Friday, April 9, 2010

Rethinking Everything

(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, April 15, 2010.)

My crocuses appeared and subsided a few weeks ago, followed quickly by the tulips, and as I watch the lilies beginning their annual ascent from the earth, I am reminded that spring has kicked off in earnest. The egg and karpas sat innocently enough on my seder plate, speaking of spring: renewal, fertility, and change. After settling back into our hametz-ish routine, the question becomes, "Now what?"

A good holiday should not only inspire reflection in the moment, but should stay with you for some time after. Pesah is a good holiday, and all of the items that have been bubbling away in the remote corners of my mind all winter are now coming to the fore, not only dislodged by Pesah preparations, but aided and abetted by an article I spotted in last week's issue of The Jewish Week. An excerpt from Rabbi Elie Kaunfer's new book, Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities was featured on the front page. (Some of us heard Rabbi Kaunfer, a classmate of mine from the Jewish Theological Seminary, speak here at Temple Israel last spring about this new model of Jewish involvement.)

I read the excerpt, and it seemed to me so jaw-droppingly on-target that I immediately ran to my computer and ordered the book. Rabbi Kaunfer holds that while the institutionalized Jewish world has been disproportionately obsessed with assimilation and intermarriage, the real issue in American Judaism is disengagement -- that is, that most Jews have not been given the tools with which to truly grapple with the very relevant issues that Jewish literature embraces, and therefore they do not try. The Talmud is filled with wisdom that obtains today just as it did in the fifth century; why do most synagogues (including ours) put virtually all of their educational energy into teaching the purely mechanical aspects of putting on a bar/bat mitzvah show, when we could be teaching our children to think like Jews? Birthright Israel might inspire some young adults regarding Israel and Jewish life, but when they return, they lack options for seriously pursuing the study of Hebrew, say, or wrestling with the likes of Rashi and Ibn Ezra. We have been sold a bill of goods, says Rabbi Kaunfer, a watered-down palette of offerings that are, at best, uninspirational. People want meaning and substance, but there are few Jewish outlets providing these, particularly outside of Orthodoxy.

This argument resonates with me quite heavily. In today's world of infinite options, what is the appeal in belonging to a synagogue that roughly 80% us appear in only when absolutely necessary? And how many more years of long, meaningless services will that 80% endure before just giving up entirely? Roughly half of American Jewry has given up on institutions already. These institutions should be working hard to give Jews the tools they need to find meaning in Jewish tradition. Otherwise, the engagement gap will just continue to grow.

Rabbi Kaunfer suggests some ways of facilitating re-engagement; you can surely find them online if you are curious. But the big picture is that we should be re-envisioning all that we do here at Temple Israel. Project Re-Imagine focused on the Religious School, and made some changes that were largely inside the box. We need to think bigger, and much farther beyond what we have always done, and this applies not only to our children's education but to worship, membership, social action, home rituals, and all of the other features of Jewish life.

Spring is the season of renewal. Perhaps this spring we might take to heart the stunningly fresh words from the book of Lamentations that we sing every time we put the Torah away: Hadesh yameinu kekedem (Renew our days as of old). Rabbi Kaunfer concludes with the following challenge: "Our task now is to imagine a world in which every Jew has the potential to take hold of the gift of Jewish heritage. Imagining that world is the first step to building it." Let's take him up on that challenge.

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