Ask What Judaism Can Do for You

The growth of ‘indie’ Jewish communities has largely come from the fact that they do not focus on making people Jewish; instead, they offer people ways in which Jewish wisdom, practice and ritual can make their lives better.

The Kitchen in San Francisco holding a Hanukkah celebration, December 9, 2015.
JTA/Q Lam

For years, the biggest Jewish American institutions have obsessed over Jewish demographics, drawing on the tragic loss of life in the Holocaust to encourage more Jews to identify as Jewish and affiliate with Jewish communities. Unfortunately, this focus on demographics fails to effectively engage young Americans.

This isn’t surprising. Young American Jews are not interested in shaping their lives in response to the Holocaust. They live in a society where Judaism is evaluated with the same scrutiny as any other lifestyle choice; and an attractive lifestyle must promise something more than simply perpetuating itself. No matter how glitzy and well-funded Jewish programming is, it will fail to attract people as long as it frames its guiding principle around – to borrow a famous quotation from U.S. President John F. Kennedy – the narrative: Ask not what Judaism can do for you; ask what you can do for Judaism.

There are promising signs that things are beginning to change. Last month, a partnership of innovative, young, and very fast-growing Jewish communities, The Jewish Emergent Network, announced that it is expanding its reach even further by launching a rabbinic fellowship program. It is no coincidence that demographics do not drive the missions of these communities. Instead, they have put the needs of people at the center. They thoughtfully rework President Kennedy’s maxim by asking not only what you can do for Judaism, but also what Judaism can do for you.

Answering that second question requires a very different orientation than one focused only on Jewish demographics. In the words of Amichai Lau-Lavie the spiritual leader of Lab/Shul, a community in the Jewish Emergent Network: “I’m practicing Judaism because... I think it’s got a deeply profound, ancient and relevant toolbox for a good life, but the end goal is a good life, not to be Jewish. To be human. To be there for myself and others. And that’s a totally different proposition.”

That proposition has pushed these communities to be more flexible than others in considering how Jewish ritual, wisdom, and practice can be applied most meaningfully today. They introduce non-liturgical models of spiritual practice like meditation; they meld the old with the new by creating rituals like virtual mourner's kaddish; and they help people personalize how they observe different components of Jewish tradition with programs like “DIY Judaism.” 

The Network’s focus on looking to Judaism as a resource for living a richer life is part of a larger trend within the Jewish community – one that asks what Judaism offers that is meaningful on a human level, and not just a Jewish one. This shift has also occurred within organizations like Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, which recently launched a project to explore the psychological functions of Jewish ritual and practice (full disclosure: I work on that project); yeshivas like Svara, whose aim is nothing short of “restor[ing] Judaism to its radical roots so that it might once again be a voice of courageous moral conscience in the world and reflect the truest possible vision of what it means to be human;” and the many other communities and individuals outside of the formal Network that share this vision.

Although largely ignored in recent Jewish history, this people-centric approach has always been a core principle of Judaism. In its summation of the rest of the Five Books, the Torah (Deuteronomy 10:12-13asks: "So now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you?” In other words, what is this whole Jewish thing about?

The Torah’s answer is simple: “[T]o keep the commandments... for your own well-being." This stuff is supposed to make your life better. If that’s not your focus, you’re missing the point.

Hopefully, the important work being done by the communities in the Jewish Emergent Network, Clal, Svara and others engaged with these questions can realign the conventional wisdom about the goal of Judaism with the Torah’s core message about living a good life.

Ayalon Eliach is a lawyer and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He holds a BA in Religious Studies from Yale University and a JD from Harvard Law School. He is passionate about using religion as a source of connection rather than separation in the world. He tweets at @ayaloneliach.