Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Book review: The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today

There are many research findings in Dr. The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today that are worth mentioning, but two stand out in my mind.  One is, if I remember correctly, the possibility that the Conservative Movement, in trying to maintain a "big tent," has issued halachic rulings (rulings on matters of Jewish religious law) that accept so many opposing viewpoints that individual rabbis are left to "pick their p'sak" (choose a ruling), as it were.  The other is that the Reform Movement may not have given sufficient consideration to the implications of accepting non-Jews as full members of synagogues.  How, exactly, is one supposed to deal with a Jewish house of worship of which probably a quarter, if not more, of the members aren't Jewish?  Wertheimer tells the true tale of a person showing up for a Hebrew School committee meeting on the day of the Roman Catholic observance known as Ash Wednesday with an ash cross on their forehead.  No one had the nerve to say anything.  Really, once you've accepted non-Jews as full members, what is there to say?

I was also quite taken by Dr. Wertheimer's finding that many contemporary Jews, like many contemporary Christians, simply don't find Gd in "sacred spaces" and/or sacred texts anymore--to put it in my own terms, it's all about "spirituality," rather than synagogues and/or siddurim (prayer books).  Also, two-earner families are trying to shoehorn Judaism into their busy schedules, rather than arranging their schedules to accommodate Jewish practices.  Heaven help you if your synagogue service is "too long," or if a holiday falls on a workday--many non-Orthodox folks will attend synagogue only when it's convenient, and will nonchalantly observe a holiday on the nearest weekend.  Then there was the rabbi who asked how a generation raised to delete and unfriend can be persuaded to "discover a spiritual practice that actually requires practice."

My parents gifted me and my siblings with enough of a Jewish education to be able to read Hebrew (with vowels) and to know about almost all of the Jewish holidays, not just the High Holidays, and they taught us that synagogue membership and attendance were very important.  Everything else, I learned as an adult, through my own efforts and with the help of many teachers.  My neighborhood is full of Jews who know nothing about either traditional prayer or the weekly Torah readings, and have little interest in learning.  How can any of them be persuaded to set foot in a synagogue  without being "bribed" by, for example, food, or even drink?  (There's a synagogue in Manhattan that offers a cocktail hour before services.)  If people won't come to synagogue either for prayer or for community, and a small synagogue such as ours doesn't have either the facilities or the funds to offer a nursery school, what other "bribe" can we offer?


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