My phone buzzed. Uh oh.
I was just a few seconds from landing in Houston, after returning from a friend’s daughter’s wedding in Nashville. But that few seconds — okay, maybe it was a few minutes — was just enough time for my flight attendant, the same nice lady who brought me peanuts and diet coke, to morph into my eighth grade gym coach, the one who made me run laps almost every day because I never paid attention to his instructions either.
Surprised? No, not as surprised as I was a few days before. That was when, on Wedding Day( -1), I learned that the groom wanted me to read the Hebrew version of The Seven Blessings — at his church ceremony.
At least the flight attendant’s admonishment was to be expected: FAA’s rules trump Jeff’s rules, especially as we cruise below 10,000 feet. But the idea of reading a Hebrew wedding blessing, as 250 churchgoers davened to Jesus, seemed slightly strange.
Or maybe not.
The groom was an ordained minister, loved the Jewish people, loved Israel, loved the blessing, and likely knew, after my recent run-ins with the Chinese and Chilean authorities, that I was pretty much guaranteed to soon have something else to atone for. This was, in a way, my karmic get out of jail (or free from the FAA) card.
What he didn’t know was that I could not reliably read a phonetic spelling of Hebrew. I needed the real thing. How else could I know whether the ”ch” should be pronounced like the “ch” in “choose” or the secret Hebrew ”h” that requires more throat effort?
But I didn’t panic.
Combining a quick Google search with the confidence that my youthful twice-weekly sojourns to temple had finally led me to a point where I could proudly qualify as the most learned Hebrew scholar in attendance — okay, being the only Hebrew reader in attendance may have helped a bit — got me the right ”ch’s”, “h’s”, and vowel sounds to send the bride and groom to their promised land. (It also helped that no one else could possibly have known whether I read The Sheva Brachot or my wife’s grocery list.)
But back to the phone buzzing….
It was a friend from an Israeli organization emailing me an advance summary of his organization’s poll results. (Side note: I endorse the email buzz. I don’t endorse audible sounds for texting, tweeting, snapchating, hanging out, dithering, dathering, or for any other form of social media communication that I am, in technology years, at least a century behind in understanding. Friending email allows me to, more often than not, engage in the lost art of thinking.)
The poll results that stirred by synapses?
Almost 60 percent of Jewish-Israelis surveyed said they wanted Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians. Great. Yet, almost 60 percent also said they didn’t believe peace was possible. Not so great. Did that mean that those 60 percent favored another half century or so of schmoozing for schmoozing’s sake?
Then we had the Arab-Israeli view: Almost 80 percent of Arab-Israelis surveyed said they believed that Israel treated them as second class citizens. Yet, almost 80 percent also said they wanted to remain in Israel, even if a Palestinian state was created. Was this battered Palestinian syndrome?
Maybe there are slightly more understandable answers. Jewish-Israelis are hopeful realists. Several generations have known only their current reality and find it hard to believe there could be another one. On the other hand, Arab-Israelis have a current reality they abhor, but they are also realists. Why should they be expected to pledge their allegiance to a country that has yet to be formed; a country that, at least initially, is unlikely to fully control its own internal or external security or borders, and will have an economy almost entirely dependent on its former overlord?
If those poll results weren’t enough to get my thought juices fully flowing, the Pew Research Center Study on American Jews was. That study magically appeared in my ”In Box” inside of a large envelope. (For those under 30, an “In Box” is that thing on a desk that older people still sometimes use to put their letters and other papers in. A letter is what goes in an envelope. An envelope is what is stamped and mailed. This is how people used to communicate before people stopped writing in complete sentences.)
The Pew Study basically can be summarized as follows: Be scared,very scared. Judaism is in trouble. Jews can’t even decide if we are a religion, a people, or both. Younger Jews are far less committed to their fellow Jews (which would include Jewish institutions) and Israel. Religiosity — whether young or old — is a great predictor of commitment. However, highest commitment goes to the ultra layer of the Orthodox wing, which is, unfortunately, the wing that the vast majority of Jews relate to the least in terms of their own social and political beliefs. (It’s as if Jews are slowly undergoing their own Tea party/Republican party schism, with similar insalubrious effects.)
What to do?
The solutions are not simple. The solutions are also not what so many well-meaning Jews and mainstream Jewish organizations tend to ritualistically advocate.
Let’s briefly examine a few of those:
Make it less expensive for Jews to go to Jewish schools, Jewish camps, and Israel. Why not? Free or low cost invites. High cost repels. But unless we focus more programming on the 62 percent of Jews who believe that Judaism is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture and less programming on the 19 percent who believe that Judaism is essentially a matter of observing Jewish law or the 15 percent who believe Judaism is mainly a matter of religion, it will be a lower return investment.
Position synagogues as a stronger center of the Jewish universe. Much easier said. Much less easy done. Do we weed out the weaker synagogies so we can invest in building super-synagogues — the rough equivalents of a Lakewood or First Baptist? Do we let young families join for free? Do we take Jewish Federation money from Jewish Community Center Column A and move it to Temple Column B? What will the synagogues do to merit more money and community commitment? Jews, as is the rest of the country’s population, are becoming less religious. Shouldn’t we first talk about investing in a product redesign before we seek to gain more commitment by investing in what has become a less popular product? Shouldn’t one part of that product redesign include eliminating the Halachic barriers to entry that now exist when synagogue policies don’t allow for rabbis to religiously marry the now majority of Jews who choose to intermarry? Shouldn’t we insist on policies that tend to retain those who are already inside the door and are more welcoming to those who aren’t?
Do we really want to continue to sell our largely unreformulated Jewish product through the same exclusive distribution methods so that our less than two percent market share shrinks further, eventually leaving Orthodox Jews as the primary if not exclusive customers? Or do we insist on changes that better connect to the world where the other 90 percent of Jews reside?
Unfortunately, this isn’t Field of Dreams: Just because we build it or finance it doesn’t mean more Jews will come. We can certainly finance more trips to Israel, build and fund more Jewish schools and Jewish camps, and modernize synagogue services. But without focusing on significant product reformulation, our flock will continue to fly away… and it may never return. Haven’t Jews already rejected, as evidenced by our diminishing commitment numbers, many of the traditional “answers”? Why should we continue to add rooms to places many no longer want to stay?
Forget the remodel. We need a revival. We need a Birthright America. We need to focus our efforts on developing a Judaism that caters more to what Jews want to buy, not what we prefer to sell or believe they should buy. Rather than palliative “chicken soup” efforts, let’s focus on truly curing the patient.
In the next article we’ll discuss some interesting ideas for that cure. Stay tuned.