Following Abram’s brave example

Rabbi Amy Feder


Last week, an article in the New York Times presented the findings of a recent survey of American Jews (see related story on Page One). The results, while complicated, were presented with a simple, dire proclamation: American Jews are losing their religion.  Most of those surveyed identified only as culturally Jewish, and of the younger population of millenials, nearly a third declared their religious association as “none.”

All of which, at first glance, is very distressing.  On the day the article was published, so many people emailed me or posted about it on Facebook that I stopped counting, and those who shared it were very distressed.  Each time I read it, I found myself wondering: Must we read this survey as yet another sign that the Jewish community is heading towards catastrophe, that our institutions as we know them are facing demise?  Or are we so busy scanning the horizon for disaster that we are missing the most tremendous and exciting new pathways into the Jewish future?  Are we so concerned with what we have lost that we are missing the opportunity to be a community of Abrahams?

In this week’s parasha, God challenges Abram to leave literally everything known to him to face an uncertain future.  The Torah gives us no clues as to what Abram’s life was like before God said “Lech Lecha”, but perhaps that’s because to focus on Abram’s past would be to miss the best part of the story.  Abram’s past may have been wonderful, it may have been terrible, but the Torah doesn’t dwell.  What matters is that Abram left, that he was courageous enough to believe there was a brighter future out there for himself, his family and the generations to come.  He did not look over his shoulder with regret at what he was leaving behind, but rather stepped bravely forward, with faith in God and in himself, towards whatever lies ahead.

We have the same choices.  We can lament the results of this survey and others like it, and truly, there are statements made in the study about the beliefs of American Jews that made me cringe.  But I was also struck by the fact that nearly all of those surveyed said they were proud to be Jewish.  Their Judaism was integral to their identities.  They were seeking paths of social justice, leading ethical lives, and recognized the Judaism embedded in their choices.  As the director of religious surveys for the Pew Research Center said, “The fact that many Jews tell us that religion is not particularly important to them doesn’t mean that being Jewish is not important to them.”  This statement is not a warning but a promise; this is our call to a new Jewish frontier. 


Our community has taken bold steps in the past few years and especially the past few months to face the challenges of the Jewish future in St. Louis and around the world.  We should be proud of our willingness to follow in Abram’s footsteps, to hear the call to change and have the courage to walk into the future with faith, with excitement, with courage.  Abram took the greatest risk of his life and became the father of the Jewish people.  May we take on the call of Lech Lecha in our own days, and perhaps one day we too will have been blessed with helping to build a great nation.