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Crashing the Jewish Survival Idol

It was the best of Shavuot. It was the worst of Shavuot. Maybe a little bit of both in each place that I experienced the “Festival of Weeks” this year to mark, as our traditions tells, God’s giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Sinai. Wherever I went, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing: Jews of all ages together.

I spent Shavuot with young Jews, and with older Jews–but not at the same time, and that left me pondering once again how and why we Jews often abdicate our experience of our religious holidays to our children. I’ve made waves on the issue before, but I’m not alone in my thinking. Last Sukkot, Rabbi Peter Knobel (backstory) shared the bimah at Emanuel Congregation and asked rhetorically why the morning festival service he was co-leading was far emptier than the evening family service had been. He answered his own question: because time and again liberal Jews make our experience of Jewish holidays completely about our kids.

I agree. But why do we do it? What is that costing us? And what might happen if we did things differently? Hold those thoughts for just a moment.

Ever since Rabbi Rick Jacobs became the new president of the Union of Reform Judaism, the URJ has adopted an earnest Campaign for Youth Engagement. No secret within the Jewish community, study after study for the past few decades has pointed out that synagogue membership and participation by Jews under 40 is miniscule–and membership from Jews over 40 is in many areas declining. As our houses of worship and teaching and other Jewish institutions continue to combine and close, even in big cities, what to do? For the URJ–replenish the older-adult members who have walked away with young adult Jews.

Of course, there’s a problem with that. Why are the over-40 Jews walking away? And what’s to keep our newly engaged youth (if indeed we manage to engage them) from walking away, themselves, when they become too old for our earnest “engagement campaigns”? Hold onto that for a moment too.

So back to Shavuot. I originally intended to attend my shul’s evening festival service. Emanuel, like many other Reform congregations, celebrates the “Confirmation” of its oldest religious school students at this service. Last time I attended, it was a beautiful ritual–our exiting students standing on the bimah reciting in their own words what Judaism meant to them. (Just like I did when I converted.) But that’s where it ended. As for adult discussion or contemplation of the actual meaning of the holiday–receiving the commandments that guide our Jewish lives to holiness–not much was said.

That’s the standard way my Reform synagogue observes the many holidays that give life to the Jewish calendar (often including, as noted above, the weekly Shabbat). However, this isn’t meant to be a particular criticism–most liberal synagogues (and some Orthodox ones, too) make what to outsider eyes (or convert eyes, like mine) might seem like a fetish out of what Rabbi Knobel called that day on the bimah at Emanuel “the infantilization of our holidays.” Yes, we are a Jewish People including Jews of all ages. But somehow, for some reason, when it comes to observing, celebrating, or otherwise experiencing the religious holidays that are the heritage of all Jews, we concentrate almost completely on the experience of those holidays by our children.

And that removes a really important element that our Jewish children need to experience if we want to keep them as affiliated Jewish grown-ups: useful modeling of how to experience Jewish holidays in a meaningful way as adults. Keep that ball in the air for a moment, too.

As it turned out, this year I chose to go elsewhere on Erev (evening) Shavuot. Though I don’t attend very often, I enjoy very much the energetic, musically inspired nature of Chicago’s itinerant independent congregation, Mishkan. I decided to attend their tikkun (a traditional late-night study session in honor of Shavuot) instead. I never feel exactly at home at Mishkan but I’m always enriched by my time there–the community skews far younger than I am, and in fact was founded as an alternative for Chicago’s disaffected young Jews to have a Jewish spiritual home beyond a synagogue that might ask them to pay several thousand dollars a year to help pay salaries and keep the doors open.

The evening was crowded and inspired–and funded by mainline Jewish institutions and congregations. File that away, too–and I promise I’ll help you review all those files soon.

The following morning, I attended Temple Sholom‘s festival/Yizkor (remembrance) service (shared each year with my own congregation.) As is almost always the case with non-“family” festival services outside of the High Holy Days–and as was the case at the aforementioned Sukkot service led by Rabbi Knobel, which is why he made his observation in the first place–very few people were there in attendance. And I, at nearly 43 years of age, was obviously the youngest person in the room. Hold that, too, and I promise we’re almost there.

The biggest reason I wanted to attend Mishkan’s tikkun was Rabbi Benay Lappe, head of radical yeshiva SVARA and Talmud professor at Hebrew Seminary, to whom I owe the most gratitude for nudging me to submit my rabbinic school application there. (The application that got me in!) I wanted to hear her popular CRASH presentation. In it, she examines the nature of worldviews–religious and otherwise. That is, that they never last forever, and when they crash, how the pieces are picked up determines what parts of the old worldview will or won’t live on. Either you run back to your failed worldview and hide from reality, reject it completely and cut yourself off from your past, or explore ways to synthesize what’s new about your world with the pieces of your old worldview that still have relevance.

The implications of the talk for an audience like Mishkan were clear: don’t fear the decline of synagogue affiliation, it’s just what happens. Every time Judaism has crashed, it has shrunk in numbers, often greatly, and then recovered in an altered form. Communities like Mishkan might–or might not–be the Jewish model of the future. But what’s really causing the current crash? And are legacy institutions powerless to do anything about it? That’s the last thing to keep in mind before we come in for a landing, I promise.

Rabbi Lappe was joined by Rabbi Dan Libenson discussing his also popular ideas about disruptive innovation in Judaism. He explained how the change that survives and often replaces the current status quo almost always comes from beyond status-quo institutions. He laid this out explicitly: existing synagogues can’t reach out properly to Jews like those who fill Mishkan services because they have their hands full taking care of the needs of their existing members.

But…do they really? How does a year of Jewish holidays and Shabbat mornings concentrating almost exclusively on the experience of those Jewish holidays by children and remaining silent on the holistically simultaneous experience of those same holy Jewish moments by the adult Jews to whom they are related and with whom they share their congregational communities “take care of the needs” of existing members? How does it turn young-adult Jews into lifelong synagogue members? How does it keep older adults engaged at all on an adult level?

How does it, in fact, keep anyone from continuing to walk away?

In the words of Rabbi Lappe, CRASH.

So why do we infantilize our holidays? One word: fear. After three millennia of off-again, on-again tsouris, our people can be forgiven for fearing for our survival. But after so many pause-inducing population surveys trumpeting our approaching demise, have we made survival our only goal?

For a people dedicated to living joyously within Creation under the yoke of the mitzvot, funny thing about survival. It’s not really living at all. It’s merely the art of not dying. This is not the best we can do. This is not why God created is. If you think about it, how could it possibly be so?

Yet this art of not dying penetrates Jewish living so thoroughly, that it is as if we idolize it. Loving or marrying someone who isn’t Jewish? Making ourselves noticed by proselytizing Judaism? (From a convert’s eyes, not necessarily a bad thing–we all had to be invited in somehow.) Adopting innovative pay-by-conscience synagogue membership models (which are working in real life in several places already) rather than excluding Jews who don’t have deep enough pockets to pay to experience their own religion in a communal setting? Wasting a minute–or a second–of Jewish time with any heightened religious meaning on not making a pageant out of our young doing junior Jewish things? After surviving often in spite of ourselves for three millennia, do we really believe that these things will kills us off as a religious civilization?

Could it not be that acting on our fear for survival, we are actually bringing about the current Jewish crash ourselves? Could it not be that our fear of Klal Ysrael getting smaller is leading us to take actions that are actively making it smaller?

How does a synagogue survive financially or communally when older members disengage? Or when younger members, no matter how engaged we make them in their youth, walk away eventually anyway for lack of active mid-life religious role modeling–because we have sent them the astounding message through the infantilization of our holiday observances that the moment you’re allowed to read from the Torah on the bimah, it ceases being important for you to be on the bimah anymore

For that matter, how does a community of young-adult Jews survive without either the financial support of the same legacy Jewish institutions whose decline has turned off these Jews in the first place, or growing their own mid-life machers, which gets such communities dangerously close to the legacy synagogue model that they so clearly want no part of?

They don’t. Neither one. How could they? Our youth in either case have been trained very well that synagogues have nothing for them. But not because there’s nothing for them as youth. Because there’s nothing there for them as adults.

Except there is. Or there could be. But we never model it. We never crow about it. We never step away from keeping our Jewish children Jewish children long enough to show them how to be Jewish adults–in the building, in a pew holding a siddur, on the bimah holding the Torah, regularly in a synagogue at all.

Whenever I have raised this with other Jews, they immediately bristle. If we don’t spend so much time on the children, they say, they’ll never stick around as adults. I can take care of my Jewish needs on my own, anyway. I don’t need to spend time in synagogue for myself.

It’s pretty clear which of those messages our children have found most resonant for many years. It’s not the one where we shove them up on the bimah at all costs. It’s the one where we walk away as adults, so they do too. No one else is doing this to us. We are crashing Judaism ourselves.

And we’re doing a really good job of it, too. Our idol should not be survival. Our allegiance belongs to Deity. We show that allegiance through the way we live our lives. The best way to put on the brakes and stop crashing Judaism would be to start actually living those Jewish lives.

If legacy synagogues want to survive–and if communities like Mishkan have a chance at continuity–they have to find a way to be inclusive of the adult experience of Judaism. That is what our Jewish children need to see. That is how we are failing them, although we think we are doing the best we can.

It doesn’t matter where the programming is. It does matter that it not be strictly age segregated. If synagogues want Jewish youth to stick around, they need to make room for healthy, joyous, relevant adult modeling throughout the Hebrew year, on every day that we come together as Jews. If communities like Mishkan are to survive, they need to be reaching out to older adult Jews with the wherewithal to sustain the cost of leadership, materials, and events. Of course, our legacy and innovative institutions are both exploring such things. But out of fear or simple inertia, lots of us simply aren’t on board.

That’s a shame. We need to be in the same worship spaces and beit midrashim together, young, midlife, and old, so that we can learn and model for each other how important every stage of the Jewish lifecycle is. Most importantly, as KAMII’s now-outgoing Rabbi Batsheva Appel very astutely noted while visiting Emanuel on Shabbat a few months ago, so that together we can find again the emotional relevance of Judaism in our own lives, which is the only enduring thing that makes and keeps us Jews.

Our youth need us more than we realize. They need us to be active, engaged, Jews, and they need to see us choosing to be active, engaged Jews for our own sake, not for theirs. Then, and only then, will they choose to step back in the doors of our synagogues.

And if they do, they’ll be doing it for their own sakes. Not for ours.

Categories: COMMUNITY Emanuel Congregation Interfaith JEWISH HOLIDAYS JEWISH OBSERVANCE Reform Judaism

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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4 replies

  1. An interesting thing to note, and one which I expected when writing this post. Whenever I talk about this subject–liberal Jewish worship services, especially holiday services, that concentrate almost solely on our children–people rarely comment (or hit the “Like” button on Facebook) even though I can tell that many people are actually reading the piece.

    Through conversations with fellow congregants and other Jewish friends, I know that the reason for the social silence is not because the majority of readers disagree with me. Others have told me many times that they do agree with my (and, really, Rabbi Knobel’s) idea–but that they’re afraid to say so publicly because they fear a backlash from other Jews.

    That, right there, is the idolatry of survival, folks.

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