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Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
It has not been a good week. Not for America, and not for the Jews.
Actually, the government shutdown will eventually go away. We should be so lucky with the Jewish shutdown.
These are my main takeaways from the Pew Center study on American Jewish identity.
We wanted to be part of the American mainstream, and we won. When our great-grandparents sailed into New York harbor, many of them took out their tefilin, kissed them goodbye, and threw them overboard. There is an underwater mountain of tefilin somewhere near the Statue of Liberty. That became the dominant metaphor of the American Jewish experience. But it didn’t stop with tefilin. The whole tallit of American Jewish life is unravelling.
Is there anything left for us to do? Yes.
Intermarriage: Many basements in my general area of New Jersey have water problems. A contractor told me: “You’re constantly fighting a battle with the water. It just wants to come in. So, you put in sump pumps and French drains and hope for the best.”
To continue the metaphor -- none of the sump pumps or French drains or fancy waterproofing devices have kept the flood of unlimited freedom out of the American Jewish basement. Can we still win the intermarried for Jewish life?
My son, Sam Salkin, suggests a Birthright Israel program for the intermarried, the intermarrying, and those who are considering conversion. As sociologist Len Saxe has shown, Birthright is working for college students. I am willing to gamble on the fact that it would “work” for young marrieds as well.
Synagogue life: When Jews talk about having cultural connections to Judaism, they’re not just talking about bagels. No – there actually is a bonafide Jewish culture – music, film, art, literature, theater. In fact, here’s the good news that didn’t make it into the Pew study: almost all of the creative stuff that is happening in the Jewish world is happening in the arts. Bring it all into the synagogue – sort of like what Lab Shul is doing. Bring it into worship services. (Channeling Mordecai Kaplan here!). Perhaps even the creation of synagogues that are entirely devoted to the arts. And we need far more synagogues like Bnai Jeshurun in New York – with joyful, quality Jewish music.
Investing in young leaders: Remember all those young people who are going on Birthright? Consider how that experience is going to reshape the American Jewish future. Within the foreseeable future, a majority of American Jews will have spent time in Israel. This will help transform American Jewish life. We should be investing more heavily into Birthright Next programs, tracking participants, leadership development, etc.
One last thing (and back to the real estate metaphor): When you have your house inspected, the inspector will show you all the problems – many of which you had no idea about. You can then repair the house, or you can walk away.
We have major cracks in the American Jewish foundation. We knew about it. We neglected the repairs. Or we invested in the wrong kind of repairs. Or we put a little spackle here and there, thinking that we had done the best we could.
We were wrong. We just read the American Jewish inspection report, and if we are truly serious about what is wrong, and if we are interested in going beyond self-congratulation (as if there are any reasons to be sanguine), and/or protecting our own programmatic agendas and fiefdoms – then we are going to have to roll up our sleeves and work together.
Do we have the communal will and energy to do it?
I am hoping that we do. Time is short.
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