Jewish Journal


September 16, 2011

Jews by choice


Wendy Jaffe

Wendy Jaffe

There are a lot of fun things about being Jewish: Adam Sandler, Purim, having an opinionated Jewish grandmother, Israel (most of the time), Chanukah. Although much can be said of the Jewish High Holy Days, I’m quite sure no one has ever described them as fun. Yet, for most of us, there is never a question as to whether we will attend services.

The real question is, will our children, who have been raised on a steady diet of fun and feel-good, plunk down their own shekels on High Holy Day seats when they are adults with children of their own? This is no small question because where Judaism seems to have been able to survive dwindling numbers of Jews keeping kosher, cell phones on Shabbat, and Passover seders that wrap up after the meal and before the third cup of wine, I don’t think Judaism can survive a generation that disregards the High Holy Days.

“Jew by Choice” is the term used to describe non-Jews who convert to Judaism. But it is also going to be the term used to describe our children who, in an increasingly secular world, will have to actively “choose” Judaism. I’m far from the first person to have expressed this reality. In fact, the idea that Jewishness will not be automatic for our grown children the way it was for most of us has even made it to Wikipedia.

According to the online encyclopedia, “For purely rhetorical purposes, some polemicists elicit that every Jew is a Jew by choice, because the worldwide Jewish community is so small and the pull of assimilation is so great. So it is very easy for someone who was born Jewish to abandon Jewish traditions and customs in adulthood, absent a conscious choice to stay Jewish.”

Since you, dear reader, are most likely Jewish, I suspect that your Jewish DNA is already compelling you to question my hypothesis that Judaism’s very survival depends on whether our children attend High Holy Day services when they are adults. (And if you are not Jewish, please feel free to “act Jewish” for a moment and presume that I don’t know what I’m talking about.)

“Wendy,” (you are thinking), “I am Jewish because I was born Jewish, and my children are Jewish because they were born Jewish. Whether my children choose to go to synagogue on the High Holy Days won’t change that. If they choose to pass on the High Holy Days and synagogue membership and simply celebrate Chanukah and Passover in their homes, I’m fine with that.”

Well, that is a compelling argument, reader, but you are only partly correct. If just your children decide not to attend services, Judaism will likely survive. And certainly if a couple of their friends stay home, Judaism may still be around when people commute to work with jetpacks. But just like vaccines keep even unvaccinated kids healthy, thanks to the fact that nearly everyone else gets vaccinated, Judaism can remain healthy for the Jews who choose not to purchase High Holy Day tickets because nearly everyone else does.

But what happens when a majority of the next generation stays home, and attending High Holy Day services becomes the exception, not the rule?

What happens is that since many Jews maintain expensive synagogue memberships so that they can attend High Holy Day services, the many programs that synagogues offer that have nothing to do with the High Holy Days but everything to do with keeping Judaism alive — religious and Hebrew school, clergy support when there is a birth or death in the family, social action programs, youth groups — will no longer be funded. Even the “fun” holiday gatherings like Chanukah and Purim that are typically hosted by synagogues would not take place because Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur pay the synagogue light bill for the entire year.

“Wendy,” (you ask), “are you suggesting that the future of Judaism dangles solely on a financial string? There have been many dire times in Jewish history when Judaism survived without people shelling out thousands of dollars a year on expensive synagogue memberships.”

Good point, educated reader. Of course not. But the difference between then and now is that Jewish children historically had no choice but to be Jewish adults because society characterized them as Jewish. The barbed wire lining on the fluffy white cloud of American Jewish acceptance is that our children can now freely choose, and they may not choose to be Jewish.

But even if America’s synagogues joined together, bought one of those group Powerball lottery tickets, won a billion dollars and no longer had to depend on being financially supported by members, our Jewish future would still hinge on our children attending High Holy Day services en masse.

Why? Because it is the sheer number of Jews coming together during the High Holy Days that gives Judaism the energy to propel it through the rest of the year. They are dubbed the Days of Awe for good reason: The mass Jewish exodus from comfortable air conditioned homes and insanely busy lives to come together in synagogues all across the world is the ultimate symbol that there are thousands of us that are “Jews by Choice.”

Yes, the High Holy Days are a time to reflect, a time to improve, a time to let go of the negativity of the past and start the year with a fresh slate. But, they are also our giant annual family reunion: Whether or not the venue is your particular cup of tea is not important; being together is.

Will our children agree? I hope so. Our future is riding on it.

L’shanah tovah.

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