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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2018 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


November 15, 2013  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

Forward thinking may keep flame burning

by Rabbi David Weizman Congregation Beth Shalom, Clearwater

One hundred years ago, Solomon Schechter, the newly appointed chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, addressed candidates for ordination: “Gentlemen, in order to be a success in the American rabbinate, you must be able to talk baseball.”

He went on to say that it would be even better if they could actually play baseball. So, when I was a student at JTSA, we took Schechter’s words to the field in Riverside Park on Shabbat afternoons, weather permitting. Playing third base one day, I was chided by our first baseman for throwing to her on the bounce. When the game went on past the scheduled time for Mincha, we gathered under a tree and had our best davener lead us in prayer from memory. Schechter might have been proud to see that traditional Jews were adapting to the times.

On Oct. 13, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism held its centennial convocation, dubbed “The Conversation of the Century.” It was an opportunity to gauge how the movement has been adapting to the changing times. Coincidentally, the data from Pew Report on Jewish life in America had just been released. It cast the Conservative Movement as the most diminishing denomination of the major three; down to 18 percent of affiliated Jews in 2013 from 33percent only 10 years ago, and 43 percent 20 years ago when Conservative Judaism was the largest denomination in America. Although the Reform Movement has retained 55 percent of those affiliates raised in Reform households, the general trend is that the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are on the decline in America.

Meanwhile the number of Jews who are nonreligious, non-denominational, or declare themselves not Jewish is on the rise. This statistic is consistent with the trend in the general population whereby two thirds of the population define themselves as non-religious. However, the Jewish People are differentiated from the general population in the following way: Judaism is more than a religion. We are a nation with a homeland, a distinct history, a common language, and a sacred code of morality. Those Jews who say that they are non-religious may not affiliate with a synagogue because they associate that institution solely with prayer and ritual. However, they may identify as Jews in some other way such as a commitment to the state of Israel, their support of Jewish charities, or the perpetuation of Jewish family customs. These Jew are no less Jewish than those who affiliate with a synagogue and should not be cast in that light.

However, communal life is integral to Jewish continuity, and the synagogue still functions as the community center. Many of our synagogues in America already offer much more than worship. They are already social centers for Jewish life, providing education for all ages, and a place to celebrate life cycle events; we have art shows and musical concerts, craft fairs, film festivals, pre-schools, social action committees, and advocacy for Israel. This list is not exhaustive. But somehow, the non-religious Jews and the nonaffiliated do not see the synagogue in these broader terms. Why not? Is the value of Jewish community simply diminishing as we assimilate into the greater community? Are we therefore subject to the same trends of the greater society toward autonomy and self-determination, and the ability to reach all kinds of services through Internet access?

Long ago, the Israelites faced a similar challenge of differentiation. Thus the Torah put forth laws that would distinguish them as a reminder of their mission to serve the One God in harmonizing creation. For example, the Torah delineates a long list of forbidden foods, not because they are necessarily unhealthy, but to separate the Israelites from the other tribes, lest they commune with them and begin to worship their gods. In our day, The Pew Report makes us ask some of these question: Do we want to be a separate nation, or do the numbers answer that question already? If we do want to retain our Jewish identity, how do we do that? Have we been changing enough with the times or have we been adapting to the desires of the people at the expense of our tradition?

At the Centennial Convention, Dr. Erica Brown addressed these questions in part, by quoting, for one, the late Steve Jobs, Apple’s innovator. “Some people say, ‘give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”

So maybe those rising numbers of unaffiliated Jews don’t really know what is on the page of communal life, and maybe we are not making a place for them, a process which may begin outside of the walls of the synagogue. That work has already begun. Programs like PJ Library and Birthright have already met great success in reaching out. But it definitely takes an effort on both sides.

Ron Wolfson, in his book titled Relational Judaism, suggests that the success of Jewish institutions depends more on the personal connections within that group than on the services they actually provide. You can go to a great program at the synagogue but never return because you don’t know anybody there. Wolfson tells a story of a woman who gives up her membership to the synagogue after 20 years. She went to every program, every function. Why then, she was asked, why are you leaving? “After 20 years, I never met a single person” she replied.

Being friendly is nice, but it is not enough to be friendly. We have to make friends. Rabbi Akiva said that the mitzvah of loving your fellow Jew, Ahavat Yisrael, is a great principle of the Torah. Upon this the Baal Shem Tov taught that one must look to do a favor for another without making it conditional on spiritual achievement or circumstance. So we befriend our fellows with an open ear and without conditions. And then, perhaps they will find something that they never knew they needed or wanted, something that was not on the page. Our commitment to Judaism is not only shown in dedication and innovation, but also, and maybe most importantly, in personalization. Building relationships takes a bit of courage and a lot of effort, but the rewards are enduring. Let us be renewed in our mission, on this eve of Hanukah, to re-dedicate ourselves to keeping the flame burning within ourselves, to helping others to light their own fire, and let that light shine forth in the world.

Hag urim sameach

The Rabbinically Speaking column is provided as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis. Columns are assigned, on a rotating basis by the board.

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