiest?” — is it that surprising that Judaism so often loses?
In response to this crisis of competition, the organized Jewish community has invested enormous resources in recent years to try to get more Jews to “choose” Judaism. What most of the initiatives have in common is that they want you to “go to” Judaism — go to a class, a program, a synagogue, a camp, a school or a trip.
The most ambitious and talked-about “solution” in this go-to arsenal has been Jewish education. If you’re ever in a meeting with Jewish professionals and you want to see everyone nod feverishly in unison, just say, “The most important thing is Jewish education!”
Of course, there’s one little problem with this solution: It’s not realistic. If so many Jews have trouble committing a few hours of their precious time to a synagogue or Jewish event, how much more so with a decision as big as enrolling in a day school?
Which brings me to what I believe is the most nimble, diverse and powerful connector in the Jewish world today: Jewish journalism. When I say journalism, I’m thinking especially of the unique, weekly experience of going through a rich and vibrant community newspaper. Why do I believe this is so powerful?
Well, for one thing, it’s incredibly convenient. A newspaper doesn’t ask you to go out of your way. You might notice it at a newsstand or in your mailbox if you get it at home, and all you’re asked to do is pick it up and read it. That’s a lot easier than schlepping to some Jewish event and looking for parking.
But, more importantly, once the paper is in your hands, you are empowered and in control. No one tells you what to do or believe. A good Jewish paper celebrates the complete, exciting buffet of Judaism and lets you choose whatever you’re in the mood for — whether it’s news, opinion, religion, culture, arts, spirituality, humor, history, tikkun olam, community stories or Torah.
At its best, journalism also exposes our community’s failures in a way that keeps us honest and helps us improve.
In short, no other Jewish institution offers this breadth of Jewish experience in such a neat and convenient package. This makes Jewish journalism — whether offered digitally or through a paper — the ultimate modern-day vehicle to ignite Jewish sparks and keep Jews continually connected to their community, their tradition and one another.
And yet, tragically, journalism may be the least-respected institution in the Jewish world. Why? Maybe because journalism doesn’t promote a single agenda, which, ironically, is precisely its strength — journalism promotes all the flavors of Judaism, giving readers true freedom of choice.
Isn’t that, after all, what the new generation craves — choice? At a time when so many Jews are not choosing Judaism, the wide-open nature of journalism is ideally suited for Jews who hate having anything rammed down their throats, and whose definition of doing something Jewish is watching Jon Stewart.
Jewish foundations and donors who worry about the future of Judaism are making a huge mistake by not investing in journalism. These donors should put journalism at the top of their giving list. In fact, I can even see creating a national $100 million “Jewish Journalism Outreach Fund” to train a new generation of journalists and maximize the reach and quality of Jewish journalism nationwide.
The dream of giving every Jewish kid a Jewish education is just that — a pipe dream. A smarter dream would be to get a quality Jewish paper in the hands of every Jew in America. At the very least, that would keep Judaism in the game for the multitudes that now ignore it.
One Jewish spark may be no big deal. But ignite millions of sparks every week throughout the Jewish world, and you have one helluva big solution.
David Suissa is president of Tribe Media Corp./Jewish Journal (Los Angeles), from which this column is reprinted with permission.