Enjoy the Jewish experience

runyan_josh_otTom Steyer, it seems, is making a play for the libertarian and politically active Koch brothers. Speaking to National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” earlier this week, the California billionaire investor spoke of his plans to invest $100 million to influence the debate surrounding the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada’s Tar Sands region to America’s Gulf Coast, and thereby scuttle the project.

Back when the U.S. Supreme Court deliberated on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, people were worried about the influence of unfettered corporate money on political discourse. Now, the worry among many observers concerns the influence of unfettered personal largesse on America’s political processes. Without commenting on the merits of Steyer’s contribution to public service or his politics — it should be noted that no less than a former head of the U.S. Geological Survey recently came out in favor of the Keystone pipeline in the pages of Science — it’s worthwhile to draw from the issue a lesson for how the Jewish community tackles its own dilemmas.

In the wake of the Pew Research Center’s analysis of American Jewry some months ago, communal professionals almost uniformly declared intermarriage to be the No. 1 problem. But as you’ll read in the pages of this week’s JT, young Jewish adults — exactly those for whom the idea of intermarriage poses a very real and potentially personal phenomenon — waver on the issue. Some agree that current demographic trends portend doom, others are optimistic, and still others remain apathetic.

As it did in the wake of World War II and in response to the needs of Israel for worldwide support, the global Jewish community has marshaled its collective resources in the war against intermarriage; over the past few years, gobs of money have been spent in a top-down fashion to solve the current crisis. While there have been successes, the approach hasn’t worked.

What many today realize is that if the problem of intermarriage is to be solved, it’s going to be the youth who will solve it. And so we have student-led programming at Hillels across the country; one-on-one learning sessions at Chabad Houses; organizations such as Charm City Tribe that bring a Jewish flavor to the downtown Baltimore bar scene — in effect, a smorgasbord of Jewish options from which today’s young adults can sample, taste, explore and digest, and, most importantly, to which each is expected to contribute.

What will ultimately win in the “numbers game” of Jewish affiliation is Jewish content. But, as the community has learned, Judaism’s truths mustn’t be shoved down unwilling throats. At the most basic level, what matters is the personal one-on-one connection — between rabbi and congregant, teacher and student, parent and child, friend and friend.

Once that is established, the community must let the currently unaffiliated and under-affiliated take the ball of Jewish identity and run with it. We must let each wandering soul be a Tom Steyer, as it were, making a positive choice as to how to contribute. It’s a process that has gone on for millennia, and thanks to the blessings of the Almighty, we’re still around today.

Next Friday night, thousands of Jews across the continent, unaffiliated and affiliated alike, will flock to synagogues in celebration of Shabbat Across America and Canada. But people shouldn’t feel like they have to wait to enjoy the Jewish experience; wherever and whenever you find yourself, do something Jewish today.

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