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December 13, 2013  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

The best/worst of times

By Rabbi Michael Torop Temple Beth-El, St. Petersburg


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us...”

(‘A Tale of Two Cities’, Charles Dickens)

When Charles Dickens captured the mood of the era of the French Revolution with these famous words, he challenged the reader to reflect on life through the opposing viewpoints of optimism and pessimism, with a sense of abiding hope or crippling despair.

When the Pew Center for Research released “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” in October of this year, it created a ripple effect throughout the Jewish world. Depending on one’s perspective, the survey results suggest that it is either “the best of times” or “the worst of times.” It is easy to slip into despair over some of the survey’s findings and begin to sound to the bells that will toll over the impending demise of American Jewish life. Or, not...

While many may see a looming disaster for the Jewish future embedded in the survey’s results, we can see an incredible and unparalleled opportunity and the motivation to act boldly and courageously. The survey indicates an overall increase in Jewish population and the trend toward new and creative ways to define what it means to be Jewish and to chart a meaningful future for Jewish life in America. The percentage of Jews who identify themselves denominationally as Reform or Conservative represent more than half of the American Jewish population (53%), and the second largest cohort is those who are “Jewish” but have no denominational identification (30%).

We are entering a period of what some have termed “post-denominational” Judaism, where meaning and purpose are sought within a wide framework of non-traditional ways, encompassing an approach that gives ample weight to the value of Jewish life and the role that Judaism can play in our lives. While strict adherence to the traditional practices and observances of Judaism by non-liberal Jews is decreasing, the youngest generations of adult Jews (the millenials, born after 1980, and Gen X, born 1965-1980), who comprise that largest portion of these “Nones” (individuals who consider themselves Jewish but have no denominational affiliation), present an enormous opportunity for the existing institutions of Jewish life.

Studies have shown that many “Nones” believe in God, seek spirituality and even pray regularly, but do not relate to the world of organized religion. These younger Jews are searching for their own points of entry into Jewish life, which may or may not include religious practice. All of us, and younger Jews in particular, are searching for new and creative ways to feel connected. If one does not feel bound by the commands of Orthodox Judaism, then embracing Judaism becomes an act of choosing Jewish life and involvement. While helping this population of Jews to connect meaningfully and powerfully to create a stronger Jewish future is challenging and complicated, it is our future.

We need only look to the success over the past five years of such bold efforts as the PJ Library program that has touched more than 500 Jewish families in Pinellas County with children aged 8 and younger, and find ways to partner with this effort to reach the estimated 1,500 households that remain untouched.

We need only look at the tremendous investment that had been made by the Foundation for Jewish Camping that is opening up opportunities (through scholarships) for more families than ever to send their kids to Jewish summer camps, and find matching resources locally to send even more kids to camp.

We need only look at the tremendous success and the longitudinal studies that demonstrate the value of Israel experiences, including both movement-affiliated teen trips and the free opportunities of Birthright, and know that we must enable even more young Jews to experience the dynamic reality of Israel ... and provide meaningful ways for them to connect upon their return from such transformational experiences.

Jewish preschools need our commitment of time and dollars. Jewish education across the lifespan must be reinvigorated using models we have not yet begun to imagine.

Beyond the support of these efforts, we also must begin to reach out creatively beyond the walls of our existing institutions and engage with Jews in their homes, in public spaces, in interfaith coalitions, in the public arena of society in general, where our core values of justice and tikkun olam demand a level of activity that will both inspire and capture the hearts and minds of a newly defined Jewish community. It is time to tear down the fortress walls behind which we hide and create webs of connections that will define a vibrant Jewish future.

We do not know yet what the Jewish community will look like institutionally and programmatically five or 10 years from now. But we already know that it is only by creating relationships of meaning that will have an impact on the individual, the group, the Jewish community and the broader secular society in which we live, that we can and must begin. With a real commitment to innovation and new forms of collaboration, the 21st century can quickly become the “best of times” for Jewish life in America.

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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