Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Jewish Reality Check

 היום קצר, והמלאכה מרובה, ... ובעל הבית דוחק
“The day is short; the task is great... and the Master of the house urges on.” (Avot 2:15)
Last week, Cantor Rafi Frieder and I attended the annual Cantors Assembly convention, this year at the fabulous Sheraton Meadowlands. Once a year, cantors from across the Conservative movement gather to share knowledge, companionship, and of course new tunes; I always come away from both the rabbinical and cantorial conventions with inspirational material that adds seasoning to my work in Great Neck.

On the opening day of the convention, I attended a session featuring Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of the Jewish Outreach Institute. Some in our community might know Rabbi Olitzky as the author of the How-To Handbook for Jewish Living, a resource that the Religious School has distributed to the Nitzanim Family Connection for two years now. He is perhaps best known of late for his work with JOI, whose primary goal is to help interfaith families raise Jewish children. His lecture was about lifecycle events for interfaith families, but he said two things that suggested a far wider concern for the Jewish world of the future.

First, he pointed out that Jewish involvement for many families outside of Orthodoxy is, as Rabbi Olitzky put it, episodic. That is, they might be involved Jewishly at key transitional points: birth, bar/bat mitzvah, marriage, and death. The continuous form of identification that has marked Jewish life for much of our history no longer applies for many of us.

The second item that caught my attention is that Jewish institutions will have to make the case for, “Why be Jewish?” You may recall that this was the topic of one of my High Holiday sermons last year; I think that it is the essential Jewish question of our time. Our grandparents needed synagogues to help them be Jewish; they never asked this question. Many younger Jews today will need to have that question answered for them, or they will never enter the synagogue in the first place.

As you might expect, these statements are unnerving for Jewish clergy. How will we continue to teach, to inspire, to counsel those who may not be convinced of Judaism’s value to begin with, and even if they are, where will we find those Jews between episodes? What will this mean for synagogues like Temple Israel of Great Neck? What will it mean for the future of Judaism?

This is the new reality. For Jewish communities to function, they need Jews who are involved. The import of these two observations about contemporary life is that we need to reconsider our model. The rabbi, the cantor, and the Jewish educator of the future, if they are to reach anybody, will need to function in a non-traditional synagogue, one that uses many different means to reach people. Regular synagogue prayer services as well as Hebrew schools may play a lesser role in the Jewish community of the future. The key to maintaining our people’s connection to God, Torah, and Israel will be building personal bonds through new media and direct contact. A synagogue’s success in doing so will be a function of that congregation’s willingness to think outside the box of the past century and devise a plan for reaching those beyond the synagogue walls. This creative re-thinking will not be easy, but it will be necessary.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, May 23, 2013.)

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