“The Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University announces a competition, open to creative thinkers of every kind, to produce a major work in the English language that aims to change the way Jews think about themselves and their community.”
Hmmm. I think there is something missing here.
Let’s take up this challenge for a second.
My first and perhaps only question is, “What is wrong with the way Jews think about themselves and their community, that it requires changing?”
Looking at my own community, I think we’re pretty good. We keep the Torah. We’re good people. We’re proud Jews. We stand up for what we believe in. We help one another. We work hard in all fields of life. We build shuls and communities. Our intermarriage rates are low. Our birthrates are high. Our schools (admittedly expensive) are full of students that usually graduate, and usually graduate to advanced degrees. We produce leaders, and soldiers, and doctors, and scientists, and rabbis, and bus drivers and mechanics.
Our communities are healthy, successful and vibrant, and we properly perceive ourselves the same way.
What more can one ask for?
What is wrong about us?
Perhaps we’re not taking enough senior leadership roles in Israeli society (but we’re working on it).
Perhaps we can be doing more Kiruv for those unfortunate sectors of society that do need to change the way they think about themselves and their community.
And perhaps that is the answer to this challenge.
On one hand, we have parts of Ultra-Orthodox society (with certain notable exceptions) isolating themselves away like Essenes, not only from the non-Ultra-Orthodox, but even from different sects within the Ultra-Orthodox. Not a healthy situation, but one that they will be directly forced to confront at some point or another and resolve.
But, the other side of the spectrum is even worse.
Non-Orthodox society is disintegrating as a Jewish society.
Intermarriage rates are at all time highs – above 50%. Communities are disappearing as Jewish communities. Israeli society as a whole can’t seem to define why it belongs in Israel, much less in control of Israel. People are trying to save their streams of Judaism by calling non-Jews Jews, as if that is a magic formula. Band-aid solutions like Birthright and this competition are being created to save “Judaism”.
In fact solutions like this are being offered because the sponsors recognize that their brands of Judaism are in a downward tail spiral and they are looking for a way out.
The right question isn’t how “to change the way Jews think about themselves and their community”, but rather how “to change the way non-Orthodox Jews think about themselves and their community”.
I think the answer to the correct question is in the question itself.
It is hard to maintain continuity, membership, history, mission, relevance, internalized meaning, and permanence when the basis for your definition of Jew and Jewish doesn’t embrace those concepts, or when it does include even diminished versions of even one of those concepts, those that should know of them are often ignorant of them.
Birthright has shown some minimal success because it has embraced membership (Israel) and history (Israel again), but it certainly doesn’t provide mission, relevance, internalized meaning, and permanence, and that is why it is a short-term band-aid solution.
The solution is to look at the sector of Jewish society that is succeeding and emulate them.
The solution is to get more Jews to be Torah observant, and just as importantly to understand (internally) why they are Torah observant.
For those of us in the Orthodox sector, we must change the way we see the non-religious community. Not to write them off as lost, but to help them find their way back to Torah Judaism and our Jewish future.
If I win this prize, I would teach Torah and do Kiruv at Brandeis.
That is the correct answer to this challenge.
Wherever I am, my blog turns towards Eretz Yisrael