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From Generation to Generation – Rosh Hashanah

September 13, 2007

With the completion of this morning’s Torah Portion, the fabric of family, already frayed, has been completely severed. Abraham and Isaac would not see each other again until it was time to bury Sarah. The ancient rabbis, arguing causality, suggest that she died of a broken heart. Once again on this annual cycle of the Torah reading, we immerse ourselves in a Biblical narrative that emphasizes separation.

We cannot read this story without considering how and why we are tested. What personal and professional demands bend us to the breaking point? What masters demand our time beyond what we have to give? What choices do we make and at what cost to ourselves and those we love? What challenges do we rush to engage, and from whom and what do we run?

In many ways, the most compelling verse in the narrative reads, “Abraham named [the] site [on which he bound Isaac] Adonai-Yireh: “[on the mountain of] the Lord, there is vision.” What visions did Isaac see while he lay traumatized on the altar? What did Abraham see through his own tears? What do we see? What is our vision of the Jewish future in America?

One of the ‘listening posts’ in modern Jewish life is the National Jewish Population Study. It is designed to tell us what we need to know to plan for the Jewish future. Since the national census does not include a question about religion, the American Jewish community began conducting its own studies of the American Jewish population in 1970, 1990 and 2000. The much heralded 2000-2001 study placed more than 5 million phone calls to 1.3 million telephone numbers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Through random digit dialing, participants in the most recent survey qualified on the basis of Jewish religion, parentage, upbringing and self-identification. 4,500 of the Jewish respondents received as many as 8 phone calls seeking information about ethnic identification, cultural practices, religious beliefs, attitudes toward Israel, philanthropic giving, and Jewish education as well as demographic characteristics. The results of the most recent study characterized American Jews as follows: low fertility and decreasing house size; considerable population movement; substantial aging; high levels of intermarriage, and impressive levels of education.

One of the critiques of the study was that it failed to reach young adults and professionals, many of whom rely exclusively on mobile phones rather than land lines. The result is that a significant segment of the American Jewish population was never polled, and so the National Jewish Population Study lacks statistical data about the interests and ‘identity markers’ for young Jews and young Jewish professionals. To help better define the unknown and undercounted, the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University recently released a survey that pulled together data from nationally renowned research institutions – the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, the Pew Charitable Trust and the Ford Foundation – all of which compiled national studies of the American population that include religion among the background questions asked of respondents. The Steinhardt research team collected 31 studies conducted between 1998 and 2006 and combined them into a data base of more than 73,000 Americans, producing a different picture about the size and shape of the American Jewish population than ever before: namely, that the Jewish population in America is actually about 20% larger than previously estimated! The National Jewish Population Survey’s “core Jewish population” is said to be in a state of decline since 1990 and currently numbers approximately 5.2 million American Jews, but the Steinhardt study concludes that number to be in error and says that the comparable population figure is between 6 and 6.4 million. That’s the good news. However, while there is – or might be – a larger Jewish population overall, the number of people who are affiliated with Jewish organizations is unchanged. Another way of saying this is that while many more people are openly Jewish – choosing to identify themselves as Jews whether by birth or behavior {the latter are children of interfaith marriages who may not be halachically Jewish but who ‘live Jewishly’} – many of those self-identifying Jews are unconnected to the institutional structures of the Jewish world. The challenge, of course, is to explore ways to reach them.

The Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative – a composite of seven foundations and federations – had been working under the assumption that 30% of Jewish preschoolers attend Jewish early childhood programs, but according to the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, the figure may only be half that: closer to 15%-20%. So the mandate to enhance the quality of Jewish preschools as a way to engage unaffiliated families in Jewish life is all the more pressing. This is one of our primary goals here at Kol Ami, and our partnership with FELS holds great promise for our current families and those we are eager to welcome to our Nursery School and our synagogue.

But in some quarters, statistics are used to trumpet status. The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, established in 2002 by Israel’s Jewish Agency as a think tank for the future of the Jewish people, recently held a conference in Jerusalem. According to statistics presented at the conference, Israel is home to 5.4 million Jews, passing the United States with its estimated 5.3 million Jews, even though the Steinhardt Study concludes that American Jews may well number between 6 and 6.4 million. Either unaware of the ramping up of numbers suggested in the Steinhardt Study, or dismissive of it, Natan Sharansky, former Israeli Cabinet minister and renowned Soviet Jewish dissident, said, “In the Diaspora there has to be a greater recognition that Israel is now the center of the Jewish world.”

What does that mean? With all due respect to Natan Sharansky, I believe that while we need to be ‘Israel committed,’ we should not be ‘Israel centered.’ Israel heightens our Jewish sense of identity and pride, but pride is not a synonym for purpose. We cannot live off of borrowed identity! We do not need studies to tell us that the number of American Jews turning away from Judaism and the synagogue is far greater than those who are turning to it. We do not need statistics to tell us that far less than fifty percent belong to any Jewish institutions, secular or religious, or contribute to any Jewish cause or are committed to the practice of Jewish rituals.

When the late Egon Mayer {1944-2004}, an internationally renowned sociologist and author of studies about religion in the United States in general and Jewish identity in particular, analyzed the findings of the National Jewish Population Study, he found that in response to the question “What is your religion?”, 1.1 million Jews answered “None,” a number that increased by almost 40% from the previous survey ten years prior [1990: 813,000; 2000: 1.1 million]: 15%-20% of persons of Jewish parentage or upbringing reported that they have “no religion” or that they are atheist, agnostic, secular or humanist [source: ‘American Jewish Identity Survey – An Exploration in the Demography and Outlook of a People’ by Egon Mayer, Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar: 2002, p. 19]. These secular Jews are also our constituency along with those who identify themselves as Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist. The label ‘just Jewish’ to define those who do not see themselves as part of any of the religious branches of American Judaism is unhelpful: it lacks meaning and is often derogatory. Secular Jews define themselves in ways quite different from synagogue affiliation or membership in Jewish organizations. They are unaffiliated, skeptical and dissatisfied with prevailing religious ideas and institutions. They too are our sons and daughters, and if that is not a biological fact for those of us seated here, still they are mishpachah. They are Jews of modernity, the character of which is defined by American sociologist Peter Berger as the shift “from fate to choice.

They choose to have no sustained contact with the synagogue or with the alphabet-soup of letters that define American Jewish organizations: from the AJC to the ZOA. They are not indifferent to the world around them, and in many ways they are engaged in it, but their patterns of behavior and involvement are not consciously Jewish. They rarely think, “Where can I go to meet other Jews with whom to socialize and share similar interests?” The old ‘Peoplehood’ refrain does not resonate with them. Six weeks ago {July 29-31, 2007}, the Bronfman Foundation – a name familiar to many of us because of its hugely successful ‘Birthright Israel’ program – brought together an invitation-only group of Jewish leaders for two days during which they offered answers to the question, “Why be Jewish?” It was not designed to pare down a multitude of opinions into a definitive response, but to offer thoughts about long-term visions. Intentionally absent from programs and conversations were anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and Israel. The big questions that were posed and probed were “Why should I be Jewish?” and “How does Judaism affect my life?” Philosophers, writers, artists, rabbis, professors, philanthropists and communal professionals talked about points of connection and reasons for disconnection with the American Jewish community. Arthur Gross-Schaefer, professor of business law and ethics at Loyola Marymount University, said that the American Jewish community “needs a new master story” that can appeal to the younger, largely unaffiliated generation. He phrased it this way: “We can give them tools about how to have a beautiful Bar [or Bat] Mitzvah, but I think they want to be part of a greater story, something that gives them a reason to want to be part of this journey.”

Our challenge is to find common ground with those who are at the outer periphery: those who claim to find nothing meaningful within the synagogue and those who have converted out of our faith. How can we tap into their energy, creativity and critical thinking? If we are to offer them something that is value-laden, personally meaningful and applicable to their lives, we will first need to articulate our own responses to the question, “How does Judaism affect my life?” Our answers must be concrete. If we can share with them why being Jewish matters and how it might benefit both the individual and society, they might be open to finding in the Jewish community and in the synagogue an echo of their conscience and the spirit of their convictions.

This is why the presence of Hazon in our synagogue is so important and so instructive: a share-holder initiative that supports farmers in Lancaster, PA, whose produce arrives at our congregation every Thursday to be distributed to those who have quite literally ‘bought into’ the notion that caring for the land is something that is Tuv haAretz – good ‘for’ the land and good ‘to’ the land – and good for families in our synagogue and the local community whose diet is supplemented by organic food. Dayenu. Yet there is more to this than meets the eye. One of the most nostalgic Jewish memories from not-too-distant times is of different generations of the family gathering in the kitchen to cook, share recipes and talk about what was going on in their lives. In many ways, the kitchen was the command centre of the home: not only a place where meals were prepared but also where the joy of Jewish life was conveyed. Generations rubbed shoulders, shared stories, gave advice – some of it unwanted – spoke about their dreams, and stayed current with each other’s lives. Here, on late afternoon through early evening on Thursdays, when people from our synagogue and throughout our community pick up their produce, they linger to talk and laugh over fruit and vegetables. Every week, they catch up about what they and their children are doing; who is ill, who is recovering, who is traveling; they make plans to get together over dinner, or meet at a communal event, concert, ballgame or theatre. Our kitchen here at Kol Ami has become a communal gathering place. It is also a think-tank.

‘Go green’ is the next great synagogue initiative that is gaining traction on a national scale. For a country that moves with glacial speed to protect and nurture the environment, Hazon and The Shalom Center, Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Philadelphia-based model for constructive change, offer us ways to make a difference: treating the land with reverence and supporting those who relate to it in sacred ways; installing energy-efficient lights in our homes as well as places of work and worship; greater use of recyclable paper; an increased emphasis on carpooling to religious school and synagogue programs; a personal commitment that our next car will be energy efficient and environmentally friendly; and welcoming speakers to our congregation who will continue to raise our consciousness about the pressing needs of our planet. To the degree that the synagogue is involved in personal growth and communal well-being through a variety of activities – spiritual growth, continuing education, social justice programs and caring for the planet initiatives – is the degree to which people will be drawn to what we offer: a synthesis of mind, heart and soul.

Ours is a family both faithful and fractured. Our numbers may be increasing, but for a significant number of our People the historic touchstones of synagogue and kehillah – the quilt of many organizations that knits the Jewish community together – are not meaningful. Yet their stereotypes about the synagogue and their skepticism about religious ideas are all subject to change based on new experiences. We must identify what they might be in ways different from what we already offer. Synagogues need not become ashrams and services should not cease using Jewish vocabulary that informs and motivates spiritual journeys, but we need to offer alternative models that will engage ‘the best and brightest’ among us even if they are not within us. ‘Generation X,’ adept at asking “Why?,” is now raising families that are ‘opting out’ instead of ‘buying in.’ The challenge for the synagogue is not just how to engage and involve the children, youth and adults in our midst, it is also how to interest and attract those beyond our walls.

This is not affiliation for the sake of affiliation; it is involvement for the sake of the future. Every one who stands outside the synagogue is a net loss to our community. There is a synergy in synagogue life that would be enhanced by the involvement of those who can bring new critical thinking and vibrant ideas to our table. If we listen to those who stand at the periphery of Jewish involvement, we can create models that meet their needs and perhaps many of ours as well.

In reaching out, we also reach in: to redefine what matters, who matters and where we are going. You who are here today are our present and our future. Your ideas, time, energy and commitment are appreciated more than I can express. Together let us strive to welcome those who stand outside our tent to what we find to be precious within it.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin