Chapter One: Jewish Community Past and Present
When I was a teenager, there was an essay by an anonymous author that we would discuss as part of our Jewish education on the theme of assimilation; maybe you remember this essay; it was called:
The Last Jew
My name? My name is not important.
Who am I? I am the last Jew. The year is 2124, the place is the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. I am in this museum, in a cage on exhibit. People pass my way, day in and out, staring, pointing, and even sometimes laughing. On the walls surrounding my exhibit are the remnants of a Jewish culture; a talit, a Torah, the books of the Talmud. Each day, as I sit here watching the people pass, I wonder to myself how six and a half million people who existed as Jews a little over a century ago could have possibly vanished. My father and grandfather used to talk with me about the Jewish communities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; about the large populations in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and world-wide organizations like United Synagogue, B’nai B’rith and so many others. I recall my father telling me how successful and prosperous the Jews in America were. And about a land called Israel. And yet, all this has vanished–all this has disappeared. I contemplate the reasons, I recall the events, and I search for an answer. I now believe that I know how the Jews in America and in the world disappeared. Small things at first, things that happened gradually. Jewish families stopped attending Shabbat services, the parents stopped sending their children to religious schools, Hebrew High School, day schools and Bar Mitzvah classes. The Shabbat candles were never lit. My grandfather told me that they were still good Jews–some of them spoke Yiddish, they attended Yom Kippur services, they held a Passover Seder each year. Some of them were Jewish by heart; others by tradition and others by stomach. However, the books tell me that in time, this too, ended. To attend a Kol Nidre service became a chore, not an honor–to hold a Seder became a task, not a joy. The rituals and observances of Judaism began to vanish, and this I believe was the first step. Intermarriage was in order. The Rabbi became a businessman, not a teacher. Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform were quarreling. I was reading of a Rabbi, Mordecai Rosenberg, who demanded that Jews fight for emancipation between the American community and the Jewish community, to put aside all differences. In time, the Jew did become equal. He attained material success, and he achieved sustained equality. The Jew was at the same level socially as any Christian. Hatred toward the Jew soon died off, and nowhere was there heard a shout of bigotry towards the Jew. And with this fight for equality, all differences were put aside, including religious differences. Jews stopped hanging mezuzot on their doors, as it merely proved them different. Jews when asked if they were Jewish, would either give a brisk “no” or no answer at all. They were Americans first. A non-religious Judaism was established in America. Why didn’t these people see that a non-religious Judaism couldn’t exist? Judaism obviously needs Jews, but also, Jews need Judaism. Without one, the other is dead. Why didn’t those people see it? Why did Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews fight?
And then, the final blow to the Jew came. It occurred about 50 years ago, and so I can recall it vividly. The Arab nations around the Jewish State of Israel grew restless and strong. As they have since the beginning of recorded history, the Arab nations wanted Israel destroyed. And they acted. With two nuclear pellets, three and a half million Israelis were obliterated, and the land that had once flowed with milk and honey was now charred beyond fertility. When the news of the incident flashed across the globe, the Jew in America turned his head, denied concern and replied, “Really, what could I have done?” Yet, little over 150 years ago, a man in World War II was supposed to have slaughtered six million Jews in Germany, and my father told me that people swore they would never forget. They promised that they would always support the Jews across the continents. They pledged their donations towards the development of Israel, and they vowed their allegiance for the progress of all
Jews. However, in time the allegiances were forgotten.Any responsibility of the American Jew to Israel was ignored. How forgetful a people can be! When the people lost their pride in themselves, their religion, and their Israel, they lost everything. As it was once said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” I am the last American Jew. In less than twenty years, I too, will die. And never again will another Jew set foot on this planet.
My G-d, my G-d, where did we forsake you?
A lot has happened in the past half century.
The assimilation that was once such a vital concern for Jews has morphed into a resurgence of Judaism in America. Israel has made peace with two of its most significant neighbors and the world has mostly stepped away from the possibility of a nuclear nightmare. Jewish ritual, especially home rituals are becoming more important and American Jews no longer really see Jews as an “Ever Dying People” (from the essay by Simon Rawidowicz ). In fact, it has become more and more likely that Judaism is going to be around for a long, long time.
But that does not mean that it will continue in exactly the form in which it has always existed. Just as the religion of Biblical Israel, the religion of sacrifices and a hereditary priesthood that is recorded in the Bible, gave way for historical reasons to Rabbinic Judaism, the religion of the Talmud; and just as Rabbinic Judaism made room for Halachic Judaism, born of the Mishna Torah and the Shulchan Aruch; so too we are living in a world where Judaism is going through a great change, one that reflects the changing demographics and vision of the Jewish People.
This does not mean that the Torah, Talmud and the great codes of Jewish Law will no longer govern Jewish life. Nor does it mean that we are ready to give up on Shabbat, Kashrut and Jewish morality. These continue to be, to the surprise of many, the core around which Judaism still is centered. But Judaism is changing. This time it is not persecution or exile that is driving the change. This time change is coming because the world has changed in some fundamental ways that have never really been seen before. Further, these changes are now happening at an unprecedented rate.
Unfortunately, the Jewish community, its organizations and institutions, have been slow to keep up and catch up with all the changes that are happening. The result of this failure to progress is that the familiar institutions of the Jewish community, organizations that once guided most aspects of Jewish life in America, are slowly losing their following and there are new institutions and (as we shall see) “non-institutions” that are beginning to take the place of all these organizations that have failed to change. Jewish Community Centers, Jewish Federation, B’nai Brith, are just some of the old school organizations that are struggling to find a role in a new Jewish world.
I am a Rabbi. My world is the synagogue. For over 2000 years, the synagogue has been the central institution of Judaism. It was Beit Sefer, Beit Tephilla and Beit Knesset; the school, the religious center and the meeting place for all that was Jewish. Over the last 50 years, however, synagogues in America have been in decline. Membership is falling, budgets are not able to be balanced and denominations, the backbone of synagogue life, are becoming meaningless. The role that synagogues play in American Jewish life is declining. The national synagogue offices are struggling to serve their member organizations and seminaries find themselves wondering what should and should not be included in the curriculum for training the clergy and staff (Cantors, Educators and Administrators) for the synagogue of the future. All of this is happening while more and more Jews are looking for a place to learn and pray in numbers we could never imagine. What is going on? What do Jews today, not just young Jews, but Jews of all ages, want from their faith and why can’t they find it at their local synagogue?
All over the United States, the clergy and lay leadership of synagogues are asking these questions. And yet, synagogues have been slow to change, slow to keep up and , from where I sit, they keep trying to do “more of the same”, figuring that eventually, American Jews will come to their senses and come back to their synagogue.
I recently attended a forum, sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA), moderated by the Chancellor of the Seminary, Dr. Arnold Eisen, that featured four Rabbis from the community. Two Rabbis were from large, wealthy and influential synagogues. The other two Rabbis were young and upcoming influences in the community. There was far more than just an age gap between the two groups. The elder Rabbis kept insisting that if Jews would just put their children into religious school and take that school seriously, then all would be fine with synagogues. The younger colleagues claimed that home rituals and home study would be the wave of the future and synagogues needed to get on board. As I listened to both groups explain their positions, I realized how much my own thinking had changed. I am friends with both of my colleagues who had started their careers just a few years before I was ordained. I once agreed with their position. After spending a year with younger colleagues I began to pay attention to their concerns and to a growing body of research that told me that the old way was gone and it was not going to come back. There is a new kind of Judaism that is growing right under our noses. I began to speak about it and to point out the issues to those who insisted that Judaism would not change.
I wrote in my synagogue bulletin in October of 2010: “A woman came up to me after Selichot services this year and said, ‘When I saw the new book for Selichot, I was upset that the traditional book would not be used. I was used to that book and didn’t want to change. But now that I have used the new book, I just wanted to tell you that I think it is wonderful.’ I thanked her for the compliment.
A colleague of mine took a class toward his doctorate and, just before Rosh Hashana, accidentally erased all his notes from his laptop computer. He needed to use those notes to write a paper for the class and in the waning minutes before the High Holy Days, he realized that the notes were gone and he would have to rely on his recordings of the class and the notes of others to finish his paper. He told the story to his congregation and then added, “What happened to my notes is in fact, what happens to each of us regarding life. We stand here on the cusp of a new year, 5771, and everything, every moment of year 5770 is gone, passed by, never to be experienced again. There is nothing we can do to bring those moments back. Oh, there are impressions and memories, just like I, of course, remember some of the points made in class. Like my lost notes, we cannot hold on to time.”
I am a pulpit rabbi at Temple Emeth in Florida, it is a traditional egalitarian synagogue. Not long ago there were great discussions about how they would make the transition to egalitarianism. It was a difficult decision because most of the members are retired and have come to Florida from congregations “up north”. It was hard for them to change from the traditions that they had been comfortable for their whole lives. To this day there are still members of Temple Emeth who believe that if we do everything like they used to do “up north”, then the synagogue will grow and become, again, as successful as their former congregation used to be. I don’t blame anyone for thinking this way; Jews in congregations all over this country are trying like crazy to re-create the way synagogues used to be. The problem is that Jews are not the way they used to be. The entire Jewish community is not the way it used to be. America has come a long way since 1950 and it is not the way it used to be either. Anyone who has run their own business knows, that you can’t live off what used to be. If you don’t innovate, update and/or supplement past successes, you begin to fall behind the competition. This does not mean we have to throw away all that came before, but we need to make it new, improved and better for new people to create their own memories around it.
Recently I attended a screening of the movie, 100 Voices, where Cantors visiting Poland admitted that the music of the liturgy that they were bringing back to Poland, no longer resonated with congregations today. The changes are real and important to lay leadership, clergy and common “Jews in the pews”. The changes cover almost every aspect of synagogue and organizational life, but they remain true to the core of what Judaism has stood for since the time of the Torah and the Rabbis who interpreted it. Just as the sages of antiquity tailored Judaism to the needs of Jews after the destruction of the Temple, we need to reinterpret Judaism to suit the needs of Jews in the face of extraordinary demographic and social change.
I have stopped being frightened and have started to be open to the new possibilities. I now preach and prod my colleagues, my national organization and lay leadership to pay attention and embrace the new expressions of faith that are now growing so quickly. But I have come to realize that there is too much information to put in one lecture, one sermon or one seminar. It is time to organize the entire process; to see what is changing, why it is changing and how synagogues can change to meet the challenges and opportunities that the future is presenting.
I want to be clear. There is nothing in this book that is original to me. I have built on the experiences of colleagues, professors and teachers who have been working on this for at least the past ten years and who have shown, without a doubt, the need for a different kind of synagogue for a new and different age. I thank these teachers for their work and hope I will do them honor through my writing. I will reference their work and the influence they have had on my thinking. With this book, I hope to make clear to Rabbis, synagogue professionals and lay leadership the direction we all need to take if we are to create a synagogue for the world in which we live rather than the world of the 1950’s.
One final point. This is not an indictment against Rabbis, Cantors, Synagogue Presidents, Synagogue Boards of Directors nor Ritual Committees. Nobody, as far as I can tell, has gone out of their way to undermine and destroy the structure of the Synagogue. In fact, everyone has worked very hard to preserve and promote all the synagogues represent in Judaism. The world has changed in ways that no one could predict. We are all working hard, doing our best to serve the Jewish Community. It is my hope that this book will help Synagogue lay leadership and Clergy rethink their response to the changing needs and perhaps find a path to the future that will not only insure a future for the Jewish Community in the United States, but will be a future that they too will want to live in. I hope I will bring hope and light to the issues and will have a positive impact on Jewish Life