Is there enough Judaism to go around?

Dec 5, 2013 | Judaism

Assimilation: Fight it? Accept it?

We asked five contributors to answer the question above in response to this article. See Adam Moscoe’s response below.
See Jessi Pollock’s piece here.
See Joannie Tansky’s response here.
See Jackie Luffman’s response here.
See Rabbi Goldstein’s response here.


Is there enough Judaism to go around over these next eight days? Years? Decades?

As a staff member for a teen trip to Israel this past summer, I accumulated a treasure trove of pre-fab programming designed to be whipped out and implemented during a free evening or Shabbat. Many of these activities are valuable in that they engage youth in critical discussions on wrestling with Jewish identity – usually over Manischewitz wine or bagels and lox…or hookah (Jerusalem only).

But there’s one activity I cannot stand – it’s called “The Last Jew.” Youth – most of whom devote little time to evaluating the state of Jewish peoplehood – during business hours, let alone while on vacation – are asked to read a gloomy story told in the first person by a hypothetical man who finds himself to be the last Jew on Earth. What happened? “It was small things at first.” Jews stopped observing Shabbat, and the rituals of Judaism became chores rather than sources of joy and meaning. Community leaders encouraged Jews to remove religious symbols in order to fit in with secular egalitarian society.  The story ends with the line, “I am the last Jew. In less than 20 years I too will die and never again will another Jew set foot on this planet.” Worst of all, I hear some Jewish educators use this activity in Poland as part of debriefing a visit to the Nazi death camps.

I assume there are some Jewish community professionals who believe this sort of doomsday scenario offers the best way to kick-start a conversation among disengaged young adults on how to ensure the aforementioned scenario never happens. I, however, prefer a more optimistic approach. Similarly, I am less than pleased with the hyperbolic response to the recent Pew report, which indicates fewer Jewish Americans are living so-called religious Jewish lives. The report has prompted a whole lot of feuding, and young people are once again excluded from much of the intra-community discussion. Were young adults at the table, they (we) might demonstrate to our exhausted and exasperated community leaders that the outlook isn’t so bad after all.

Today there are more ways than ever to express one’s Judaism. Organizations – many of them profiled in the 2014 Slingshot Guide – are addressing barriers to meaningful Jewish engagement. In the process, they often shatter stereotypes about organized Jewish life. Look at Uri l’Tzedek, which engages the Orthodox community in (believe it or not) social justice, including ethical Kashrut and labour practises. Surely this sort of work carried benefits that extend beyond Orthodox participants. For me, Judaism became far more relevant and resonant once I discovered how, thanks to concepts like Tzedek and Tikkun Olam, I can express my Judaism through the (secular) volunteerism and human rights advocacy in which I was already engaged. There is nothing more transformative than when young adults discover that ancient Jewish values and teachings are consistent with their own solidifying sense of identity and purpose.

But not all Jews will get excited by the notion of linking their priorities and aspirations to very, very old concepts and lessons. In my own opinion, the historically less imaginative Federations are finding great success with micro-grant programs that encourage young professionals of all stripes to develop and implement – with a Federation grant – initiatives that engage wildly diverse segments of the Jewish community through fresh, peer-led methods inaccessible and previously unimaginable to Federation people.

Here in Ottawa, micro-grants have supported inclusive organizations like Limmud Ottawa and unique events like a recent ‘battle of the bands’ concert that served as a fundraiser for Jewish Family Services’ homeless outreach programs. The event – due to its unique format and venue – attracted individuals who rarely (or never) frequent Shabbat dinner tables. Will these attendees marry Jews and raise their children to have strong Jewish identities? No one knows. But it would be foolish and wrong to discount their demonstrated interest in Jewish communal life. Such engagement and involvement is part of a transformation. It’s not something that, even with state-of-the-art techniques, can be measured.

Of course, the real issue raised by the Pew report is whether the vast money and sweat poured into community-level initiatives (from Birthright Israel to camp) since the end of the Second World War are translating into the creation and maintenance of young families wherein children are raised Jewish and where the costs of belonging to the Jewish community are seen to be a reasonable investment in what is ultimately a more meaningful life. No one should see the Pew report findings as an answer to this question.

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