Selling Judaism: Let’s Make It Harder

When it comes to marketing Judaism, especially to young adults, it is hard to imagine a program, innovation and –dare I say it — gimmick that has not been tried. I would like to suggest one.

Let’s make Judaism harder.

Really, I am serious.

This has nothing to do with theology and everything to do with human nature. I think, at least as far as Generation X is concerned, “user friendly” is killing us. From the time our children are small, we teach them that individual growth and accomplishment require consistency, discipline, obligation, resolve, patience and the willingness to experience short-term discomfort in exchange for long-term growth.

There is also another important requirement – sweat. The sweat can be physical, emotional, intellectual and even spiritual, but there has to be some real sweat.

We have taught them that all serious relationships and endeavors require these things. There are no exceptions.

Why should their relationship with Judaism be any different?

Our children have learned the lesson well. They simply do not trust or take seriously that which does not make serious demands on them. They seek serious challenges to define themselves. Yet, the overwhelming majority of our young people see the Judaism being marketed to them as profoundly counter-intuitive and not worthy of their time or their serious involvement.

Don’t ask me to cite statistics. You can come up with your studies. I can come up with mine. I ask you to do your own thinking. Look around your synagogue or temple on a plain vanilla Saturday morning, when there are no single events and no bar or bat mitzvahs being celebrated. How many single people do you see between the ages of 18 and 40?

When young adults want to grow, they seek out teachers and professionals whom they expect will make demands on them. I am talking about personal trainers, psychologists, dieticians, yoga teachers, martial arts instructors, etc.

All these people tell our young people: “You came here to grow, not to be entertained. Expect to sweat. Expect to be challenged. Expect to deal with discomfort and find within yourself the character and determination to work through it. You don’t get to choose the parts of what we do that you like. Suspend your disbelief, at least temporarily, and dive in. If you stick it out, however, you will be transformed.”

Not only are so many young people willing to do these things despite the initial discomfort, they actually welcome the challenge. They know that to be seriously formed, they have to be willing to place themselves between the hammer and the anvil.

With notable exceptions, the only people who resist approaching our youth in this manner are our rabbis. To be fair, our rabbis are constantly being reminded by boards of directors, funding groups and even their own rabbinic organizations not to do anything to make our young people uncomfortable. As a result, our youth seek that legitimate discomfort that is an intrinsic aspect of real growth somewhere else.

Let’s call this marketing model I just described as the “personal growth model.” Some Jewish groups use this model to great effect. Most of these are Orthodox outreach groups but not all.

Although the demographic is a bit younger, Camp Ramah has successfully associated the notion of Jewish practices, Jewish standards and, yes, Jewish discipline with a kind of positive sense of obligation and esprit de corps. In fact, Camp Ramah sells the idea of a structured, disciplined Judaism so well that parents are often surprised when returning children want to keep kosher and observe Shabbat.

Another great success is the day school movement. Day schools are able to create committed Jews, at least in part, because they successfully combine Judaism with discipline and standards of excellence. This results in a student’s relationship with Judaism that emphasizes the intuitive, resulting in legitimate self-esteem earned through serious effort. This relationship between the student and a disciplined Jewish life becomes an intrinsic part of the student’s self definition and continues indefinitely, even when formal education comes to an end.

Yet most Jewish groups and institutions avoid using the personal growth model, which emphasizes discipline and structure, because they believe it will alienate our young adults. (Could they possibly be any more alienated?) Instead, these groups and institutions use what I call “the hobby model.”

They market Judaism with programs that try to tell young Jewish singles that Judaism is entertaining, nonobligating, enjoyable and will never make them uncomfortable. Also, these Gen Xers are told that they don’t have to buy the whole package but, rather, can just choose to do whatever they find appealing.

I am not saying that those who use this marketing approach believe that Judaism is a hobby. I am saying that whether they realize it or not, this is how their selling approach is perceived.

A few months ago, Rabbi David Wolpe was quoted in The New York Jewish Week as having said, “Presenting a Judaism of joy is much more powerful to people than presenting a Judaism of defiant, rear-guard obligation.”

Surely Rabbi Wolpe is correct, but a proactive, disciplined, obligating Judaism through which we receive that unique joy associated with challenging our comfort level is the most powerful model yet. It is the model that resonates with every other important endeavor and relationship we have in our lives.

Seeking joy in a Jewish context, while reducing the importance of obligation, will likely produce nothing more than an epicurean joy at best. In our tradition, as with the modern self-help model, serious joy always comes with a plan and a purpose.

We are, for example, commanded to be joyful on the festivals. Not surprisingly, that plan almost always challenges our comfort level. The psalmist tells us, “Serve God joyfully.” The operative word is “serve.” Joy comes from service.

The other problem is that our idea of what is joyful is constantly changing. Remember the parent, teacher or boss we hated, only to look back on those people years later with the greatest respect, affection and admiration. Finding joy by seeking it or isolating it reminds me of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. By the time we get there, there is already somewhere else.

The best and brightest of our young people are not looking for excuses, shortcuts and obfuscation. They want clarity, a good reason and a plan.

Young people often relate to sports. Sports have rules. In sports, you have a goal. Progress and results are measurable. Mastery and excellence are achievable. Our common-sense experience of life as human beings and as Jews tells us we need to spend less time searching for spirituality and more time working at it.

There is an old expression: “You can like because, but only love in spite of.” When we try to engineer all of the “in spite ofs” out of Judaism, there is nothing left to love.

The week after my son Judah’s bar mitzvah, he began training in the martial arts. He chose to join a particularly difficult Okinawan style known for its tough testing requirements and serious challenges to a student’s mind and body. Promotions through the various colored belt ranks took about twice as long as they did in other schools. Last month he received his black belt the week before his 22nd birthday.

Some years back, in a moment of weakness and false fatherly pride, I reminded him that had he gone to another martial arts school, he would have had his black belt already. He gave me a puzzled look and said, “Dad, it’s not the destination, it’s the road.” His comment made me feel both ashamed and proud at the same time.

In most cases, being involved with those other roads is fine, but as regards a serious, intuitive, principled approach to Jewish life, we have, in large measure, denied our young people the experience of that road.

These wonderful young men and women are willing and able and more than capable of walking this road. It’s time for our rabbis and leaders to show them how to find it.

Rafael Guber is a professional genealogist, curator and author who divides his time between New York and Los Angeles. He is a featured expert on the PBS series “Ancestors” and co-creator of “Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves” at the Museum of Tolerance.