Sunday, September 13, 2015

A Community at Risk

So here we are, once again, about to enter the so-called “Days of Awe.”  This is the period beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and ending with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in which Jews are supposed to be searching our souls for ways to become more ethical, compassionate, socially productive and reverent human beings.  During the so-called “High Holiday Services,” we pray in the first person plural.  But don’t kid yourself – many if not most of us take this time as an opportunity to reflect in the first person singular.   We often feel guilty about how we as individuals have behaved in the past year, and we always feel guilty about what we’ve been feeling in our hearts and thinking in our heads.   The Days of Awe is a time to ask for forgiveness (or to forgive ourselves, depending on your theology) and to commit ourselves to becoming better human beings during the upcoming year.

But this year is a bit different, at least for me.  As fascinated as I am by my own personal flaws and as interested as I am in improving as an individual, those topics don’t seem to mean much compared to what is happening right now to the Jewish people as a community.   It is, perhaps, an exaggeration to say that the people are in crisis, but there is no question that contemporary Judaism is reaching a dangerous fork in the road, or at least that can be said about contemporary non-Orthodox Judaism. 
The Orthodox community is thriving, both in Israel and in America.  You can take exception to its impact on the world, and especially its role in Israeli politics, but nobody can deny that its numbers are increasing.   If it were a species, the Orthodox would be categorized as “not at risk.”  The non-Orthodox, on the other hand, are probably best labeled as “threatened.”  You couldn’t exactly call them “endangered,” especially given that millions of non-Orthodox Jews live in Israel with a tremendous amount of ethnic/cultural pride, despite a relative lack of interest in religion.  But here in America, the warning signs are getting more and more pronounced.  

According to the 2013 Pew Research Poll, we’ve already reached the point where 58% of American Jews are marrying gentiles.  Among non-Orthodox Jews, however, the intermarriage rate is 71% … and growing.     If the past is any guide, the vast majority of their grandchildren will not identify with Judaism.   And these past demographic trends are likely to be furthered by the fact that more and more contemporary American non-Orthodox Jews (a) gain little sustenance from the Jewish faith, and (b) are becoming fed up with the state of Israel and its occupation of the Palestinians.  You can see the latter trend manifest itself in polls of Jewish reactions to the Iran peace deal.  Israel’s leader has made an impassioned plea that this deal existentially threatens the Jewish State, and indeed, most Israeli Jews are against it.  But American Jews tend to support the deal, and do so at a far greater rate than their gentile countrymen.  For the first time in ages, AIPAC, the most powerful pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, seems to have little sway.   It couldn’t even persuade half of the Jews in Congress to vote against the deal.   Increasingly, the Jewish State is finding its American allies in the ranks of gentile conservatives rather than the more liberal non-Orthodox Jewish population.

So what will sustain non-Orthodox Judaism in America?  Or will that community – my community – go the way of the dodo bird and the brontosaurus?    Those are the key questions that folks like me will be asking ourselves as we sit at shul this holiday season.   Hopefully, every rabbi in the country will address these questions, rather than ducking them with a sermon about something more trivial and safe.  There is nothing safe about addressing this topic, for this isn’t a topic where Jews can blame others.  It can only be addressed by honestly facing our inadequacies in the past, in the present, and in the likely future (unless we do something radical to shake things up).

That’s precisely the sort of exercise we’ve been engaging in for years, though as individuals rather than as a community.  We can no longer afford to be so self-centered.  There’s too much at stake in ignoring the realities. 

So, let’s get busy and figure this thing out.   Tawk amongst yourselves.   It’s time to stop thinking of non-Orthodox Judaism simply as a country club in which you are a member.  We don’t need “congregants” and “tribesmen,” we need muckrakers.  We need people who are willing to fight for the soul of non-Orthodox Judaism, including rabbis who are willing to risk their salaries to tell their congregants some very unpopular things.   

That’s all I have for now.  I look forward to the opportunity to pray for inspiration in a communal setting.  It’s still one of the most blessed of human activities.

As for you, my reader, whether you’re a Jew or an “Ally,” have a blessed Rosh Hashanah.  

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