Can you “sell” Judaism in a few minutes? This question came up in a piece in The Forward by Leonard Fein, who was commenting on a recent debate in New York City between Daniel Gordis and Peter Beinart. In the debate, as Fein quotes, they were asked this question: “Both of you have written about the tragedy of young American Jews who have no connection to Judaism and the fate of the Jewish state. So let’s say you were stuck in an elevator with one of the people from that demographic, and you had two minutes to sell them about why they should re-engage with Jewishness and Zionism and the Jewish people. What would you say?”
Gordis responded: “I wouldn’t engage in that conversation. When in the Gemarrah, the ger [stranger, heathen] comes to Hillel and Shamai and asks them to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Shamai throws him out; the question itself is an outrageously obnoxious question. It’s dismissive. I wouldn’t take two minutes while standing in an elevator to try to explain everything that makes my world meaningful or to try to convince somebody to be a moral human being, and I wouldn’t take two minutes in an elevator to try to convince another person why a life spent loving another person is a life that, although more complicated, is infinitely worthwhile. And I wouldn’t try to convince a person why a life spent being a patriot is a noble thing. There are certain conversations that don’t deserve two minutes; they deserve years of upbringing. I think we’ve gotten too used to the idea that important things can be summarized on the screen of an iPhone or a BlackBerry…”
Beinart then said: “On questions of Israeli policy and how we should respond to them, Daniel and I have very substantial disagreements. But when he gives answers like that, though I could not have stated it so eloquently, I could not more profoundly agree with what he said. I think he’s entirely right: It’s too late at that point, and the kids who ask that question have in fact been failed by our community, which says today to most American Jewish parents, ‘The most important thing you can do is to raise children with knowledge of, joy in and fascination with Judaism — but, by the way, if you’re interested in the possibility of a full-time Jewish school, you’re going to have to take a second mortgage on your house and the school’s not likely to have a gym and we don’t even know whether it’s going to be around in three years. Go for it!’ That’s precisely why we end up with kids who would ask such an insulting question in the elevator.”
Are Gordis and Beinart being too dismissive? Fein thinks so, and I very much agree with him. The sad state of Jewish education today is even more reason why Judaism can’t afford to be too dismissive or pessimistic. As Fein says, our approach should be that it’s never too late to try to light a Jewish spark.
I have a little story that connects with this idea.
A few years ago, I was confronted by a young Jewish copywriter in an ad agency who knew about my Jewish activities but who himself was totally disconnected from Judaism. He challenged me to explain why he should bother with a tradition that held little interest for him.
Instead of a sales pitch, I started with a few questions:
“Do you love your grandparents?” I asked.
“Yes, of course,” he replied.
“If you could meet your great-great-great grandparents, would you love them as much?”
“Yes, absolutely,” he said.
“Now, let’s go further back. If you could meet your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, would you still love them as much?
“Yes, I still would. Why?”
“Well, close your eyes and imagine if all these grandparents whom you love were standing in a long line holding hands. Imagine that this line would stretch all the way back to the destruction of the Second Temple. Consider that for almost 2,000 years, this great line of grandparents, no matter where they lived or how much they suffered, held on tightly to their Jewish tradition. And every time they opened a prayer book or celebrated a bris, wedding or Passover seder, they expressed their deep yearning to return home to Zion and Jerusalem.
“Now open your eyes. You, my friend, are privileged to live in the generation that can get what your ancestors prayed and died for; you can see and touch the miracle of Zion they yearned for during all those centuries; you can be free to be Jewish without any fear or embarrassment.
“Imagine that this long chain of grandparents are all looking at you, hoping and praying that you will take your place in the chain. What will you do? Will you stay in the chain, or will you be the one to break it off after 2,000 years?”
I could see from his face that my words lit a spark. I don’t know if he ended up connecting to his Jewish tradition, but I do know this: It took me less than two minutes to connect him to 2,000 years — and it was worth every second.