August 20, 1998
Why Be Jewish?
By Rabbi Ed Feinstein
There is a story that haunts me this time of year.
Franz Rosensweig. Photo from "My Jewish World"
It is the story of a young Jew who lived in Germany at the beginning of the century -- a brilliant student of philosophy at the University of Berlin. All of his cousins and all his colleagues and acquaintances had converted to Christianity, as was so common among young Jews at the time. His professors had urged him to convert as well to assure himself a position in German academic life. And inasmuch as Judaism meant so very little to him, he agreed to become a Lutheran.
But the young man had a sense of history, and he decided that, were he to become a Christian, it had to be as the first Christians did -- he had to do so as a Jew. So, for one last time, he stepped into a synagogue on Kol Nidre night -- planning to become baptized the next morning.
Something happened to him in that service. He never kept that morning appointment. He wrote to his cousins that he no longer had reason nor need to convert. He turned his attention to the study of Judaism and, in time, was recognized as the most gifted teacher of his generation. His name was Franz Rosensweig. And in all the many books, monographs, diaries and correspondence he left behind, nowhere does he describe what happened in that synagogue on that Kol Nidre night.
What happened to him? What did he find there? The mystery haunts me. This week begins the Hebrew month of Ellul and our preparations for the High Holidays. And, as I begin my personal and rabbinic preparations, I am haunted because I know that, this holiday, it will be not just one young man but a whole generation sitting in the back of our shuls, synagogues, temples, wondering, Why be Jewish? Why bother with all this? A whole generation searching for a persuasive reason to identify as Jews.
The Jewish Federation's studies of the Jewish population in Los Angeles and nationally only substantiate statistically what we already knew from experience with friends, neighbors and our own families: the massive disaffiliation, disaffection and alienation of American Jews, particularly the young. More than half of young Jews marry out of our people; only a third affiliate with synagogue or community organizations; and when asked, "What is your religion?" 1.8 million Jews responded, "None."
We have, it seems to me, less than 20 years -- one generation -- to reverse the erosion of our community. Twenty years to win back our children and our grandchildren, to provide a Judaism so compelling, so inviting, so stirring, that young Jews would think of going nowhere else for a vision of life's meaning and purpose. Twenty years to rescue America's Jews.
The story of Franz Rosensweig's conversion provides an uncompromising challenge: If a young person were to walk into your synagogue, would he or she find a compelling reason to choose Judaism? That's the challenge. And there is so little time. Little time to waste in fruitless argument and internecine rivalry. Little time to continue business as usual, assuming that the practices of the past will somehow yield a different result this time.
To win back our children, we must accept a new challenge, a new responsibility: We must be certain that every service, every program, every class, every meeting, every personal encounter provides a compelling reason to choose Judaism. Everything we do must reflect our conviction that Judaism offers life, meaning, purpose and beauty.
The answer to the question, Why be Jewish? is rarely shared in abstract doctrinal formulations. It is offered, rather, in personal witness. The Seder had it right: The answer to our children's question is intensely personal. "Because of what God did for me...." Because here in the Jewish tradition and among the Jewish people, I have found God's presence and my sense of life's purpose. If you can say this unequivocally to your children, now is the time. This is our message and our mission for the sake of the next generation and for this new year.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
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