As someone who believes that Jews should actively proselytize to non-Jews and become as involved as possible in Jewish life, I was dismayed (though not surprised) at the results of a recent Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews that showed an increasing detachment of non-Orthodox Jews -- especially young Jews -- from Judaism. This does not bode well for the future of the American Jewish community, and countless commentaries on the survey’s findings have appeared recently in the Jewish press nationwide.
When Jewish life is viewed through Mormon spectacles, it is hard to see how the survey could have turned out otherwise, given the relative lack of religious responsibility placed on young Jews’ shoulders. An excellent example is Birthright Israel, a popular organized program that has sent 300,000 young Jews on 10-day trips to Israel. Birthright’s website says that its goal is to “generate a profound transformation in contemporary Jewish culture and a connection between Israelis and their peers in the Diaspora.” I think that Birthright is one of the greatest programs sponsored by the organized Jewish community, and know several Mormons of Jewish descent who are Birthright alumni.
However, as wonderful as the program is, there appear to be no religious expectations of Birthright participants. I visited the “After the Trip” tab on the Birthright website, and found this to be the most detailed opportunity that their alumni had to stay involved in Jewish life after college: “Learn Hebrew, get back to Israel, volunteer in the community, network in our Wall Street series, meet great Jewish authors, go to Prague and Poland or get your Bar / Bat Mitzvah. Celebrate summer with outdoor cocktail parties and meet hundreds of alumni.” All of these opportunities can be yours if you join the New York region’s Birthright alumni community. However, there are no expectations that Birthright alumni living in New York will actually do any of these things after returning to the U.S. Since this is a blog that compares and contrasts the LDS and Jewish communities, I thought that it might be instructive for my Jewish readers to learn what the religious expectations are of the Mormon counterparts of the New York-based Birthright alumni.
To begin with, most active twentysomething Mormon men have served two-year missions for their church. This is increasingly the case for women as well, who serve 18 months. As I have stated repeatedly, if young Jews were expected to dedicate many months of their lives to promote and preach the virtues of Judaism to non-Jews, there would be no need to worry about their dedication to their faith and culture.
Young Mormons are also expected to tithe 10% of their income to their church. Having given money to my church and to other worthy nonprofits, I can testify that you cherish what you sacrifice for. This is especially true for financial sacrifices. It is never easy for me to write a tithing check, but it does strengthen my bond with my church.
Young Mormons in New York are also expected to fast for 24 hours once a month, to make a contribution to the poor in connection with the fast, to visit other members of the congregation who are assigned to them on a monthly basis, to serve in at least one other calling in the church, to attend weekly three-hour worship services, and to go to an LDS temple on a regular basis to perform sacred ordinances.
Given the disparity in religious expectations of non-Orthodox Jews and Mormons, is it any wonder that Mormons have a higher activity rate than Jews do? I am often told that Judaism is not just a religion, and that there are many different ways to be Jewish. Indeed, atheists are fully accepted as Jews (a concept that I will never understand), and a whole Jewish movement – Humanistic Judaism – offers up Judaism without God. I have no opinion on how many authentic ways there are to be Jewish, but I am glad that the Pew survey gives the lie to the idea that other well-trod paths to Judaism – being a kind person, being politically progressive, manning soup kitchens – ultimately have the conversion power of sacrificing one’s time and talents for religious purposes. Unsurprisingly, the one group in the Pew survey that remained solidly committed to Judaism is the Orthodox movement, which places the most expectations on its members and does not seek substitutes for traditional expressions of Judaism. May their tribe increase.
A point that I have made on this blog several times bears repeating: A religion that truly believes it has something to offer to its members will actively seek converts. I’ve had countless discussions with committed Jews about why Jews no longer proselytize (centuries ago Jews were the most active missionaries on the planet), and no explanation that I’ve heard can counter the perception that many twentysomething Jews likely share of their faith: If Judaism really is so special, then Jews would be actively trying to get others to become Jews. The biggest inroads on this front that I’ve seen involve rabbis who ask their congregants to invite unaffiliated folks to consider Judaism. This is certainly a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough. Why not ask baptized, church-going Catholics to consider a visit to the mikvah? If Jews don’t ask active Catholics to convert, then one could be forgiven the assumption that Jews feel that their faith has nothing more to offer people than Catholicism does. If that’s true, then why be Jewish? Moreover, why not marry a Catholic? As long as Jews assert that theirs is a non-proselytizing faith, they will lose in the religious marketplace of ideas.
I would like nothing more than to see the nation’s Jewish population increase in both numbers and commitment, but right now the only expectations I see being placed on the rising generation of Jews are to marry a Jew, remember the Holocaust, and resist conversion to Christianity. Unless additional responsibilities are placed on them, and unless Judaism asserts that it has a great deal to offer by actively seeking converts from other faiths, I don’t see how the non-Orthodox Jewish movements will ever thrive and prosper. I hope that my words are not prophetic, but I fear that they may be.