June 5, 2003
There’s More to Us
All this week there's been some strange goings-on at the intersection of Us and Them.
Pop diva Whitney Houston spent a few days in Israel among the black Hebrews. "It's home," she said about Israel. "It's a friendship I've never had with any other country."
Meanwhile, Madonna donated $6 million to buy a building in London that will become the new West End headquarters of the Kaballah Center.
Closer to home, "The Producers" opened at the Pantages Theatre, deservedly regaling crowds with the adventures of Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, two Jews who lie, cheat and backstab and yet somehow emerge lovable and heroic (see p. 25).
At the same time, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) was in town last week accepting the endorsement of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamente. He's finding that he is gaining support as a result of being an observant Jew.
All this is happening in the real world, which is why I am having an increasingly difficult time following the hand-wringing and oy-veying of the unreal world, which I will call, the Jewish community.
In that world, experts, professors, bureaucrats and rabbis are bemoaning the imminent demise of the Jewish people. They marshal statistics, most recently from the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), to support their predictions that American Jews, like bluefin tuna and North Atlantic cod, are disappearing. Intermarriage is at 51 percent. Jewish women in their childbearing years are having only 1.8 children, while the replacement level to ensure population growth is 2.1 children. More Jews are dying than are being born, and unless we go out and have another .3 children, the Tribe is toast. As Leo Bloom moans in Act Two, "No way out, no way out, no way out."
In the face of these numbers, the Jewish professional world has put forth a variety of sometimes useful and often very expensive programs designed to encourage Jewish identity.
But none of these solutions, undertaken as a response to the 1990 NJPS, has drastically improved the numbers of the 2000 survey. And I suspect that if we invest in similar programs and solutions starting now, the 2010 survey will look even worse.
So why is it that Jewish influence is expanding in popular culture while our actual numbers seem doomed to decline? Are we, like the burst of a summer firework, burning brightest the instant before our descent?
Or are these solutions bound to fail because we have, all along, wrongly defined the problem?
We are worried that there are too few Jews, instead of worrying that too few people are Jewish. The former is a problem. The latter is an opportunity.
Judaism has insights into the most profound questions we humans ask: What is the meaning of life? How can I be happy? Why do the innocent suffer? How do I raise good kids?
Judaism has commandments, laws and rituals that provide the discipline and tools we need to act upon these insights: to make the world a better place, to offer hope and comfort, to bring peace.
Judaism has much to recommend it. When was the last time you recommended it to someone? My guess is, never. Because the truth is, too many Jews can't make a convincing argument for being Jewish even to their children, much less to strangers.
This week as we celebrate Shavuot, we read the story of Ruth, who, drawn to the faith of her mother-in-law, becomes Jewish. It is a story we should take to heart. Some forward-thinking mainstream rabbis are doing the same, like Harold Schulweis at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He realized long ago that Jews should actively engage intermarried couples and share the wisdom and beauty of Judaism with non-Jews. Call it marketing. Call it proselytizing. Call it good sense. As Ulla, the blonde bombshell in "The Producers," sings, "If you got it, flaunt it."
Judaism has got it, but we don't flaunt it. "Rarely has there been a moment when the Jewish world view was so widely needed," wrote Dr. Lawrence J. Epstein recently. "There is a genuine desire to learn about Judaism."
There are currently about 200,000 converts to Judaism in the United States. Our first task is to make sure these Jews feel as welcome in our hearts and homes as your favorite uncle or aunt. We must also support rabbis and organizations who conduct responsible outreach to intermarried families, non-Jews and, of course, marginally affiliated Jews.
Rabbi Irwin Kula's new public television program, "Simple Wisdom," is one attempt to bring Jewish teachings into the public marketplace in a serious yet accessible way. "Judaism is used to make Jews more Jewish," Kula told The Forward about his program, which is produced by the L.A.-based Jewish Television Network. "But what if that's a too narrow definition for a 3,500-year-old tradition? When Judaism is not about making Jews Jewish but a Jewish response to human questions, what do you say?" One thing I say is, call Nancy Rishagen, senior vice president for development at KCET, and urge her to air "Simple Wisdom" in a popular time slot: (323) 953-5300 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
The historian Salo Baron wrote in "Encyclopaedia Judaica" that from 586 B.C.E. to 100 C.E., the Jews grew from 150,000 to more than 8 million, mostly through unforced conversion. I'm sure the community experts weren't bemoaning the Jewish Population Survey of 100 C.E. Our future, too, can be one of growth and strength. "There's more to me than just me," Leo Bloom says in "The Producers." And there can be more to us than just us.
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