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.


Why I Voted For Arnold

First a disclaimer: I have never met Arnold Schwarzenegger, have never spoken to him, was never contacted by his political people, no one ever asked me to support him, or offered me money to do so. I supported him because I respect him and because I am convinced that he will be good for California. In fact, if I may brag just a little, I started predicting that he would be the next governor of California many months ago, when only a few hard-line nuts seriously considered that a recall could be successful. I didn’t think/hope that Gray Davis would be recalled. I just was sure that Arnold would run and win the next race.

I knew a lot less about him at that time than I do now but one thing was clear: Arnold Schwarzenegger is a winner. Always has been and always will be. And he won on Tuesday by continuing to use his abilities, his intellect and his will. The fact that he has a world-class body and looks doesn’t hurt, but I am convinced that a man with his mind, energy and drive could be confined to a wheelchair and still be a success.

Arnold came to America in 1968. He was 21 years old — no money, no English, no education, no wealthy parents or friends to help him. And look at him now: a multimillionaire businessman, a movie superstar, married into American aristocracy, practically unlimited White House access by both Democrats and Republicans. He will be the governor of a state with a population four times that of his native Austria. Not too shabby, right?

Yes, when he arrived in the United States he already had a reputation as an up-and-coming bodybuilder, but obviously he had much more. After all, there are probably hundreds of bodybuilding champions and all they have are wonderful memories of past triumphs.

The Los Angeles Times, to put it mildly, is not overly sympathetic to Arnold. Its lengthy Schwarzenegger biography disdainfully noted, in an uppity sneer, that he had amassed a hodgepodge of credits in the 1970s by taking classes at Santa Monica college and UCLA extension classes. Excuuuse me? Is this something to be sneered at? He had the discipline and the will to workout hour after hour each day, tried out — successfully — for small parts in B-movies where his part had to be overdubbed in English and he still found time to study and amass enough credits to eventually get a degree in international business and economics from the University of Wisconsin in just one year. Many years later he was awarded an honorary doctorate by his alma mater.

Arnold never looked back — he concentrated on looking ahead, achieving and succeeding. He became a very successful real estate investor, a brilliant businessman, a philanthropist who gives many millions to charity and pays many millions in taxes every year. No, he didn’t graduate from Yale or Harvard, and maybe that is a good thing when you consider some of their graduates.

The media persist in portraying him as a muscle-bound ignoramus, a show business shell with little substance. The media is wrong. Julia Roberts has been quoted as saying that, “Republican can be found in a dictionary between ‘repulsive’ and ‘reptile.'”

I can’t picture Arnold ever saying that a Democrat is between “despicable” and “disgusting.” He has more class — and brains.

A few weeks ago I was surfing the channels and came across an interview of a local state senator on Fox News. I didn’t even hear the question that was asked, just the answer: “Do you really think that at a time when our budget deficit is $8 billion, that I should worry about an insignificant $10 million?”

Insignificant $10 million? And the reporter took it in stride. This is Sacramento’s attitude to your dollars at work. Schwarzenegger had to work for every dollar he made. His attitude is different, and his abilities impressive.

I’ve long thought so, and now, it seems, millions of California voters agree.

Welcome, governor.

Si Frumkin is chairman of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews.

Dear Deborah

Dining and Whining

Dear Deborah,
My friends and I have always wanted to write to you, and now we have a cause! We are grandmothers (one of us is a great-grandmother) who have been dining out weekly at reasonably priced restaurants for about nine years. We have noticed the rapid and alarming decline of manners in youngsters. This past week, the following examples of poor restaurant behavior occurred: 1. Children shrieking with laughter and running back and forth to the bathroom. 2. Children sliding under the table and playing, eating or causing mischief. 3. Children taking and wasting ridiculous portions from the salad bar that were left barely touched. 4. Total lack of table manners – no napkins, blowing bubbles through the straw, eating with hands, talking with full mouths, etc.

What has happened to parental authority, manners and civilized meals? We very rarely took our children out to restaurants, but when we did, they most certainly knew how to behave, or else we wouldn’t have taken them out again. Restaurants are not the kitchen table or park picnic table. Also, is it appropriate to say something to the parents of children who are disturbing others? Thank you for your advice.

Appalled Grannies

Dear Appalled Grannies,
Care for fries with that complaint? If so, take a number and duck. I believe that’s a projectile stream of ketchup soaring overhead.

All moderately priced restaurants these days have become “family” establishments. Why? Most parents work and do not have the time and, as some would consider, the luxury of preparing meals at home and teaching children to consume them in a way that does not result in appetite loss in others. You were far likelier to stay home with your children than are today’s working parents, dining out on special occasions only. Today, for some families, restaurants are no longer a luxury – they’re simply cost-effective. Sadly, a portion of that cost must be absorbed by you and disgruntled diners everywhere.

As for the advice part, it is not a good idea to criticize parents in restaurants, because – let’s face it – ill-mannered offspring are produced by adults who don’t give a crouton about how their spawn behave at salad bars. You may not only not get the desired response, you might get a tirade, finger or some white bread hurled in your direction.

So unless a child is endangered by his actions – imminently rather than theoretically – or unless a small reptile or Barbie limb plops into your jello, lay low. In fact, why not dine at more suitable restaurants – read pricier – every other week? Either go elsewhere or carry on, wear protective gear, sit back and enjoy the show. Attempting to change it is not worth the indigestion.

One last thing: it is your civic duty to induct your grandchildren into restaurant training. You know, napkins, size of bites, Manners 101 – and don’t forget to richly reward behavior with dessert or perhaps points that result in, oh, you know, some good-kid sort of thing. It would be a favor to them, their weary parents and dejected diners everywhere.

Bitterness Backfired

Dear Deborah,
Your last column was about mothers and daughters. I sympathize with the daughter of “Hurting Mom,” the mother who wrote in because her adult daughter was still angry about the mistakes she made in raising her. The only thing that began to cure me of my bitterness toward my mother for the years of neglect was giving birth to a beautiful baby. I was too busy to be thinking about my mother. I am still angry, but I have learned to live with it. I have better things to do. I want to tell that daugh-ter, “It does get better with time. You are lucky your mother cares, asks for forgiveness and is trying to make it up to you.”

The only thing I get from my mother are postcards from fancy trips with younger men and big checks on birthdays and Chanukah. I’d rather have the yelling and crying and apologizing, like with “Hurting Mom’s” daughter, than the big void my irresponsible, drugged-out “flower child” mother left. I vow to be a better mother to my son.

Bitter But Better

Dear Bitter But Better,
Isn’t it ironic that your mother is off having fun on fancy trips and you are the bitter one? Haven’t you suffered enough? Your mother never was and still is not what you would like her to be. Stop waiting for the real goods from her and accept the checks as a consola-tion prize. In fact, why not spend that money on something “fun” as well? Fun for you. Fun enough for you to get on with your life and stop setting an example for your beautiful young son about how not to let go of anger.

If your bitterness is diminishing only because you are “too busy” to think of your mother, what happens when you stop being so busy? Do you resume the wrath? If you can begin to let go of the past and the bitterness that poisons your own well, you will multiply your odds of fulfilling the vow to be a better parent – and person. Good luck.

Bubbe Trouble

Dear Deborah,
My brother is divorced. His children, ages 10 and 12, are devastated. My mother, seeing that, spends more time with them than with my children, ages 9 and 11. They [my children] are deeply resentful of her favoritism. My mother insists that it is not favoritism, but that the other children need her so much more. All my children see is that they are neglected by their grandmother. My explanations have not helped…


Dear R,
Try this explanation to your children: Life isn’t fair. They won’t always get their needs met. Adults and children often divide things unequally, whether it’s time, feelings or a piece of chocolate cake. It would help if they can learn to have empathy for their hurting cousins by inviting them over, calling them, spending time with them (and grandmother?).

Yet I suspect from the subtext of your letter that there may be some feelings you yourself have about your mother’s “favoritism.” If you can admit it to yourself, reread the last paragraph – but this time for yourself. Take a deep breath. If you can sit with and be at peace with the knowledge that life isn’t fair. and if you are able to accept that for now, if you pull up enough empathy and attention for all four children, your children will be able to handle what comes just fine.

Deborah Berger, Psy.D., is a West Los Angeles psychotherapist.