Can common sense save Judaism?

It’s funny how the American Jewish community has a way of getting all breathless and excited when a new study comes out, as is happening right now with the new Pew survey.
October 9, 2013

It’s funny how the American Jewish community has a way of getting all breathless and excited when a new study comes out, as is happening right now with the new Pew survey.

As if we needed all this sophisticated evidence to remind us that Judaism in America is in trouble, and that we must find ways to make it more attractive and relevant if we want a healthy, pluralistic Judaism to survive over the next century.

When it comes to the decline of Judaism in America, we have this habit of getting bogged down with research specifics and losing the big picture.

As I see it, here is the big picture: What Judaism needs more than anything is great ideas and leadership, not more research.

We didn’t need research, for example, to tell us that the best way to connect with Israel is to visit Israel, and that young people love things that are free. The Birthright Israel program was a great idea, not a great study.

The most successful Jewish organization in history — Chabad — didn’t need pollsters to tell them that showing unconditional love for their fellow Jews is a really compelling idea.

Imagine if Chabad had done focus groups asking secular Jewish men if they were interested in having black-hatted rabbis with beards accost them on the street and urge them to put on tefillin

As advertising legend Bill Bernbach once put it, “We’re so busy measuring public opinion that we forget we can mold it.”

What will drive the success of future Jewish initiatives is not a sexy finding from a research study, but common sense, creativity and brilliant execution.

We don’t need research to tell us that people generally love to laugh, hate to be bored, want meaning in their lives, want to be successful, have happy relationships, feel a sense of belonging, fall in love, eat good food, listen to good music and so on.

The challenge for the Jewish community is to take these fundamental human truths and creatively and organically marry them to the Jewish tradition so that more people will be interested in Judaism.

Piece of cake.

Let’s take one simple truth: It’s better to have a restaurant with 20 items on the menu than two or three items.

The problem is that most Jewish “restaurants” of today — the synagogues — feature too few menu items, which usually revolve around religion (prayer and Torah) and holiday events.

Religious practice is an essential component of Jewish identity, which I love, but it is not the only one. And let’s face it, not everyone loves “religion.” Thank God, we’re lucky that the Jewish buffet is so rich. If we want to succeed with the new generation, we’ll need to tap into these riches. 

I’d love to see synagogues transform themselves into centers of Jewish celebration that serve up the whole Jewish buffet in all its glory: culture, history, music, philosophy, art, literature, poetry, comedy, Jewish meditation, mysticism, self-improvement, social justice, etc., in addition to prayer, Torah study and everything else they offer now.

If the goal is to build Jewish identity, shouldn’t we put the odds on our side by creating as many connections to Judaism as possible?

Let’s look at just one item on this buffet that consistently gets ignored: telling the stories of our people.

When is the last time any synagogue did an event on the history of the Persian Jews, or the Moroccan Jews, or the Polish Jews, or even the Chinese Jews?

We’re always talking about building Jewish peoplehood, but how are we expected to do that if we don’t teach and celebrate the fascinating stories of the Jewish people?

I don’t buy the argument that synagogues should limit themselves to their individual communities. Every synagogue — including the Orthodox — should serve up, in their own way, the full buffet of Judaism to attract as many Jews as possible. That’s not just good for outreach, it’s also good for members.

To build Jewish identity, we ought to focus on things that are uniquely Jewish. Few things feel more uniquely Jewish to me than learning the stories of our people and their contributions to humanity.

Stories build loyalty. The more I know about my past, the more stories I hear about my ancestors, the more I learn about other Jews, the more I feel I belong to an extraordinary family that I don’t want to break away from. I’m now part of a people, part of a grand story, part of a shared destiny. That’s peoplehood.

Even the tikkun olam movement, as noble as it is, can dilute Jewish identity if it is not solidly grounded in the Jewish experience. As Jonathan Tobin wrote in Commentary in response to the Pew study, “Simply being a good person or fighting for good causes makes you a nice human being but not necessarily a Jew.”

If all this sounds like common sense to you, it’s because it is — just as sending kids to Israel for free was a great idea based on common sense, and just as taking advantage of the whole buffet of Judaism to attract the new generation is also common sense.

Now, if we can take all that common sense, sprinkle in some creativity and serve it up with great leadership, the only research studies we’ll ever need are those that will measure our success.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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