The key may lie in the ancient text Pirkei Avot/“Ethics of the Fathers,” which says, “Those whose wisdom exceeds their deeds, their wisdom will not endure; but those whose deeds exceed their wisdom, their wisdom will endure.”
The Pew Research Center study on “Jewish Americans in 2020,” which was released in May this year, shows that Reform and Conservative Judaism is plummeting, while the number of “unaffiliated” is increasing. The same goes for the Orthodox, the vast majority of whom don’t intermarry and have many more children than their non-Orthodox counterparts.
According to the poll, six in 10 Jews intermarried during the last 10 years, as compared with 45 percent in the previous decade. In contrast, only 18 percent of Jews who married before 1980 have a non-Jewish spouse.
These statistics, which reflect a rapidly changing Jewish world, should be cause for pause, contemplation and action.
Outreach efforts to stem assimilation have not made significant inroads, however. Clearly, then, the current strategy to bring Jews back to Judaism needs altering. The key may lie in an ancient text—Chapter 3/12 of Pirkei Avot/“Ethics of the Fathers”—in which Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa says: “Those whose wisdom exceeds their deeds, their wisdom will not endure; but those whose deeds exceed their wisdom, their wisdom will endure.”
In other words, the focus needs to be on persuading Jews to perform mitzvot, God’s commandments, many of which will have an impact on the person observing even a few of them. Lighting candles before sunset on the eve of Shabbat, for example—even if one is not yet keeping the Sabbath—is a beautiful step in the right direction.
And it only takes a couple of minutes. Former famed Israeli actor Uri Zohar started with this mitzvah, eventually leading to his switching of careers and becoming a renowned rabbi. Literally and figuratively, the impact of the deed on the actor—the one who acts—cannot be overstated.
Unfortunately, rather than getting Jews excited about mitzvot, some outreach organizations emphasize the wisdom of Judaism. But without the mitzvot, the wisdom learned doesn’t endure.
Others teach young Jews to serve as an example to others. Yet, this was the approach that Noah took during his 120 years of building the ark, and not a single person followed his example.
Instead, it was Abraham and Sarah who became the first Jews, hosting meals for strangers and speaking to them about God. The Torah says that they taught those with them to act with “charity and justice.” Good behavior inspired by wisdom, in turn, created inspiration among their followers.
Furthermore, Jews need to be encouraged to experience Judaism, not simply by visiting Israel or learning about the Holocaust. Much can be learned from the Orthodox about what works and what doesn’t.
Orthodox Jews, for instance, take a break from using cell phones and responding to emails one day a week. It’s a great process of rejuvenation. Shabbat meals, too, are uplifting, as they provide uninterrupted time for parents and kids to speak and be together, without everyone staring at a screen. It’s an essential component of family bonding.
In addition, because they don’t drive on Shabbat, Orthodox Jews tend to live within walking distance from one another and form a community.
It’s common to invite guests or receive invitations to others’ homes for Shabbat meals. Many lifelong friendships and even marriages have come about from such gatherings.
When I told a friend who used to drive to our synagogue that though we enjoyed seeing him on Shabbat morning, it would be better to see him all day, and suggested that he move to the neighborhood, I was glad that he took my advice. He later said that it was the best decision he’d ever made. If I hadn’t suggested it, it might not have occurred to him.
A similar thing happened when I witnessed a friend in his 70s laying tefillin (putting on phylacteries) at his grandson’s bar mitzvah for the first time since his own bar mitzvah.
“Abe, laying tefillin takes five minutes,” I said to him. “Could you do this every day?
He responded with great enthusiasm and engaged in the practice from that day forward. Had I not given him the idea, it’s not likely that he would have done it.
The above two encounters illustrate the way in which Jews can bond.
Another bonding custom among the Orthodox is the shiva, the seven-day mourning period after a funeral. Prayer services are conducted in the home of the bereaved family (except on Shabbat, when even the mourners attend them at synagogue.) Meals are regularly provided to the mourners all week, as well.
The shiva, when the bereaved stay at home for a full week and receive guests with whom they reminisce about their lost loved one has been lauded by many as the best way to work through grief.
Happy occasions, too, are enriching. When a baby is born, for example, many Orthodox communities provide one or even two weeks of dinners to the parents. As a father of six, I can attest that these meals were a huge help. Such gestures are a boon to all involved, not just the grateful recipients.
Still, many Orthodox outreach programs stress teaching and learning, without encouraging participants to embrace greater Jewish observance. When I asked teachers of the unaffiliated why they didn’t request of male students that they wear kipot while studying, one answered that he doesn’t know how to push mitzvot the way I do. Somehow, though, he knew how to push for payment from his adult attendees.
Little gestures, such as that which I suggested to the teacher and those I extended to friends can be magnified. The Internet provides access to assimilated Jews who could just as easily get excited about their Judaism.
Birthright and other groups that bring young Jews to see the miracle of Israel can have a big impact, but follow-ups are needed to ensure that the effects are long-lasting. One such idea is that, upon their return, Birthright participants be invited by Orthodox families to Shabbat meals to observe the beauty of Judaism.
The Pew study found that only 26 percent of American Jews believe in God, compared to more than half of all Americans. The complexities of the world and the amazing realization of the prophecies of the Jewish people’s return to Israel—a military, economic and technological power, with a tenfold population increase in 73 years—should be among the concepts employed to change the figures among Diaspora Jews.
I am among those fortunate Jews able to lead a religious-Jewish life. Sadly, only a small minority of Jews have had such a benefit, and so many more would want to enjoy it if they could just taste the experience.
We need to be like Abraham and Sarah and bring our fellow Jews into our homes, and let them know of the beauty of the religion into which they were born—and, in too many cases, have never ever learned about. Time is running out, and we need to act now.
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