by Sam Glaser
Business is great. The economy’s steady upturn has slowly trickled down to the bottom feeders of the socioeconomic ladder: non-profit organizations. With a bit more disposable income and the promise of more down the road, members of synagogues have been making good on unpaid dues and supporting special programming like Shabbatons, musicians and speakers. Boards of Directors and clergy have realized that they cannot rave about dynamic synagogue life if they have cut back all their programming. And singer/speakers like me who offer all-ages programs rich in enthusiastic Jewish celebration and deep soul content are suddenly in fashion again.
The problem now is that Jewish institutions, which have been gasping for breath for the past five years, perceive that the real issue is greater than mere membership retention. Those proud and few who have remained true to their shul in the lean years are the proverbial “choir” to whom the synagogues and JCC’s are marketing their refreshed calendars. The great challenge revealed in the Pew Research Center’s recent study is that most of our fellow Jews are not even exposed to the message. The real wake up call is that Jews on the fringe are an endangered species and the challenge of our generation is fight complacency and endeavor to bring them back.
According to the study, 1/3 of Jews age 33 and younger, the American Jewish future, are claiming that they are Jewish with no religion. They have a vague sense that they are part of an elite and afflicted ancient cult and have a predisposition to enjoy Seinfeld and deli-food. Thanks to thewidespread acceptance of Jews in the greater culture, most have a sense of Jewish pride. But the net result of that acceptance is that 4/5th’s of these “non-religious” Jews will marry out of the faith and all but eliminate the likelihood of raising the next generation with even basic Jewish values. Who will support Jewish non-profits in the future? Who will our teachers teach? Who will fill the pews of our mega-synagogues? No wonder this study has organized Judaism reeling.
I’d like to offer a few ideas for turning this ill-fated ship around. I believe I have an unusual perspective gained from twenty years of visiting Jewish communities in fifty cities every year. I interact with, teach and entertain Reform, Conservative and Orthodox audiences, work with preschools through elder-hostel programs, visit schools, shuls, temples, JCC’s and even the occasional church. The formula that seems to work best requires a combination of three factors that I think are ignored at our peril. I’ll sum them up in three simple words: Hineni, Halacha and Hillel.
In my office we can tell well in advance if my weekends are going to be successful. Some organizations hire me, pay a deposit and then we don’t hear from them until they request my travel information a few weeks before the show. The fact is that we help our clients to be self sufficient by making all the marketing materials available online. On the other hand, some venues bother us incessantly about how to “get out the vote.” Some daily. These are often the gigs that are exceptional. These organizations realize that they must strive to gain consensus, to establish committees for the sake of getting more people involved, to get the adults and kids in choirs on stage with me, to have my music playing “on hold” when people call in. They may honor a few dignitaries, include a raffle or Chinese auction and call on local businesses to advertise in the program. They send the congregation links to my videos, they send buses to the senior homes to bring in the elderly, they have the teens run the intermission concession and pass out the aforementioned programs. They have the community vote on which workshop I present during Shabbatons, arrange for multiple individuals to pick me up and feed me, give out honors in advance for opening the ark and being called to the Torah. The cantor might sing a duet with me, a brave teen instrumentalist gets to sit in on a particular song and then soloists and choirs all combine for a blockbuster finale.
In short, experienced leadership galvanizes the community by making requests, giving individuals the chance to answer Hineni, here I am. I have a theory that since the time of Abraham, Jews have been primed to wait in quiet desperation until they are called upon and they cannot help but answer in the affirmative. We respond to the call with a sense of honor and duty, glad that we were thought of, wanting to make a difference. Leaders can elicit Hineni responses when coordinating membership drives, planning artist-in-residence programs, banquets, even when recruiting enough folks for a minyan. The only prerequisite to releasing the inherent Jewish drive to take on a task, contribute funds or volunteer is a leader with the ability to pair individuals with a particular job and the guts to make the request. The request must begin with “I need YOU to do ___________ for the community,” in other words, the community member feels uniquely singled out for the job. Synagogues that elicit the Hineni response are typically busy beehives of activity, with all ages constantly coming and going, more like community centers than cold and corporate auditoria.
I recently co-officiated with a rabbi who had just taken his first full-time rabbinic position and was already beloved by his chosen congregation. He was a capable speaker, practiced what he preached in terms of living a Jewish life and also had a fine voice for leading the prayers. He had connected with the community in pastoral moments where he displayed his God-given gifts of compassion and insight. I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers, but I felt compelled to give him this Hineni theory before I departed. His community is aging and is endemic of the “running for the exits” tendency of the younger set. I believe that all those great sermons and moments of tenderness will be ineffective in stemming this tide unless he finds the inner resolve to get under people’s skin with chutzpah. I encouraged him to invent programming to empower the full range of congregants, to chase after ex-members, young familes and the unaffiliated with communal, even secular activities and not to spend an extra minute in his office when he can be meeting his constituents “where they live.” In short, to get past the fear of rejection and elicit Hineni from everyone he meets.
Another crucial component to our survival in my humble opinion can be summed up with the word Halacha, or the path. Just like planets have their orbit around the sun, so too do humans and more specifically, Jews. Our path is informed by the vast system of mitzvot that we have held sacred for millennia. No need to reinvent the wheel here. Part of the “Hineni” job of Jewish leadership is to reinforce that we all have an internal compass that is nurtured by the 613 commandments and clarify that they are not the 613 suggestions. Mitzvot are the skeleton that supports the body of Judaism. There is no continuity or survival without them. When an interviewer asks me where I’ve seen evidence of flourishing communities, I point out those synagogues where the leadership has laser-like focus on making mitzvot a priority, regardless of denomination. One case in point is Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC, a Reform congregation where I experienced a united, dedicated community like no other. I asked Rabbi Fred Guttman if he would reveal his secret. He replied, “it’s simple: I just get the congregation to take on mitzvot and build from there.”
Incorporating halacha into a leadership style is controversial. It requires that the leaders personally engage in halacha, to “walk the talk.” It requires that the education budget be allotted not only to the children but also on increasing the chance for true “informed” choice for the adults. It requires gentle, private tochacha, or rebuke, when any given individual is straying from the path. It requires nudging our young people to try on kashrut, to make Shabbat and holidays sacred, to marry within the tribe and be fruitful and multiply. I see posters around my neighborhood reminding me that parents are the “anti-drug,” in other words, that in spite of evidence to the contrary, our kids do care about what we think. I believe we continue to care about what our parents and other role models think until we’re six feet under. We can all look back on our lives and acknowledge the times that a mentor steered us on the right track. We Jews have a spiritual “right track” and it’s worthy of intensive research and aggressive marketing.
My last item, at least for this essay, is Hillel. And by that I mean the amazing collegiate institution that is the pride of Jewish America, and by extension, all Jewish programming for our endangered tribespeople under thirty. Hillels enhance Jewish life on campus for those lucky enough to have had a Jewish day school education and are the last chance for engagement for those that haven’t. I just returned from leading a Shabbaton at Lafayette College, a top 50 liberal arts school in the rolling hills of Easton, PA. A passionate, self-selected group of Jewish students celebrated Shabbat with me, a 27-hour period which included spirited davening, divrei Torah, great meals, my workshop “Jewish Perspective of the Afterlife” and after Havdalah, a rowdy concert where many of them got into the act. Perhaps the Hillel board chose the afterlife course since Halloween is coming up? According to the Hillel website, 94% say that being Jewish will “continue to be important” to them after graduation. Is there any question where our benefactors should be directing funds?
That said, I think what we are seeing is that “continue to be important” is not enough to give these young people the gift of Jewish grandchildren. Nor is the powerful Birthright program or the multitudes of great Jewish summer camps that dot our countryside. The programs with the efficacy that we require must open the door to a life of Jewish commitment, in other words, a life of mitzvot. Hillel Shabbatons, Camp Ramah and NFTY will succeed only to the degree that Jewish leadership pursues the aforementioned individual “Hineni” connections. And when these young people are called upon, the framework on which they base their Judaism must include not only adventure travel and falafel but also an opportunity to learn of the Jewish derech, or path. Yes, we have to “nudge” them. Or else I fear they will be lost in space, spineless, grasping for meaning in their lives that they will satisfy in arenas outside the Jewish weltanschauung.
Some argue that students that come to Hillel events are from different backgrounds and therefore must be catered to with kid gloves so as to not offend or demean those with less Jewish education or tradition. I must admit that I was saddened when the dear students with whom I was interacting over the weekend were stumped when I asked what Lech L’cha meant or what was Abraham’s noted character trait. They didn’t realize that Jews believed in reincarnation and had no idea of the meaning of Kaddish. I’d like to make a plea that our national Hillel rabbis and interns take it up a notch. As I’ve seen at every Hillel function that I’ve had the pleasure to lead, the students will rise to the occasion. They are hungry for Torah and leadership. They need role models that are living a Jewish life and doing so with class and a sense of fun. They want their programming to include not only talks on Jewish history, Israel and the holocaust but on the Jewish soul, text study and personal growth through mitzvot. They know that they are about to enter the abyss of the job market and the ills of society at large and need to be armed with our Jewish secrets for success. Like many Jewish events, food is the primary magnet to attract these “starving students.” But once they are there for the meal we must also feed their hunger for spiritual transformation, for our rich tradition of tools they can use to navigate the waters of life.
I agree that it’s pointless to cry about the Pew study without coming up with concrete action items. I will be working with my wife to raise a pool of matching funds for Hillel programming over 2014-15. We will be partnering with the non-profit Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity to enable Hillels to book programming that informs as well as entertains. Several campuses in each region will be involved in any given weekend with Thursday Night Live concerts, Shabbatons and Sunday workshops and teacher/staff/board training. Students can opt in to any or all of the events on the schedule with transportation provided. In tandem with this effort will be a subsidized distribution of Jewish music downloads from top Jewish artists, with a featured album available every month for free to university students. It is my hope that this small effort will help to create a groundswell of renewed enthusiasm for Jewish life and serve to better inform the choices of young Jewish people during their college experience and after they graduate.
The solutions above are a-denominational. Some may argue that Orthodox Jews are immune to the above issues. I can state from experience that they too are badly in need of an injection of renewal and joy and lose sleep over their kids’ connection to Yiddishkeit. Others might argue that mitzvot are outside the purview of Reform Jews or are “optional.” No! In fact “The (1999) Pittsburgh Principles asserts that each Reform Jew has the right, indeed the obligation, to enter into dialogue with the mitzvot…affirming a mitzvah, declaring one is not ready yet to accept it, or even rejecting it. But the dialogue must precede the decision, or it is not really a decision.” Conservative Judaism wins the prize in the Pew reports of Jewish organizational hemorrhage. I’m hopeful that the new breed of JTS/AJU graduates are eschewing the ivory tower-academic rabbinic model with which I grew up and instead can incorporate the wide-eyed sense of amazement and intoxication with God’s love that religious life requires. Many Conservative rabbis model halachic life but are unwilling to offer halachic education or tochacha to increasingly secular congregants for fear of appearing pushy or damaging relationships with the board. Clearly the clergy of all denominations must restructure their time; they can’t be too busy in board meetings, fundraising and preparing sermons or they will miss out on crucial Hineni moments. If the Pew study revealed anything it’s that all our movements are in need of healing and that any one’s success is a victory for the Jewish People. More than ever, we’re all in this together.
My friends, all denominations are struggling with retention. All of our organizations are striving to improve the Jewish experience that they offer. All are concerned about maximizing nachas: that profound Jewish joy button that is only pushed when our deepest soul clearly perceives that the Jewish mission is alive and well. When our leadership has the guts and the wisdom to create Hineni moments in our lives, we will rise up and say, “Here I am!” When we are encouraged to focus daily on the Jewish “path” and nurture every age group with Jewish literacy, Torah study and the importance of halacha, our out of kilter orbit will eventually stabilize. And with the devotion of resources to inspiring and directing our youth, we will create an atmosphere of love for heritage that will make the decision to raise a Jewish family a no-brainer. Let us spend our hard earned resources not on further Pew exposés of our demise but on the programs that have proven to have efficacy in stemming the tide of assimilation. I’m confident that with resolve and sagacity we’ll once again see Jews in the Pews.