Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The key to Jewish continuity: Prioritizing Judaism

See this (New York) Jewish Week article by Gary Rosenblatt concerning a new approach to Jewish practice by the Reform Movement.

"Cultural Judaism can be creative and exciting, but food, art, literature, music, film and theater alone — however rich in Jewish experience —cannot sustain a way of life that has been our history and heritage for many centuries.

“Other approaches to enhancing Jewish life have failed,” Rabbi Yoffie asserted, in explaining his renewed emphasis on Shabbat. Proclaiming “we need old ideas,” not new ones, he said: “We need less corporate planning and more text and tradition; less strategic thinking and more mitzvot; less demographic data and more Shabbat. Because we know, in our hearts, that in the absence of Shabbat, Judaism withers.”

An old friend of ours was raised a Secular Yiddishist, attending a Sholom Aleichem School as a child. By the time he was in mid-adulthood, he'd concluded, based on his observations of his own family, that a secular form of Judaism simply didn't seem to get passed from one generation to the next. So he and his wife sent their children to a Jewish day school.

In one of my earliest posts, "Little House on the Prairie," I complained about us being just about the only parents in our neighborhood who attended Shabbat and holiday morning services with our kid on a reasonably regular basis, and how it felt to have our son regard us as the neighborhood oddballs.

It gets worse, folks. The all-time winner was the Hebrew-School mother who was "too busy" either to come to synagogue or to join us at another Hebrew-School family's home for lunch on Rosh Hashanah. The nature of our Conservative congregation is not such that the women stay home to prepare lunch for the family, though many do leave early for that reason. And if food-prep had been the issue, surely being fed by someone else should have solved the problem. Under the circumstances, I think it's reasonable to assume that the woman in question was "too busy" to observe Rosh Hashanah.

In plain English, the problem with many of us in the non-Orthodox community is that we don't consider the practice of Judaism a top priority. It's more important for our kids to take violin lessons or go to Little League practice on Saturday morning than to go to synagogue. It's more important for a family to go to an out-of-town secular event almost every Sukkot than to join the community in the sukkah. As for Simchat Torah, when it falls on a weekday, the kids can't come to shul because they have school--heaven forbid that parents should take their kids out of school for a Jewish holiday; when it falls on a Sunday, well, somehow, the kids are rarely there then, either. (In the fifties, in my hometown in South Jersey , it would have been unthinkable for a Jewish kid to go to school on a Jewish holiday, lest other Jewish children lose the right to take Jewish holidays off. I don't know whether New Yorkers don't bother taking their kids out of school for Jewish holidays because they're not concerned with solidarity and/or whether parents today are just deathly afraid of their kids missing a day of school because the academic pressure is greater.) The parents aren't any better: Many won't take even a morning off from work to attend synagogue on the Shalosh R'galim/Pilgrimage Festivals, much less take off the entire day.

Yes, there are communities of highly-committed non-Orthodox Jews. We just don't happen to be living in one. :(

How will Reconstructionist, Reform, and Conservative Judaism fare in the future? Will they thrive or falter? Or will Orthodox Judaism--of one variety or another (though, personally, I'm pulling for Open Orthodoxy)--be the only form of Judaism left standing in about 150 years, simply because they're the only ones willing to make Judaism a top priority? Too bad we won't be around to find out.


Blogger Rivka said...

There are Jews who live Judaism, no matter what movement or denomination, who base G-d and Torah at their center, who are strong and courageous in their shul/community and the world because of their truths and beliefs and values.

There are Jews who say they live Judaism, no matter what movement or denomination, who put self-righteousness and image and success at their center, who are either not active in their shul/community or are active with a focus that their shul/community is the only right one.

I am hopeful that as the future unfolds, more and more Jews will see the first group and say, I want that for me and my family. No matter the movement.

Tue Dec 25, 04:00:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Rivka, I certainly hope you're right.

Tue Dec 25, 08:01:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Sheyna said...

Isn't that the way of history, though? We only can tell with hindsight who's "right" by seeing who's left?

I guess the question then is how do we ensure our values carry on so that they're part of what's left - without forcing those values on people who don't share them?

Wed Dec 26, 12:47:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"We only can tell with hindsight who's "right" by seeing who's left?" Is that your own line? Sure sounds like a writer's line to me. :)

Promoting values without forcing them on people is a major challenge. I wish I had a clue how to do that.

Wed Dec 26, 12:59:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Sheyna said...

I don't think it's mine, but I've been using it for a long time. I might have seen it on a bumper sticker somewhere - history determines who's right by seeing who's left, or something like that.

Although if it did come out of the vast emptiness of my brain, I'll certainly take credit. :-)

Promoting without forcing... I don't have the answer but I like the end of the first post "I want that for me." Kind of like what 12-step groups do - live a life that's based on values and others will value it.

I do know that I've been asked to speak up in early childhood parenting classes to describe what we do for Shabbat dinner. Among non-Jewish parents of young children, having a weekly special dinner together at home is apparently something foreign.

And yet research shows that a family dinner together at least once a week is one of the top means to prevent kids from getting involved in gangs and drugs.

Maybe if we share Shabbat a little more with the world - what we get out of it aside from following Torah - then a world wondering what to do about gangs and drugs and disconnect will want some of what we have. Maybe?

Exactly how to do that... well, that's why we both write. :-)

Wed Dec 26, 01:44:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Once upon a post, I said, "I think that the very idea that everyone should have a weekly day off is one of the greatest contributions to the betterment of the human race that Judaism has ever made." (Too lazy to post a link--do a search in my blog's search window [upper left] under "greatest contributions".) Methinks we're on the same page. There's something to be said for shutting off all the "screens"--TV, DVR, computer, DVD player, video games, Blackberry, iPhone, etc.--and actually talking to the people you're living with and/or other members of the Jewish community without a heads-free cell-phone "mushroom" over one ear.

Wed Dec 26, 06:12:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Alex in Miami said...

I hope Mr. Yoffie has some success with his efforts. This is certainly an improvement from his usual published rants where he has in the past few years: 1) condemned Chabad because it will help get a child ready for a Bar Mitzvah even if the family won't join a synagogue, attacked the President of Israel because English correspondence called him Rabbi Yoffie, but in Hebrew the President called him the equivalent of Sir instead of calling him Rav Yoffie, and generally bashed anyone that observed Orthodox Judaism in as mean spirited ways as possible.

That said, the problem is that his own movement has denigrated Judaism, and has pitched itself as Judaism of convenience. Their push for patrilineal descent, in addition to creating a Jewish identity crisis in the rest of the Jewish world, has also indicated that for Reform Jews, commitment is minor. Intermarriage isn't do be condemned in the Reform movement, but celebrated to increase numbers.

I truly hope that their Hebrew schools have gotten better than when I attended one, because all we got was a basic ability to read without understanding, and a decent amount of Orthodox bashing thrown in.

If he can convince his members that Judaism is AT ALL important, forget top priority like in the Orthodox world, how about ANY priority, that would be a step forward. It would also be nice if they would call off their war on observant Jews.

The Orthodox world is nasty to the Reform leaders that they consider heretics, so be nasty to the Orthodox leaders, but leave the people alone. You never see an Orthodox authority bash the followers in the Reform movement, they are assumed to not know better. However, the Reform movement, in addition to spreading what amounts to blood libel against religious Jews, often fights to make sure Jewish organizations hold events on Shabbat and keep the food non-Kosher to keep the observant Jews from attending, and that isn't right.

After reading his entire speech, I think that it's going to be a massive failure. You don't need committees to discuss Shabbat at each synagogue, you need a commitment to keep Shabbat as a "traditional" Jew (not saying Orthodox). Light candles, have a family dinner. Move the synagogue service BACK up in time so people can have dinner as a family afterwards (that is more important than catching a movie or a symphony).

Encourage people to turn off the cel phones and focus on their kids. Go to a park, the beach, whatever, but do it as a family. I'm not suggesting each Shomer Shabbat behavior, but why not a family day like traditional Jews in Israel. Encourage your members to discourage events from taking place on Shabbat, instead of trying to move Shabbat to accommodate soccer practice, school events, etc.

Sat Dec 29, 11:58:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Making Judaism "a religion of convenience" certainly discourages people from assigning Judaism a high priority. I hope that Rabbi Yoffie has some success in persuading the Reform camp to put more Judaism into their Jewishness. (It wouldn't hurt us Conservative Jews, either.)

And a bit more civility among the movements would be a good thing, too.

I do have one bone to pick with you, however. A family that refuses to support the local synagogue (on any fiscal level) and chooses to have a "drive-by Bar/Bat Mitzvah," one for which the child was tutored for 3-12 months by Chabad and/or a freelance rabbi, cantor, or other tutor, is a family with none of the commitment that you tout so highly. Our synagogue has already sold its big building and built a much smaller one. If, for lack of financial support, we have to sell *this* building, too, and move into a house, no doubt the local unaffiliated Jews will complain when we no longer have enough room to offer a free, open-door Yizkor service on Yom Kippur or hold communal Chanukah or Purim parties or seders. I have no use for crocodile tears. If you want a facility in which to enjoy Jewish life, you--yes, *you!*--have to pay for it. Otherwise, just let the few of us who are committed enough to pay the maintenance costs for a simple house of prayer davven/pray in peace, and don't complain.

Sun Dec 30, 03:51:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Alex in Miami said...

I do have one bone to pick with you, however. A family that refuses to support the local synagogue (on any fiscal level) and chooses to have a "drive-by Bar/Bat Mitzvah," one for which the child was tutored for 3-12 months by Chabad and/or a freelance rabbi, cantor, or other tutor, is a family with none of the commitment that you tout so highly

Correct, that family has zero commitment to Judaism. However, I respect that Chabad will put forth the effort, not for monetary reward, but simply to help a Jew fulfill a Mitzvah.

And guess what, in 5 years, when that boy is off at college, perhaps when he has a crisis in his life, maybe he checks out the Chabad House or talks to a Rabbi at Hillel. Maybe the dedication to Judaism by the Chabad Rabbi, despite his family's total lack of commitment, inspires the child later, when not in his parent's home, to embrace Judaism in some fashion.

I do NOT approve of the Reform movement's attempt to "hold up" families regarding a Bar Mitzvah. Since they are seen as the most liberal, unaffiliated families check them out when needing a Bar Mitzvah, and when they attempt to hold them up, who knows how many Jews don't think to check with the more traditional elements.

It's an emotional and financial blackmail of a family regarding an obligation upon their 13 year old son, and it isn't the boy's fault that his parents are uncommitted Jews. I don't approve of the hold up issue.

The Shul, as place to Daven and learn, needs to be open and welcoming. Whatever "extra features" the community wants, function halls catering, child care, etc., are fine for the community to put in the synagogue and charge their members accordingly. However, a Jew that wants to come and Daven should not be getting hit up for $1500 - $4000 in annual dues plus building funds. That pushes Jews away, and is wrong.

If you want all the services, have a "basic" and "premium" membership, the former entitles one to Daven during the year and Chagim, the latter all the "stuff" that the community wants. But for the young families starting out, really high dues push people away.

A young couple in their 20s should be encouraged to join a community and put down roots, even if they have nothing financial to contribute for the first 10 years.

I agree with you 100% about the free rider issue. I just think that using someone's obligation to perform a Mitzvah as an opportunity to hold them up is poor. If someone needs visiting in the hospital, you should visit them because you're a Jew and they are a Jew in need, you shouldn't check their account balance at the Shul. :)

I won't defend the unaffiliated families that realize they have a kid turning 13 and show up for something. Those Jews have abandoned their heritage and obligations. That said, their children are innocent victims in this and should not be used as ransom.

Mon Dec 31, 12:34:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"If you want all the services, have a "basic" and "premium" membership, the former entitles one to Daven during the year and Chagim, the latter all the "stuff" that the community wants." That sounds good in theory. But most of the people who don't "invest" in synagogues aren't interested in davvening/praying--those who are interested but broke ask for, and receive, reduced dues--they're interested mainly in the "stuff."

"I won't defend the unaffiliated families that realize they have a kid turning 13 and show up for something. Those Jews have abandoned their heritage and obligations. That said, their children are innocent victims in this and should not be used as ransom." And why the heck should we, who put our son into Hebrew School nice and early, have had to pull him out when he was 12 and hire a private tutor because some yo-yo(s) suddenly realized that *his/her/their* 12-year-old was due for a Bar Mitzvah celebration and couldn't even read the alef-bet yet? Why should our son have been slowed down by someone else doing a last-minute catch-up? And then the family had the nerve to complain that their precious boy was in a class with 10-year-olds and that the shul should provide private tutoring for him out of the shul's hide! Who do you think pays for people like this? The parents who do the right thing, that's who!

Mon Dec 31, 06:44:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Just because a 12-year-old girl automatically *becomes* a Bat Mitzvah and a 13-year-old boy automatically *becomes* a Bar Mitzvah doesn't mean that they're entitled to "have" a Bat or Bar Mitzvah. Let the kid have an aliyah and take his bleeping party elsewhere. I resent it when people use my synagogue as nothing more than a catering hall.

Mon Dec 31, 10:07:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Alex in Miami said...

Agreed. The liberal synagogues should NOT take 11/12 year olds into their Hebrew School program. Those families should need to arrange private tutoring to catch kids up.

I was livid that I had a Sunday School teacher that taught us to read Hebrew in 2nd/3rd grade, then when we go to 4th grade Hebrew school, we redid what we had done for two years because of the kids with no Jewish exposure until that year. Granted, that was a poorly run program, but the kids that show up at 11 holding the class are also unfair.

You can blame the families for that, you can blame the synagogue for taking them into the program without tutoring to catch up.

What you can NOT do is be mad that Chabad would take that family, spend all the time in the world to tutor the kid and catch him up, and help them have a Bar Mitzvah. The Aish Hatorah that I am affiliated with did that a few weeks ago. I resent R. Yoffie's belief that Reform synagogues are entitled to those families and that Orthodox outreach groups being willing to teach the kids is somehow poaching his people.

That's my issue. Helping that child is a mitzvah and should be recognized as such. Helping that child at the expense of your son or me as a child isn't a mitzvah, it's hurting one person to help another.

I'm saying, "Chabad is awesome because they will take that marginal family and make sure the kid has a Bar Mitzvah." I'm NOT saying everyone else should do what they do. Chabad is also awesome for showing up at the ends of the earth and providing Jews with the opportunity to do Jewish stuff. That doesn't mean everyone else should, it just means that Chabad is awesome because they do it.

Mon Dec 31, 07:19:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Helping that child may, indeed, be a mitzvah, but circumstances--namely, the fact that my synagogue is dying--force me to insist that every parent who bypasses the standard system and takes his/her child to Chabad or a private tutor is putting a nail in a synagogue's coffin. In my opinion, it's not possible to help a late-comer child without hurting a synagogue.

Mon Dec 31, 08:22:00 PM 2007  

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