In October I joined with 28 members of my congregation in a “humanitarian mission” to the Cuban Jewish community (meaning, we took goods and cash as gifts to support the Jewish community there). There are about 1000+ Cuban Jews living today in Havana, Santiago and Guantanamo, and we visited 3 of the 4 synagogue communities on the island. We were deeply moved by these people. They hosted us for Shabbat in Santiago (41 Jews) and welcomed us in Guantanamo (75 Jews) for lunch with an Israeli folk dance performance by 7 of its young people.
There is no Rabbi or Jewish school on the island to teach adults about Judaism and Jewish practice. Cubans generally have no access to the Internet, and so one would think that assimilation would be the greatest threat to the continued existence of their Jewish community. Yet, despite much intermarriage (by some estimates only 25 individuals have two Jewish parents) their Jewish identity is strong and their longing for all things Jewish compelling.
In Santiago I was asked to name a 10 day-old baby girl. In Guantanamo, we were shown the pride and joy of that community, a brand new Torah scroll contributed a few years ago by the Canadian Jewish Congress. It had never been read, which brings me to the purpose in this blog.
A study was recently published called “American Jewish Secularism: Jewish Life Beyond the Synagogue” by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar in which the authors discuss our changing American Jewish identity. Though 40% of the American Jewish community (by some estimates) is affiliated with synagogues, and among them a portion do believe in God, study Torah regularly and do Jewish good works in the interest of tikun olam (repair of the world), most American Jews are not synagogue-affiliated, and an even greater number consider themselves atheist or agnostic, are unlearned in Judaism, and do not lead lives that are particularly Jewish, though they may very well self-identify as Jewish.
Many so-called “secular” Jews, instead of being involved in religious communities, are instead drawn as Jews to Jewish culture and politics such as Church-State issues, Israel, Yiddish and modern Hebrew study, Klezmer and Jewish music, Jewish photography and art exhibits, Israeli film, and Jewish book festivals. All this is well and good. Indeed, what the study indicates is that there is developing a rich secular Jewish culture in America that engages many.
My question is this: Just as the Cuban Jewish community relishes in the celebration of Jewish holidays, Israeli music, and Jewish communal life (with an obvious lack of exposure to American Jewish cultural opportunities), their knowledge base in Judaism is paper-thin.
Let me not be misunderstood. What the Cuban Jews have managed to create with no rabbis and no serious Jewish educational institutions is nothing less than heroic. But, I and my traveling companions worried about the survival of the Cuban Jewish community.
I also worry about the nature of the American Jewish community going forward. Will it survive, or will it morph into something unrecognizable by today’s standards?
I take the position that every door needs to be kept open, and new doors need to be opened, to welcome Jews and their families into Jewish communal life. I am well aware that not all these doors will necessarily lead people to an enriched Jewish faith, experience of God and the holy, or to greater Jewish learning. Yet those doors (be they children’s education, Purim Shpiels and carnivals, social justice work, trips to Israel and Jewish communities around the world, and Jewish cultural events), I would hope, will be stepping stones leading our people to deeper Jewish knowledge and engagement in the covenant of the Jewish people with God.
Many American secular Jews confess that that they do not need synagogues in order to be Jewish. That may be true, but for our community to maintain our Jewish identity and secure some measure of Jewish continuity, no other institution in Jewish life has ever been able to bring Jews together in all the dimensions of life as has the synagogue, except perhaps the State of Israel.
The synagogue has been the Diaspora’s laboratory of Jewish living for two millennia. It is where Jews experience the holy and engage in tikun olam.
What will the next generation of American Jews be like? Will our American Judaism look more like that of our Cuban Jewish brothers and sisters, or will we discover a more enriched Jewish identity and life?
The Talmud (Shabbat 127a) reminds us of the truth that Talmud Torah k’neged kulam (“The study of Torah is equal to all the commandments”).
To secure Jewish life, Jews have had to be learned and committed to the building of community. It is from this base that we have survived, and this alone.