Why be Jewish?

By Rabbi Eliyahu Stern, Edah

It seems that the American Jewish community will do just about anything to make future generations Jewish. Through their demographic studies, our community tracks the rise of Jewish assimilation and intermarriage and the rejection by many young Jews of their identity. To remedy this problem, the Jewish community tries numerous strategies: getting 20-year old hipsters to attend Jewish events, employing advertising gimmicks, giving free Shabbat lunch buffets, and disseminating Guide for the Intermarried handbooks. Many of these initiatives and programs have had great value. They have given rise to new Jewish identities and have forced Jewish elites to think outside the box. But they have still failed to address the real question facing every Jew under the age of 40. Why be Jewish in the first place?

The project of making Jews committed to their identity has been taken up by groups across the Jewish spectrum. Some try to convince people that being

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Jewish is cool. Others claim that neither a psychiatrist nor a social worker but Judaism and only Judaism will truly improve emotional health. Still others promote Judaism by telling young adults that through it they will meet their marriage partners. Unfortunately, such approaches miss the fact that people do not need Judaism to make them cool, emotionally healthy or sexually fulfilled; there are more effective ways of achieving those ends.

Advertising executives, media gurus, and Jewish entrepreneurs have carefully crafted these groups’ messages based on poll-driven strategies.

Now while such poll-driven Judaism may lure people to synagogue pews for a week or two, it often fails to provide compelling reasons for them to stay in those pews. Ultimately, telling Jews to come and be Jewish but not being prepared to offer them a good reason why is comparable to running estate-planning seminars for the childless elderly at minivan dealerships: they’ll come, but they won’t buy.

For many baby-boomers, the narratives of Zionism, Tradition and Change, andJudaism as a Civilization, as well as the synthesis of Torah Umadda (Judaism and Science/Secular), adequately explained why to be Jewish. These answers were not thought up overnight, however. They emerged from a Jewish universe that saw the production of great Jewish essayists, writers, and, most importantly, public thinkers as a communal priority. Did anyone at the recent General Assembly even address the lack of public intellectual leadership in the American Jewish community?

Sadly, long gone are the days when the Reform movement could boast of the all-encompassing ethical worldviews of Rabbis such as Jacob Petuchowski. Who today has filled the shoes of the Conservative movement’s Robert Gordis and Milton Steinberg? Where are the intellectual descendents of Orthodoxy’s Eliezer Berkowitz and Walter Wurzberger? And it does not begin to do justice to the memories of public intellectuals to ask what is being done to continue the legacies of Soloveitchik, Kaplan and Heschel.

Of course there were many flaws with that bygone era. Embarrassingly for all the above movements, not one woman is on this list. Yet, in American Jewry today the cultivation of intellectual public leaders of either gender is almost extinct. How many widely recognizable Jewish thinkers are there under the age of 50? Magazines and journals such as Judaism, Shema, The

Reconstructionist, and Tradition that provided a forum for many of the aforementioned thinkers, have been reduced to a shadow of what they were.

While some new embryonic web journals have appeared, none have received the type of support needed to produce a serious group of writers and a critical mass of readers. As some have noted, there is a serious brain drain affecting American Jewish life – a brain drain whose effects will only become more pronounced with the passage of time.

Rabbinic seminaries, think tanks, Jewish organizations and the broader philanthropic community must give greater priority to generating religious vision and bold new narratives. Some nascent projects such as Alan Brill’s Kavvanah fellowship and some more established national foundations like Michael Steinhardt’s Jewish Life Network are now trying to re-infuse vision and grand narrative into the Jewish conversation. These efforts should not only be applauded but should also be supported irrespective of their immediate impact.

A vision-oriented Judaism is a sacred endowment for the future of Jewry. In an age where initiatives are judged by their quick, statistically verifiable results, a long-term plan for a rebirth of great Jewish narratives explaining why to be Jewish can sound both slightly nebulous and daunting. But before we dismiss this pressing issue as but one of many pressing issues facing us, do the future of Judaism a favor and imagine a Judaism in which no one cared to answer the question “why be Jewish?” I cannot.

Rabbi Eliyahu Stern is a pursuing a Ph.D. in Judaic Studies at University of California, Berkley and is scholar-in-residence at Park East Synagogue in NYC. An Edah Resource.