How to Expand Shrinking Jewish Middle

Newly emerging evidence from the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Portrait of American Jewry points to enormous challenges facing federations, Jewish philanthropy and organized Jewish life, more generally. Virtually every Jewish institution is contending with a sharply diminishing base of people who give, join or even care.

Though the Orthodox are expanding numerically, the number of non-Orthodox Jews who are actively engaged Jews is shrinking rapidly. As we compare non-Orthodox Jews between ages 50 and 69 with Jews of the next-younger generation (30 to 49), we find about half as many of the younger cohort who donate to any Jewish causes, belong to synagogues or join Jewish organizations. In addition, only half as many of the younger group feel very attached to Israel, agree that being Jewish is very important to them or have mostly Jewish close friends.

Indeed, younger non-Orthodox Jews between ages 30 and 49 are substantially trailing their elders on virtually every measure of Jewish identification.
Two separate processes are driving these declines. First, there simply are far fewer 30- to 49-year-old non-Orthodox Jews than 50- to 69-year-olds (about 1.2 million vs. 1.8 million) because of low birthrates in recent decades. Second, compounding this population decline, high rates of intermarriage — now running at about 80 percent among those raised Reform — have resulted in disengagement from Jewish life on the part of most adult children of intermarried parents. In short, in the younger age cohort (30-49), there are both fewer Jews and, among them, lower rates of participation in Jewish life.

If these patterns are to be reversed, the Jewish middle — Conservative and Reform Jews who are in-married or intermarried but unambiguously attached to Jewish life — must be nurtured and expanded. It may be gratifying that almost all Jews feel proud to be Jewish, as Pew reported, but it does little for the vitality of Jewish communal endeavors if they fail to participate actively in some form of collective Jewish life.

How are we to counter these alarming trends? Research conducted in recent decades demonstrates that effective Jewish engagement endeavors share three critical features:
> They expand Jewish social networks, linking Jews to one another.
> They incorporate Jewish content, so as to demonstrate why rich Jewish engagement is so meaningful.
> They bring together peers at the same life stage to address common challenges.
To address the weak Jewish connections among younger Jews, our ideal communal agenda calls for investing massively in immersive forms of Jewish education for youth. Critical are day schools, summer camps with Jewish content, youth movement activities, Hillels and other campus endeavors, Birthright trips and Masa (longer-term trips to Israel) as well as a variety of programs to involve Jews in their 20s and 30s in ongoing  Jewish living.
The overall goal is to ensure that young people participate in multiple Jewish venues so that synergies can develop among them. For this to happen, parents must be enlisted as partners in socializing their children into Jewish life.

The challenge is to marshal imagination, courage, will and resources to rebuild the endangered Jewish middle at home.

 

Steven M. Cohen is a research professor at the Hebrew Union College-JIR in New York, and Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Wealth Versus Democracy

112114_editorial_lgIn the world of politics and diplomacy, we are accustomed to understatement and a fair degree of obfuscation in much of the public discourse that unfolds around us.

So when someone says what’s really on their mind, and does so in a direct and unvarnished fashion, it gets our attention. That is so particularly when the speaker is a politically active billionaire. Recent incendiary comments by one in particular presents a case in point.

At the Nov. 9 Israeli-American Council Conference in Washington, D.C., Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and longtime Republican supporter, repeated the inflammatory claim that the Palestinians are an “invented people” and questioned the need for Israel to remain a democracy. “I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy,” Adelson said. “[God] didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state. … Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state — so what?”

So what? Really?
By belittling Israeli democracy, Adelson undercut one of the pillars of U.S. and American-Jewish support for Israel. But, according to a report in The Forward, not a single significant beneficiary of Adelson’s largesse was willing to comment publicly on his outburst. That includes such noteworthy national and international organizations as Birthright Israel, the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Israeli-American Council — none of whom are normally bashful about expressing opinions. The exception was the sometimes equally outrageous Mort Klein, national director of the Zionist Organization of America, who suggested that Adelson was joking.

The only rebuff from the organized Jewish world came from the ADL’s Abe Foxman, who called Adelson’s comment “disturbing on many levels.”

“The founders of Israel got it exactly right when they emphasized the country being both a Jewish and democratic state,” said Foxman. “Any initiatives that move Israel away from either value would ill serve the state and people of Israel.” We agree.

And on the issue of Israeli democracy, there is an ironic note: A recent bill in the Knesset designed to shut down the Adelson-owned Israel Hayom newspaper sailed through its first reading. Those favoring the measure argue that Adelson is unfairly trying to sway public discourse by distributing a free periodical. Those opposing the measure accuse it of being anti-democratic.

We encourage Adelson, as we do the Jewish state, to err on the side of democracy.

Let School System Do Its Homework

Montgomery County’s Board of Education was not being a Grinch when it removed the names of religious holidays from the school calendar and replaced them with secular names such as “winter break.” The board vote drew national attention and became an instant cause for extremists, hatemongers and conspiracy theorists. But with its vote, the board bought some time — the next school calendar will be drawn up over the course of the coming year — to figure out how to address the scheduling needs of an increasingly multireligious and multicultural community.

The school district maintains that it must have a “secular, operational reason” for closing schools — not a religious reason. Absences of teachers and students is the district’s explanation for why it closes schools on Christmas, Good Friday and Easter and, since the 1970s, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur. Those planned closures will not change under the new approach. It is only what the days are called on the scheduling calendar that will be changed.

When members of the Muslim community first called for schools to close on the holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, they caused the county to look more carefully at its standards for school closures. Just what level of absenteeism should trigger the closure of schools? There is no county handbook that gives the answer. The closest thing the county has to solid data is that school attendance was down 5 percent in October 2013 on Eid al-Adha — not enough, it said, to close the schools.

The move by Montgomery County is not unique. Communities across the country — including in Baltimore City, Virginia’s Loudon and Fairfax counties and in the City of Pittsburgh — manage their calendars without reference to religious holidays. That doesn’t mean that the school board should ignore religious communities. Those communities should be consulted, so that the views and needs of all factions can be understood and addressed, including those of the Muslim community.

We have little patience for the voices of extremists, who seized upon Montgomery County’s effort to fan the flames of bias and confrontation. The Muslim community did not “force” the school board to cancel Christmas and Yom Kippur. Those incendiary accusations are simply not true.

Our school boards have enough to worry about in their ongoing efforts to provide quality education to our children. We need to let our school districts focus on that all-important task and stop distracting school leaders and others in the community with bias, prejudice and manufactured controversy.

Friday Night with Grandpa

112114_jewishview-Rabbi-WeinrebMy paternal grandfather, Chaim Yitzchak Weinreb, was an old-school Jew, with roots in the region of eastern Poland known as Galicia. He had studied under renowned Talmudists back in the old country, and his fervent wish was to see his grandchildren grow up to be dedicated Talmud students.

I was his oldest grandchild and discovered from a very early age just how determined he was to steer me in what he was convinced was the right direction. I particularly remember the time he visited my parents’ home when I was in the seventh or eighth grade. I had just received my report card and proudly showed it to him. I felt it was a pretty good report card, but for him, anything less than perfection was inadequate. After one glance, he noticed just how uneven my academic performance was.

He spoke to me in Yiddish, unadulterated by English phrases — pure, old-fashioned Yiddish. He protested that my grades were spotty. “You did very well in Chumash, Bible, but not nearly as good in Talmud. How can one truly know the Bible if he is ignorant of Talmud?”

I responded defensively by saying that I saw no connection between the Bible portions of Genesis that we were then studying and the tractate of Bava Metzia, our Talmud text that year. “The Chumash is full of great stories, but the Talmud is only about legal arguments, some of which are over my head.”

He smiled and said that if I would give him an hour on the upcoming Friday night, he would give me kugel and soda, teach me a song and demonstrate how the Talmud elucidates the Bible in an “amazing” way. Only he didn’t say “amazing,” he said “vunderbar.”

That Friday, true to his word, and he was always true to his word, he personally served me the kugel and soda, taught me a song that he had learned from the old rabbi of his now-extinct shtetl and asked me to review with him a short passage in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Toldot.

You know the story. Esau, the older brother, comes in from the field, famished. He finds his younger brother, Jacob, cooking a pot of stew and asks for some of it. Jacob is willing to give it to him, but for a price. He demands that Esau first sell him his birthright; that is, the material and spiritual privileges that come with being the first born. Translated literally, he says: “Sell me your birthright, kayom, like today!”

Whereas nowadays, kids will call their elderly grandfather Zayde or Saba, we called ours Grandpa. Despite his old-fashioned demeanor, in many ways he was as American as apple pie. He asked me if I found anything problematic with the story.

I did. “The phrase kayom seems strange, Grandpa. Why does Jacob insist that the sale should be ‘like today?’”

He responded, “Good! Maybe you have [a Talmudic intellect] after all. But let’s see if you can ask a question on the whole transaction based on the Talmud texts you are now studying in school. Here’s your volume of Talmud. I’ll give you 10 minutes to come up with a really good question.”

To say that I was frustrated would be putting it mildly. Not only was I going to be stuck studying all Friday night — I was actually being asked
to think.

But one did not say no to Grandpa. So I opened the large book, pored over it and focused on the task with great concentration. I was searching for a connection between a fascinating story and what I then experienced as some very boring rules and regulations.

After some time, probably much more than the allotted 10 minutes, I had an “aha!” experience. I really got excited. “Grandpa! It can’t be! How could Jacob purchase the birthright from Esau? The privileges of the birthright are way off in the future. They include privileges like a dual portion of their inheritance of their father Isaac’s estate, and Isaac was alive, if not entirely well, at that time. We studied in the Talmud that one cannot buy or sell objects or privileges that do not yet exist.”

My grandfather was thrilled, but no more than I was. Finally, I saw a connection between my Bible stories and the legal terminology of the Talmud that I had begun to resent.

He then sat back, asked me to relax and took the role of the teacher. “If you reached Page 16 of the tractate you are studying, you know this scenario. A fisherman wishes to sell the fish he will catch today to a customer. He doesn’t have the fish yet. Can he sell them? Yes, answers the Talmud. He can sell them if he desperately needs the money to feed himself that day. But if he wishes to sell the fish he will catch in 30 days or in a year, he cannot do that. If one is desperate, he can sell even objects that he does not yet possess, even fish that are still in the sea.”

There is a logical rationale for this legal principle, which I will omit in the interest of brevity. Suffice it to say, I now saw the connection between the story and the Talmudic principle.

“Of course Jacob said kayom. Sell me your birthright even though its privileges will not be realized until the distant future, but do so in your current state of desperation. Do so because you are famished and in your desperation have the legal ability, much like the fisherman, to sell something that is now nonexistent, because you need it for your urgent immediate needs. Sell me the birthright kayom.”

Grandpa was proud of me that day, but I was even prouder of myself. He told me that the concept that I had discovered on my own was to be found in the commentary Ohr HaChaim, which he studied assiduously every Friday night.

He then leaned back, stared at me with his gentle eyes and said, “I am trying to think of a prize, a reward for your willingness to sit with me for a few hours on a Friday night, for exerting your young intellect, and for seeing the connection between the Written Torah, Scripture, and the Oral Torah, Talmud.”

I sat there imagining all sorts of possible rewards, certain that he would ask for my input. Kugel and soda would have been acceptable but lowest on my list of suggestions. I was thinking big bucks or at least tickets to a baseball game.

Then he told me his idea. “From now on, every time I visit you, we will study together. And we will make it our business to discover connections. Our motto will be the verse in Psalms that says that God’s Torah is perfect, soothes the soul and brings joy to the heart.”

What a disappointment for a  12-year-old. But today, many decades later, each time I sit down before a folio of Talmud, I experience Grandpa’s reward. I can now appreciate Grandpa’s willingness to risk his popularity with his grandchildren, instead using every means at his disposal to get us to sit and learn with him.

A ‘General’ Concern

Josh_RunyanConsidering his audience at the Monday morning plenary session of the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly at National Harbor, Vice President Joe Biden said all the right things. To standing ovations, he pledged the United States’ unwavering support of Israel and promised that Iran would never be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon. He even waxed poetic about his interactions with Golda Meir.

It was very Biden-esque, to borrow a phrase from the vice president himself. And it was also sincere. That’s a welcome relief to those growing tired of a perceived anti-Israel bent among the current occupants of the White House and, considering that Biden will likely run for president in 2016, positive words for those who fear a Democratic Party increasingly suspicious of Israeli dealings with the Palestinians.

But according to The Atlantic’s  Jeffrey Goldberg, whose articles of late have laid bare administration anxieties vis-a-vis the Jewish state and its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the fact that Biden and Hilary Clinton — the heir apparent for the Democratic nomination — feel such connection with Israel, whereas President Obama presumably doesn’t, shouldn’t come as a surprise. In Goldberg’s view, which he shared later that night during a panel session with Aluf Benn of Ha’aretz and Steve Linde of The Jerusalem Post, Obama’s failure to embrace Netanyahu’s narrative of events has nothing to do with visceral distrust of Israel. It has everything to do with generational realities.

Biden, 71, met Meir; he was 24 when Israel emerged victorious from the Six Day War. Obama, by contrast was 6 in 1967. And instead of Golda Meir, Benn added, Obama and his generation had Sabra and Shatila.

Discounting the ideological bent of a paper such as Ha’aretz, the observation is a prescient one. And it was amplified at the end of the night when an energetic University of Maryland student named Anna Farooqi, Southeast representative to J Street U’s national student board, took to a stand-up mic to voice frustrations that her generation is sidelined by the rest of the organizational Jewish world.

“I love Israel,” she began. But her experiences there — admittedly only over the course of four months — and her view of the conflict in the Middle East lead her to be critical of the Jewish state.

Moderator and former CNN Jerusalem correspondent Linda Scherzer thanked Farooqi for her comments but said that too many young people have emotional reactions to the conflict without the benefit of knowing the facts. It was a backhanded compliment that to some observers betrayed a sense that Jewish youth should keep quiet and open a book. There’s wisdom in such a view, but as shown by the riots outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, institutions ignore the power of youth at their peril.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, the General Assembly earlier this week had much on the docket for engaging Jewish college students and young Jewish professionals, from sessions on the federation system’s young leaders cabinet to cocktail receptions with campus delegates. But more needs to be done to make people such as Farooqi feel welcome. Generational divides not only have consequences for Israel, they also have the power to fundamentally alter the fabric of the Jewish community. To the extent that youth are being utilized and not sidelined, the future may yet still be bright.

jrunyan@jewishtimes.com

Working with Governor-Elect Hogan

Larry Hogan

Larry Hogan

Maryland’s Republican governor-elect, Larry Hogan, sailed to his historic victory Nov. 4 on the tide of a poorly run campaign by his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, and fatigue after eight years of Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley. Yet, little is known about Hogan, other than that he is pro-business, that he wants to cut taxes and that he is a nice guy.

 
Certainly, Maryland’s General Assembly remains firmly in Democratic hands, although no longer with a veto-proof majority. But it is the governor who draws up the budget in the Free State, so his support of Jewish communal needs is crucial. During his two terms, O’Malley’s administration made room in the budget to support a steady stream of programs and projects that were of significant interest to our community, such as the Maryland/ Israel Development Center and subsidized housing for low-income seniors. There’s no guarantee that Hogan will do the same, but there is also no indication that he won’t.

 
About one-third of Maryland Jews voted for Hogan, including a significant number of crossovers who never warmed to the lieutenant governor.
So the work to support Jewish priorities now becomes bipartisan. Maryland has suffered in recent years because of dysfunction at the federal level, and the national election results do not guarantee an end to the partisan fights that resulted in the fund-slashing sequester and government shutdowns. That leaves it to the states, Maryland included, to make up for much of the difference.

 
With that in mind, we welcome the message of bipartisan cooperation that Hogan sounded at his first news conference as governor-elect. But we hope that he will make his specific priorities known in the near future. Our community had strong, meaningful relationships with the Democratic O’Malley administration and with the Republican Ehrlich administration before that. As we get to know Maryland’s next governor, we look forward to an equally strong, mutually beneficial relationship with the Hogan administration.

Can We Rise Above the Muck?

runyan_josh_ot

Editor-in-Chief

So much has been written since last week’s revelation that an unnamed Obama administration official used a barnyard epithet to impugn the reputation and political ability of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that I will not add my own denunciation — however justified it might be — to the thousands of words already out there condemning the White House for what is at best a gross breach of diplomatic etiquette.

Instead, it’s worth noting that such salty and destructive language is apparently run of the mill in the current administration, and may well have been in those of presidents past.

Just six days after the appearance of Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic came another in Politico that examined the perilous position occupied by the president, who, by most accounts, has lost control of both his domestic and foreign policy agendas as well as a firm grip on the shaping of his political legacy. In it, a senior administration official describes Obama’s visceral disgust of the lead-up to Tuesday’s midterm elections by dropping an S-bomb: “There have been $2 billion in ads s—-ing on the president and no one to defend him,” the official says.

In the same article, a top presidential aide drops another, telling reporters Glenn Thrush and Carrie Budoff Brown that the administration knows “we’re in for a s—- storm if we lose the Senate.”

A colleague of mine described the occupants of the West Wing as puerile, that their antics and statements have reached a new low in American political life. But their language is unfortunately nothing new. In 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney famously dropped an F-bomb in telling off Sen. Patrick Leahy. And Obama’s aides wouldn’t be the first to be juvenile: Veterans of the Clinton White House were implicated in removing the Ws from West Wing computers before the administration of President George W. Bush took office in 2001.

No, the use of vulgarity by government officials is quite arguably so regular as to not be noticed, and no less than the president himself — President Nixon recorded himself doing just as much — has spewed profanities from the Oval Office. What is new, however, is that such comments are now regularly quoted, that the baser forms of language arguably are the new parlance of political speech.

I hope that I’m wrong.

By the time you read this week’s JT, voters throughout the nation will have decided who shall occupy their state’s legislature and governor’s mansion and who will represent them in both houses of Congress. In the days leading up to Election Day, many expressed to reporters their disgust with a phenomenon that President Clinton described as “the politics of personal destruction.”

What historically happens after all the ballots are counted is that politicians enter their offices determined to rise above the muck that characterized their campaigns. Should such a return to high-minded debate not occur, they and their aides will have demeaned not only the institution of their offices, they will have demeaned what it means to lead a people as great as those of the United States.

jrunyan@jewishtimes.com

The Importance of Free Will

This Shabbat we read from Parshat Vayera, which tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. God destroyed these two towns filled with malicious people because they were so evil, God could not help them find the path of goodness.

Many times in the Torah, one must delve very deep into the text, looking at every word and every note, to find deeper meaning in a passage. In the story of Sodom, there is a very uncommon trope, shalshelet, which occurs only four times in the entire Torah. Each time, it sheds light on the meaning of the word on which it appears. The trope has 16 notes that alternate in frequency; it’s like one deliberating on a difficult decision — she makes a decision, than changes it, then changes it back and then ultimately comes to a final decision. Usually this decision is a struggle between one’s internal versus external self and ultimately reveals the essence of who he or she really is.

In the story of Sodom, shalshelet appears on the Hebrew word vayitmahmah, meaning, “and he delayed.” The trope reflects Lot’s indecision as to whether he should go away from Sodom or stay in the city where he has lived a lifetime. However, the choice whether to stay or leave is just the first layer of the choice. The deeper layers consist of Lot’s decision whether to believe in God or comply with Lot’s malicious neighbors. In Sodom, Lot has lost his connection to his Israelite religion; he has been seduced by his evil companions. Lot must reconnect to his Israelite companions, or it will jeopardize his life along with his family’s survival.

According to God’s plan, Lot chooses to return to his Israelite people and goes on to live a more virtuous faith. But what can we learn from this story? Are we supposed to learn to always follow our Judaism blindly or only rely on our internal instincts for guidance? While looking at this story, I chose to interpret this passage to mean that we should always follow God and our Judaic faith.

My personal belief about God is such: To believe that God either exists or does not exist is looking at God through a binary glance. I prefer to take the more multidimensional perspective and believe that God both exists and does not exist at the same time. If one believes that God exists or does not exist, then in his or her truth, He either exists or does not according to his or her beliefs. I believe that God exists, so in my truth, He exists. In Genesis 4:7, God says to Cain, “Timshol (Thou mayest … overcome sin).” By saying mayest, God is giving Cain and all of his descendants free will. Most people solely interpret free will as the choice whether to act in goodness or in evil. However, I believe that through timshol, God is not only giving us the ability to choose our actions, He is giving us the choice of whether to believe in Him or not, and henceforth decide if He exists in our own truth. The shalshelet reflects, for me, the understanding in Jewish life that our decisions, our beliefs and our actions can change back and forth over time and that indecision can, at times, help us understand our world, God and ourselves even better.

Sage Friedman is a seventh-grade student at Krieger Schechter Day School.

ZOA’s Klein Should Apologize

Zionist Organization of America national president Morton Klein defamed me (“Your Say,” May 21) by calling me a liar — and thereby impugning my integrity — claiming that mycharacterization of the ZOA (“Your Say,” April 24) as inimical to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem was false.

Proof of my truth telling (and Klein’s duplicity) may be found in the Oct. 29 “Your Say” letter of Marc Caroff, who, speaking in the name of the ZOA of which he is its Washington Chapter president, asseverates Israel’s “lawful claims to sovereignty within defensible borders, from the Jordan Valley to the Mediterranean Sea.” He further pontificates that “the ‘two-state solution’ is clearly no solution at all.” In a similar Sept. 26 “Your Say” letter, Caroff had denounced the “two-state chimera” and, affirming a Greater Israel agenda, insisted that “the incorporation of Judea and Samaria into Israel is a viable, just and realistic option.”

According to Rashi, “God’s seal is truth.” As a God-fearing Jew, Klein (and the ZOA) owes me — and the readers of the Jewish Times — an apology. The State of Israel deserves better.

Mikvah Trust Is of Utmost Importance

Before anything gets taken out of context, we need still be cognizant of the fact that Rabbi Barry Freundel’s actions are still undergoing the legal due process, and in America, innocence is assumed before the final verdict is rendered.

That said, it is important to note what and where the crisis is not. It is not a crisis in the level of acceptability of conversions that Rabbi Freundel oversaw. According to everyone, the status of those real and sincere converts remain inviolate and absolutely kosher. Where the crisis does exists is in the crisis of trust and faith in the process and ritual supervised by male rabbis, and, not least, the violation of the most private intimate and spiritual moments undergone by the female candidates.

One cannot begin to fathom the compounded vulnerability of the individual at that critical time in the mikvah, the depth of emotions, both ecstatic and complex, as she prepares herself to engage in this most invigorating of Jewish ritual. Numerous
reasons draw Jewish women to this area of Jewish law, and, whatever they may be, there is a need to protect them with the privacy they need, the sensitivity they desire and the feelings that have drawn them to respond in a most positive way to the mikvah ritual.

One sad and sickening action does not destroy the entire applecart, as it shouldn’t. But there might have to be a real need to place the entire mikvah process more in the hands of expert female decisors who themselves could oversee the procedures necessarily inherent in the entire gamut of mikvah-related needs as well as be present in the final act of ritual immersion. There really should never be a need for a male rabbi to be present in or near the mikvah any time women are utilizing the building.

It is in this regard that steps will have to be taken to restore the faith
and trust in this most personal of Jewish ritual so that it truly retains its high point of Jewish spirituality for the female members of the community.