Parshat Vayera 5774- October 19. 2013
What Does it Mean to be Jewish?
Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin
In the nineties, I was a student at Yeshiva University. No, I did not go to the rabbinical school there. That would be impossible. Rather, I obtained my Masters degree in Social Work at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work. Always the mutlitasker, I completed a Certificate in Jewish Communal Service during my time there as well. One of the required classes was entitled Organizational Structure of the American Jewish Community. But we all called that class Alphabet Soup. In a formal university class, I spent Tuesday and Thursday mornings learning about all of the different Jewish organizations and what they do. The ADL, the JDC, the AJC, the JTS, the UJA, etc. etc.
It was then that I first was exposed to CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Founded in 1974, Clal is a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center and it is deeply pluralistic. Their current landmark initiative is called Rabbis Without Borders. This program helps rabbis make Jewish thought and practice more available for improving people’s lives. I am honored to be a member of its fifth cohort. It really is a privilege, as more than 100 applicants competed for 21 spots this year. Our cohort met for the first time on Monday and Tuesday, in Manhattan. Most rabbis travelled by air and train to participate. I took the express bus into the city.
We will gather in Manhattan four times over this academic year, with sessions focusing on current trends in America today. The intersection between religion, politics, technology, identity and meaning making will all be explored in depth. My head was spinning with all of the information that came my way earlier this week. And for the most part, I am still processing the brilliance of Clal’s Rabbi Irwin Kula and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield and our guest speaker, Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, who is the Senior Religion Editor for the Huffington Post.
While the most recent Pew Research Center’s report on American Jewry was not supposed to be our focus, it was impossible for us not to discuss this deeply flawed report and its implications and ramifications. There is so much going on in this Pew Report, called a Portrait of American Jewry, which is easily accessible online. A number of us here took the time to look at a summary of it over the last two weeks during Seudah Shlishit.
One of its seemingly positive claims is that 94% of Jews are proud to be Jewish. What does that even mean? One wonders: Do you need a rabbi for Jewish pride? Did you need to come to shul this morning to be proud to be Jewish? Or could you have slept in and read the newspaper and still been proud to be Jewish?
As the rabbi of this shul, not only am I your religious decisor, your mara d’atra, but I am the lead teacher of this community. It is part of my job to impart to you the wisdom of our tradition. But those two main aspects of my job are not actually important to Jews, according to the Pew report. Halacha is far down the line of importance. According to the report, this is how the question what does it mean to be Jewish was answered.
Remembering Holocaust 73 %
Leading ethical/moral life 69 %
Working for justice/equality 56 %
Being intellectually curious 49 %
Caring about Israel 43 %
Having good sense of humor 42%
Being part of a Jewish Community 28%
Observing Jewish law 19%
Eating traditional Jewish Foods even less %
According to this sample of less than 4000 individuals, to be Jewish primarily means to remember the Holocaust and to lead an ethical and moral life—which may or may not be understood as doing mitzvot.
The survey respondents were not even offered a box to tick off like “go to synagogue on Shabbat and pray to God and learn the wisdom of our Torah.” …
One of the biggest takeaways from the two day conference with Rabbis without Borders came from Rabbi Hirshfield. He said something so simple. If a multiple choice question is asked, and you don’t fit perfectly into any of the options, then your reality cannot be captured.
So had the question what does it mean to be Jewish included a box for “going to shul on Shabbat,” what percentage would the respondents give for that?
Based on anecdotal and empirical data, I would suggest that it would be low. Why isn’t our entire membership in shul this morning? We just read the most important theological dilemma of the entire Torah. Why isn’t everyone here like they were for Rosh Hashanah? Why isn’t it standing room only today? I think the answer is because most Jews don’t know and probably don’t care about the wisdom found in the Torah. For many people’s Judaism, filling the empty seat next to you on Shabbat morning is not as important to them as it is for you. Yet 94 percent of American Jews are proud to be Jewish.
You might have known that today’s seventh aliyah was about the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. You might have known that since last week we read Lech Lecha, and then this week we read Vayera- which includes the Akedah. Or maybe you didn’t. But for most of you, whether you practiced it your entire life, or whether you are new to it: coming to shul on Shabbat is part of what it means to be Jewish. You are here because it is important for you to be here, to talk to God, to be engaged, or to be moved by Torah. We all have different reasons for being here today. But WE are here.
So in essence I am preaching to the choir. For every one of you that is here today, it is important on some level to come to shul. And if you are in shul on a Shabbat morning, then you are doing something so intrinsically Jewish, even if it does not fit in a box that you could tick off for the Pew Report.
Look at the closest empty seat to you. It is important to know that the empty seats are not an ICCJ problem or even a Jewish problem. Just this week, Steve McSwain published an article with the catchy title of Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore. We can so easily substitute synagogue for the word church.
He writes that according to the Hartford Institute of Religion Research, more than 40 percent of Americans “say” they go to church weekly. As it turns out, however, less than 20 percent are actually in church. In other words, more than 80 percent of Americans are finding more fulfilling things to do on weekends. And if we get a little sad when we read about synagogue mergers, he also alerts us to the fact that somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 churches close their doors every year.
Churches and synagogues are not dying. We are in transition. What is working for you and brought you here this morning is not working for millions of Jews. I see that as an opportunity for innovation. Irwin Kula taught me that a tradition is simply an innovation that works. We need to come up with new innovations that will become traditions; that will awaken the souls of those who are not here. I feel blessed that the officers of this synagogue provide me frequent opportunities to try new things—that either becomes a new tradition or fail. But we do try.
In his article, McSwain highlights seven changing trends that are impacting house of worship-going in America. He wrote church, but they all are relevant for synagogues too.
1. The demographic remapping of America.
This is our reality. The demographic makeup of this neighborhood is not the same as it was 40 years ago. People of Asian descent and Jews who prefer a mechitza constitute the majority of this neighborhood. ICCJ is not where they choose to worship. But our building is here. We can’t pick up and move so easily.
Because we follow Halacha, this is less relevant for us. But teens and kids would rather be texting than davening.
3. Leadership Crisis
If you open the Forward or JTA or the Jewish Week, you will read that rabbis are pedophiles, tax evaders, vigilantes and cheats. As for leaders of organizations, I have two words. Met Council. (I don’t get it)If I was not involved in Jewish organizations or synagogue life, this would not be the best time to start. It is hard to trust Jewish leaders these days.
People have more choices on Friday nights and Shabbat mornings than simply going to shul. And people don’t feel guilty for not davening with a community when they can be doing something else they deem important.
5. Religious Pluralism
Again, people have more choices today. We don’t live in the shtetl. Some people’s spiritual needs are being met by other expressions that they are exposed to. And there is also the opportunity to say I am Jewish but I don’t practice. And people don’t feel bad for saying that.
6. The “Contemporary” Worship Experience
Even for those that do come to shul, people want less. 9-12 on Shabbat morning is too long. 8:30-1 on Yom Tov is impossible. This, too, has contributed to the decline of the worship experience. People want something, some meaning-but it is not always what classic, traditional shuls are offering.
7. Phony Advertising
We say that we are a family, but yet, not everyone here thinks to welcome newcomers or people who enter the building once.
I don’t want to leave this on a negative note because it is not all negative. Whatever sociological trends are coming and going, we can ride them. Judaism is constantly evolving and people are constantly evolving. We are different that in Abraham’s time, Moshe’s time and our grandparents’ time.
What is important is that our Torah remains eternal and enduring. There is no limit to the amount of good that Torah can do. We just need to provide more opportunities for people to access it. And none of us can denigrate those who might choose to access Torah in a different way than we do.
When Rabbi Asher Lopatin was installed as president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, he explained that Torah must not be contained, we must take it out into the world. He shares: This week, we see how Avraham not only leaves his tent to welcome the strangers to join him for a meal, but he actually runs out to catch them before they disappear. Avraham’s running to the angels teaches us that we can’t just wait passively for people to come to our shuls, our Shabbat tables or our classes and schools; we have to run after them, actively welcome them, and share our tradition.As a Rabbis Without Borders fellow, I hope to gain the skills to do just that this year.