On the first day of Rosh Hashana, I opened up the New York Times to find a front page story about the changing traditions regarding Bar and Bat Mitzvah. My first reaction, before I even began to read the article, was a great sense of relief.
I had actually been considering giving a sermon for Rosh Hashana about Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Had I done so, I would have faced the nightmarish situation which all Rabbis have faced on occasion: the moment when the sermon we had worked on for so long suddenly becomes irrelevant or superfluous due to a development in the news or an article which suddenly appears unexpectedly in the press. I can only imagine the feeling of a Rabbi who had chosen to speak on the subject of Bar or Bat Mitzvah this Rosh Hashana and how he or she would have reacted had congregants approached afterwards with the news that much of what he or she had said, or didn’t say, had been in the paper that morning.
But, in a way, I faced that situation with the release of the Pew Research Study on Jewish Americans which we have been reading about for the last week. Everyone says the news is bad. The numbers of committed Jews is decreasing, intermarriage is rising, the category of “Jews of No Religion” is growing (which, as a Rabbi, I find deeply troubling) and movement affiliation is plummeting.
All of these are certainly cause for concern and even though there are some good signs in this report, for example: an increasing number of Jews finding issues of justice and equality to be Jewish concerns, most are saying the report should serve as a wake up call to do something to stem the tide.
But for me, there was an additional personal reaction to the Pew Report in that it seemed, at first glance, to contradict the entire basis of the sermon I had delivered on Yom Kippur before Yizkor.
I spoke that day about my belief that there has never been a better time to be a Jew than in the 21st century. I took issue with our penchant as Jews to believe that the past was always better than the present (As an illustration of this theory, I even quoted one of my favorite songwriters, Jim Steinman, who wrote in the great song Paradise by the Dashboard Light: “It was long ago and it was far away and it was so much better than it is today”. )
But, I argued, it is not true. If you think of our situation today with freedom in so many places in the world, including of course, here in this country to practice Judaism; if you think of the miracle of the State of Israel and all it means to us as a people; if you think of the growth of Judaic studies program and youth service programs and all kinds of Jewish expression throughout social media; if you think of synagogues experimenting with new ideas, dedicated to being more welcoming and inclusive, you can’t help but come to the conclusion that this is a great time to be a Jew.
So, how do I settle this contradiction?
Well, as they would say in the Talmud, it really isn’t a contradiction at all.
I was speaking about opportunity and I urged my congregants to take advantage of the opportunities that exist. The fact that many don’t is terribly disturbing but it doesn’t change the fact that the opportunity, the potential, is there for everyone and that can not be denied.
The Pew report may contain some alarming numbers but the truth is that the present and the future is exceedingly bright for American Jews. We just can’t be scared away by the idea that our best days are behind us. If the Pew report encourages non engaged Jews to do something to stem the tide the numbers might be suggesting, those who do desire to become more engaged will find a much greater variety of ways to do so than ever before.
I will admit that I would find some of those ways more positive than others. I do believe that Judaism should be first and foremost a religious faith and that the synagogue should be the center of Jewish life. I do believe that our homes should reflect a commitment to Jewish tradition. I do believe that “real communities” are preferable to “virtual communities”. I do believe that our love and support of Israel should include a passion for justice and equality within the State.
But, those are only my perspectives and priorities. Others will believe differently and the pluralism within the Jewish world today, the many varied paths to commitment only enriches us further.
If all of us who are concerned by the numbers we read would only open our eyes to what is available to us, we will fulfill the potential that our Jewish world provides.