During the past few weeks, the institutional Jewish world has been abuzz over the results of the Pew Research Center’s study of the state of Jewishness in America. Among the findings: 22% of American Jews claim to have no religious identity, and 58% will intermarry. Not surprisingly, many have interpreted these results with despair, lamenting the beginning of the demise of the liberal Jewish community.
(To see the results of the Pew study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans”, go to: http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/ and for some thoughtful commentary and debate on that study’s meaning,see: http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/atheologies/7344/pew_and_the_jews___so_what_/)
I am not among the pessimists. I believe the survey is an overdue wake up call. The progressive American Jewish community is not dying, but it is changing and its venerable institutions—especially synagogues, including our own—are lagging behind. As Bob Dylan put it fifty years ago, “The order is rapidly fadin’. . . for the times they are a-changin’.” (And for a great and pertinent update on Dylan’s classic song, see Rabbi Jeff Salkin’s version, “The Jews, We are a-Changin’”: http://www.frequency.com/video/jews-we-are-changing-by-rabbi-jeff/124294330/-/5-4897753)
Those who want secure a place in the emerging new order of American Jewish life will have to re-envision our mission and reconsider the way we do business.
But this is not new. The only constant in Jewish history is change. We have always risen to the occasion and found ways to renew Jewish life, and there is no reason to think that we will fail this time around. In fact, we find an excellent response to today’s challenges in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera. Abraham is sitting in the entrance to his tent on a sweltering desert day when he sees three strangers (who later prove to be angels in disguise) off in the distance. Significantly, he does not wait for them to approach; instead, he runs out to greet them. He embraces them, and invites them to partake of his and Sarah’s wonderful hospitality: “My lords, if it please you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves, then go on. . . .”
Abraham and Sarah are our role models, four thousand years later. Today’s young Jews who do not describe themselves as religious are not likely to seek out our CABI community. But that does not mean that they are lost to us. Like Abraham and Sarah, it is up to us to take the first step, to find them and reach out to them, where they are, both literally and metaphorically. Instead of offering them outdated answers, let us meet them in their places and learn, with and from them, what moves them to identify as Jews. Instead of beginning by handing them forms for dues and membership, which are an archaic model for this generation, let us offer them our hospitality and openness—and work with them to find new ways to speak to their souls, enrich their lives, support their work of tikkun olam and sustain our community.
May we be true children of Abraham and Sarah, using ancient wisdom to meet new challenges, welcoming our people wherever they are found and bringing them—and, in the process, ourselves—under the wings of the Divine Presence.