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The Real Crisis In American Judaism: Book Excerpt
It’s not assimilation, but rather the problem of meaning and engagement.
Special To The Jewish Week
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American Judaism is in crisis. But it isn’t the crisis that mainstream American Jewish leaders would have you believe. It is at once much better and much worse. 

The false crisis — declining Jewish continuity, caused by assimilation and an intermarriage rate of 52 percent — has become the rallying cry of institutional Judaism. But fundamentally, it is a red herring. The real crisis is one of meaning and engagement. For the first time in centuries, two Jews can marry each other and have Jewish children without any connection to Jewish heritage, wisdom or tradition.

Part of the problem is that there are very few places that offer Jews an opportunity to experience the power and mystery of Jewish tradition firsthand. Even people who are in-married by and large have little connection to Torah, Jewish practice and values. They are dependent on others to translate Judaism for them, and they trudge to High Holiday services to receive the requisite “Be good!” sermons, only to return to their lives unchallenged and unchanged. 

They have been sold a world in which Judaism is a bunch of platitudes, at best matching their existing modern liberal values (but adding nothing beyond what they already know), and at worst completely irrelevant to the struggles they experience day to day. Who can blame these Jews for disengaging from Judaism?

This is the legacy of American Judaism in the 21st century — a Judaism that has been undersold and watered down. It is a Judaism where those who know its beauty are often unable or unwilling to connect to the larger Jewish community, and those on the front lines of the welcome wagon to Judaism have little skill or facility with Jewish texts to elucidate the beauty to others. People want deep meaning and connection, but they move through life thinking of Judaism’s contribution to the world as “Seinfeld” and guilt. Many would be shocked to find out that Judaism has vigorous debates about the most central existential problems facing people today.

Without Substance,

Jewish Engagement Fades. 

The tragedy is that although there is a very weak supply side to the equation of Jewish meaning, there is very strong demand. Take young Jews returning from Birthright Israel. After a 10-day trip, they have been opened to the possibility that there is real substance in Judaism. But upon returning home, they have no clear educational option. They want to learn Hebrew, but there are not enough high-quality Hebrew classes. They are interested in basic Jewish knowledge, but are unable to connect to synagogues. The Jewish community does not have the teachers and the leaders who can step forward to meet this need. So what do Birthright alumni do? They get funded to have beer nights, ski trips and at best a Shabbat dinner (with no intellectual or traditional content necessary or encouraged). Because their enthusiasm for deeper Jewish engagement has no substantial outlet, it eventually fades away. This is just one example among many. There is simply no coordinated effort to educate the Jewish people in a way that empowers them.

It is time for us to start meeting the demand for meaning and substance. It is time to stop short-selling Judaism. What does that look like? The strategy is straightforward.

Invest in Empowerment Education. 

We do not have the luxury of assuming that Jews will feel engaged in the Jewish tradition just by experiencing a few inspiring programs. Jews must become self-directed translators of the Jewish tradition — for themselves and their peers. This means less focus on “experiences” and more focus on the building blocks of educational discovery. This is not about religious indoctrination. This is unlocking the power of Jewish heritage.

American culture supports so many forms of creativity and experimentation — but this rarely extends to Judaism. We believe that an education must include Shakespeare, Joyce and knowledge of the Civil War, yet not the Mishnah or Psalms. What would it take to promote a deep engagement with the building blocks of the Jewish tradition and to make this pursuit an acceptable pre- or post-college endeavor?

Educate Toward Meaning. 

Education cannot only be about grammar and technical skills. It must have an eye toward translation into meaning. But meaning is not just an affirmation of our existing values. Rather, it is the belief that these texts can both challenge us and bring us closer to the Divine will. Part of the difficulty of supporting Jewish empowerment is the legitimate fear many of us have of feeling ignorant. But this is not a way forward; it is a recipe for stasis. Those engaged in a life of study know that the consummate orientation to the Jewish tradition is one in which you will never know enough. This should not, however, prevent us from challenging ourselves and our peers to start down the road of learning how to learn.

Part of living in the 21st century is engaging with data firsthand —the unfiltered access to information that is the gift of the Internet. Judaism cannot survive without real engagement by hordes of Jews in the substance of the tradition itself.

Create the Pathways to Support Empowerment. 

So many Jews have been turned on to the tradition of Judaism but have no path to become empowered. The options are these: become an academic, a rabbi or Orthodox. Yet the infrastructure is in place — we have synagogues in every city and town that often stand empty during the nine-to-five work day. Imagine a world in which those synagogues were hothouses of learning for people who had time to invest in their Jewish heritage. Imagine if all our post-college students spent six months or a year immersing themselves in Jewish texts and traditions, gaining the skills to become Empowered Jews.

Train Better Rabbis,

But Don’t Rely on Them

to do Everything.  

The focus of rabbinical school training has often been on how we can attract more Jews to Judaism. But the secret is this: Jews are attracted to Judaism — the unadulterated, complex and nuanced, powerful Jewish tradition. We just don’t have enough teachers out there who can speak their language and transmit the beauty and intricacy of Jewish tradition to those hungry for some meaning in their lives. We have been working so hard to pull people back from complete repudiation of Judaism — or worse, apathy — that we don’t know how to meet the demand of those finally interested in the conversation and looking to own it themselves.

The answer has to lie in peer engagement — through hosted meals, through study classes and pairings, through grass-roots communities and learning circles. In this world of social networks and mobility, our only chance for real engagement involves an empowered, educated corps of peers who have not devoted their lives to becoming Jewish professionals, but who can live out a rich Jewish culture and heritage and connect others to that experience.

Focus on the Substance,

Not the Institution. 

If institutions are performing their mission well, and their mission is still relevant, they will thrive. If either of these is not the case, let’s not put them on life support. American Judaism is in need of revival now, and it behooves us to look to whatever energy is coming forward and encourage it without the constant check on how it will or won’t support an existing institution.

Accept That There is

No New “Big Idea.” 

The Jewish community is obsessed with the “next big idea.” But the crisis is not one of theory — the power of Judaism is clear to those truly engaged in its complex struggles and searchings for truth and divinity. Instead of focusing on new ideas, the Jewish community would be better served by connecting to the original “big ideas” of our heritage: Torah, avodah (rituals) and gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindess), for instance. To put it another way: there is no “new big idea.” There is just investment in the old, but in a serious, meaningful, and thoughtful way.

Recognize that a New Jewish World is Possible. 

The biggest challenge before us is one of imagination and vision. Do we really believe that Judaism has something to teach? Are we prepared to articulate why it is important to be Jewish? As we entered this new century, the independent minyanim gave us a glimpse of a world of Empowered Judaism. But the real legacy of the independent minyanim extends beyond these local communities. In fact, the independent minyanim are ultimately important because they make a bold claim: a different kind of community is possible, and we are capable of building that community. Our task now is to imagine a world in which every Jew has the potential to take hold of the gift of Jewish heritage. Imagining that world is the first step to building it. 



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04/08/2010 - 11:35
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I went to Israel on a program twenty years ago. Then I went to a traditional non-chassidic Yeshiva for a couple of years. I nor my family are strictly Orthodox today at all. What we are is literate in our Jewish TRADITION and PHILOSOPHY. There are so many excellent Jewish classics that have been translated into English that would just blow everyone away if the actually sat down and read them. Just like me they would say: Does Judiasm really believe in that !!! Read the classic: Nineteen Letters by Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch. This is a phenomenal explanation of our tradition. Then read the earth shattering introductory preface in the classic book "Horeb" by Rabbi Hirsch. It was written by the translator Rabbi Gruenfeld. Unbelievable. You will understand Judiasm like few -- even Orthodox Rabbis -- understand it today. Then read all the introductory books by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, especially those on Chassidus and Kabbalah. Then you will understand the inner meaning of Judiasm like a 90 year old Chassid in Jerusalem. The point is that Judiasm is MEANINGFUL. Very very meaningful. Then you can figure out how best to implement it in your family life. You don't need to rely on a Chabad or other Rabbi to get knowledgable upfront. After you get a solid background, then you can reach out and discover the Traditional Jewish World on equal basis. Then learning Talmud -- Mishna and Gemarah -- become easy and interesting, rather than a complicated undertaking. Trust me. I have the trial and error experiences. First step: Go to your local Jewish Book Store or Feldheim.com and start reading !!! Good luck !!!
***The options are these: become an academic, a rabbi or Orthodox.*** Thank you for taking the Orthodox out of the equation, but you should have changed the title of your book to reflect where the problem truly lies, in Liberal Judaism. We Orthodox don't have the issues you expound upon....perhaps you should consider that maybe, just maybe, we're getting it right. Come visit an Orthodox shul....go to your local Chabad house, there's one in virtually every community.....they are very welcoming and open to all Jews, regardless of their level of observance....find Judaism with meaning....it's right in front of your eyes. BTW....Love the new website! Shabbat Shalom, Robby Cicco
Excellent article! I have for some time now have "secretly" desired the opportunity to "immerse myself for 6 months to a year in Jewish texts and traditions" I cannot believe that someone else actually desire the same thing. I have hope again. Maybe it will happen in my life time. Blessed is the HaSHem who does hear our supplications. If one asks why "secretly" that is because I was afraid someone might judge me for being "strange" I perfer to be just called a Jew, a Jew without a "lable" Not orthodox, not Conservative, not Reform, just a Jew. Thank you Mr Kaufner for what you have written.
Guys, let's say the truth: living here is doomed to be a constant search for meaning. This is the only possible result of living without roots in the ground. America is not really OUR country. The only place where we can have OUR full identity is on - and in - OUR land, which is the land of Israel. The more we look for meaning here, the less are the chances that we find it. We find substitutes: community, synagogue, kosher, shabbot etc. but these all are not the real thing. This is the truth which unfortunately not enough people here are willing to admit. Wake up! The crisis is caused by the failure to find a real meaning for living here, since there isn't any such meaning. The real solution to our crisis is being an actual part of the Jewish homeland, and playing an actual role in the only Jewish project of the 20th century: the state of the Jews, Israel. Any other "thing" is not the real "thing", only a substitute.
I'm a little confused by the comment," So many Jews have been turned on to the tradition of Judaism but have no path to become empowered. The options are these: become an academic, a rabbi or Orthodox." What does it mean to be an empowered Jew? I think it means knowing and living by the Torah as best as ones ability allows him/her -- and for those of us with sufficient ability to be as true as we can to G-d and his Torah that probably puts us in the Orthodox camp. I was raised Reform, had lots of Conservative friends. I read an English translation of the Torah as a teen and wondered why, even though the Torah says several times to keep the Sabbath, I knew no Jew who kept it. I figured there must be loop hole that overides the Torah. Asked around, no loop hole, so I keep Shabbot, kosher... And consider myself an empowered Jew and Orthodox!

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