How to Revive Jewish Life in the U.S.

U.S. Jews would do well this New Year to open their minds on Israel, and to start an inter-denominational dialogue between all Jewish streams to work out how to 'do' Jewish communal life better.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
Jewish Americans.
Jewish Americans.Credit: AP
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

The first rule for the New Year: Stop whining. Each year, as we prepare ourselves for the Days of Awe, American Jewish leaders do some communal stocktaking, almost always concluding with a groan of despair: We are assimilating and shrinking in population and in morale. All is lost.

Oh, please. American Jews are a dynamic and inventive bunch. Despite modest reductions in numbers, we are mostly thriving. The non-stop kvetchers succeed only in turning off younger members of our community and stifling the innovation that is already underway.

When crises arise, we respond. When change is needed, we adapt. That said, let me offer some thoughts to the American Jewish community on how we can move ahead and on the role that Israel can play in an American Jewish revival.

Let’s educate, educate, educate—in ways that work. We know what works with our kids: Jewish camps and day schools, Jewish pre-schools and youth groups, and of course Israel trips. Let’s focus on the basics and avoid the trendy. The “Hebrew Charter School movement,” which teaches Hebrew language but not Judaism to Jews and non-Jews in schools that get some public funding, is the latest example of pouring millions of Jewish charitable dollars into an educational gimmick that will have zero impact on the Jewish future.

Let’s move out of our cocoons and learn from Jewish approaches other than our own. The diversity and passionate pluralism of American Jewish life are usually a benefit but not always; the walls between religious groups are now higher than they have ever been. This Rosh Hashanah would be a good time for honesty and self-awareness: Reform Jews have much to learn from the Orthodox when it comes to ritual mitzvoth; without commitment to Shabbat observance, Torah study and prayer, Reform Judaism will wither. Orthodox Jews have much to learn from Reform when it comes to ethical mitzvoth; as Isaiah reminds us in the Yom Kippur haftarah, God has nothing but contempt for those who allow fasting and a surface religion of ritual alone to mask their indifference to oppression and tyranny. And Conservative and secular Jews have their own reckonings to complete.

Emulate the best of Chabad. I have my issues with Chabad. They sometimes poach the members and donors of other Jewish groups, and ironically, they are often proponents of minimalist Judaism. But they serve Jews that no one else serves; present Judaism with a welcoming and caring face; know how to focus on the essentials; and have recruited thousands of emissaries who carry their message to all corners of the world, working without the perks that are standard elsewhere. A good question for us this year: How can we do more of what they do right?

When it comes to Israel, let’s talk less and go more. Seminars on “Israel-Diaspora relations” must stop; each one is more deadly than the last. A good resolution for this Jewish year: Let’s stop blabbering and go for a visit, remembering that Israel is not only a cause, but also a place—a contentious, complex and often infuriating place, filled with boundless Jewish energy. I am tired of being told how to “sell Israel,” and I’m happy to let Israel sell herself. On how we will pay for a national campaign to get Jews, young and old, to Israel, see below.

Let’s rethink our Jewish world. Our Jewish structures are tired; let’s redo them. And let’s begin with some big ideas from Abraham Foxman of the ADL. Foxman has proposed that we redirect much of the communal purse now raised here for Israel and, in partnership with Israel, send the money back to America for Jewish education. Assume we are talking of $500 million per year; that money means little to Israel but would matter a lot here. Everyone would be a winner: Imagine a joint Israeli-American Jewish campaign to strengthen Diaspora Judaism. Imagine a dramatic rise in scholarships for Jewish camps, youth groups, and day schools. And imagine an intensive, national effort to encourage travel to Israel, with educational follow-up, for all American Jews. No, we would not offer free trips; Taglit-Birthright will do that for the young, but reasonable subsidies for adult members of the community could send the number of visitors soaring.

And finally, let’s open up the Jewish conversation in America. We claim that it is, but we know it usually isn’t. For the coming year, let’s be sure that Peter Beinart and Jeremy Ben-Ami are always welcome in our institutions; let’s hear from Dani Dayan and other settlement leaders, and from the Chief Rabbis and other religious leaders of Israel. And let’s encourage rabbis of all streams to invite a rabbi from a different religious movement to lecture at their congregation and share thoughts that they will not like and may not know. Our community will be stronger for it.

These, then, are my wishes for the coming year—along with the wish that we and all Israel may be inscribed before the Holy One in the book of life and blessing, peace and prosperity.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.



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