The Power of Doing

Last week’s Pew Study continues to bring comments from around the Jewish world. Many will argue Judaism as a religion is in trouble. Some wonder whether we should describe ourselves as “cultural Jews” when most are basically saying they are Jews by birth or ancestry. There are those who believe the data points to the demise of the Jewish people. And, of course, there are those who dispute the results and attack the survey methodology.

As Rabbi Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem wrote, “Facts, unfortunately, rarely shape or change our opinions. We prefer to select the facts that mirror and justify that which we already hold…we all scramble to locate the facts that can serve our preexisting individual or institutional purposes and cherished ‘truths’.” Yes, many will look at the survey and say they are doing everything right. In fact, one article quoted major national Jewish philanthropists claiming “victory” because of their outreach to these “new Jewish communities.” At the same time, others commented that despite the enormous resources spent on outreach in the last 30 years little impact has been made to slow the rate of assimilation.

We can all make our own judgments about the survey, but one thing we cannot deny is that this data requires us to listen, learn and adapt.

As Rabbi Hartman further explains, “The question is whether Jewish institutions and denominations can adapt and continue to serve as important vehicles for deepening Jewish identity and connections.” I know the Conservative movement (as well as all Jewish groups) is taking this challenge head-on at this weekend's centennial conference (tiled the “Conversation of the Century”) in Baltimore (with several Portland representatives). The release of the study came just in time for their discussions.

So what has happened? Is it possible the Jewish community has been its own worst enemy? Are people rejecting religious Judaism and/or Jewish involvement because of less than inspiring/meaningful/engaging experiences during their lifetime at synagogues, JCCs, Federations, and other Jewish communal institutions? Are Jewish day schools and Jewish camps too expensive, thus limiting the number of participants? We wanted acceptance, and now with every door open to us have we found different ways to spend our time and resources outside the Jewish community? Or is American secularism and assimilation to blame? People are overwhelmingly proud to be Jewish (94%), yet are they involving themselves in Jewish life? That begs the following question not asked or answered by the survey -- “Why be Jewish?”

Today, many people want to experience their Judaism on their own terms, emphasizing personal meaning. Rabbi Charlie Savenor of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism recently wrote, “People yearn for personal meaning not membership, for community not committees, and for a sense of spiritual purpose not programs.” We must explore ways to make Judaism and being Jewish meaningful, relevant and fun. This encourages every Jew to create his/her own Jewish journey.

I recently received a copy of an article written in 1975 by Dr. Harold Himmelfarb from The Ohio State University titled, “Jewish Education for Naught: Educating the Culturally Deprived Jewish Child.” Dr. Himmelfarb's research demonstrated four factors that influenced Jewish identity in life:

  • One's family of orientation -- the family in which we are born and raised

  • One's family of procreation -- whom we marry

  • Education and life experiences such as Jewish camp and day school

  • Our friendships -- the people with whom we bond and experience life

Is this any different than today? One major change, however, is that community is no longer about who our neighbors are and who we sit next to at Jewish events. It is also about those who we follow on Twitter and who we “friend” on Facebook.

If there is one takeaway from the survey for me it is that we must expand our offerings of quality formal and informal Jewish experiences. At the same time, we must measure whether these experiences offer an intensive and immersive experience needed to give participants an understanding of the power and beauty of Jewish values and practices. Anything less will fail to give participants sufficient motivation to make the commitment of time, energy and money needed for an engaged Jewish life.

We have our work cut out for us. But, let’s remember that surveys can tell us only so much, and that people’s views and identities do not fit into neat, preconceived categories. Attitudes can change. And, many Jews, especially young people, see themselves as having many identities, not just one or two, and they tend to express their Jewishness through doing rather than joining.

We, too, need to do more doing! We spend far too much time talking about new members and new donors. What we really need to focus our attention on is the creation and authenticity of Jewish communal experiences, the strength of our relationships, and the opportunities for (Jewish) growth.

Shabbat shalom.


PS – The Jewish Federation is proud to share its Annual Report and Donor Honor Roll with the entire community. We encourage you to read it to better understand how your campaign contributions are making such an incredible impact on our Jewish community.

In addition, we apologize for the omission of one of our corporate sponsors, Tonkon Torp LLP, in the Honor Roll.


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