Neil Rubin, Sr. Editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, was a guest at Congregation Kneseth Israel. The following was part of the sermon and talk that he gave that Shabbos.
This week’s parshah is Tazriah-Metzorah. Rabbi Weisblum had a beautiful column about it in the Jewish Times. It talks about a leper stepping outside of camp to recharge spiritually. I want to take that concept and go a little farther with it. Step outside of American Jewry with me and see what I see every day as an editor at a major American Jewish newspaper.
This will enable me to look with you at how we are surviving as American Jews, as well as allow me to get very personal, which I think is an important thing for American Jews to do these days.
Now I usually talk about the big issues – pro-Israel challenges, interfaith relations, inter-marriage, etc. But we’ll get personal.
I call this talk "Madonna or Mattisyahu: Creating a Personal Theology for American Jews." That’s because it’s not enough to talk about what we believe any where. After all, sometimes we’re not sure we want others to know. Sometimes we’re afraid that maybe it’s not good enough, or religious enough.
So step outside our Jewish camp with me, look in, and then come back in.
The first question we have to ask is why be Jewish. That’s because we all have people in our extended families, and I do, who are born Jewish but don’t do much Jewish. I have cousins and certainly neighbors like this. So for those of us who are what I call "Jewish Jews" we have to ask: "Is it worth my time? How Jewish must we be? What’s enough? If we grow Jewishly, religiously, will people start thinking, G-d forbid, fundamentalists?
Now in my job, I get to ask people about their Jewish identity, which has helped me grow.
Because of such heavy interaction with the American Jewish community, I can wake up on any given day and be overjoyed or depressed.
After all, on the one hand I can say we’re in deep trouble. Don’t just believe me. Looka t the numbers.
We used to say there are about six million Jews in this country. The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population study puts the number at 5.2 million. We’re shrinking, and we’re aging. We’re marrying later and having less kids than the replacement rate.
Worse, we have half a million Israelis and former Soviet Jews in our communities, and their children and grandchildren, and for the most part they’re not interested in organized Jewish life.
Rabbi Kerri Olisky of the New York City-based Jewish Outreach Institute tells us that there are one million intermarried families in this country. That’s about 4 million people in those families. The number is stunning and we must deal with it. While some of those people are active in our congregations, we do know that 80 % of the children of these families are not being raised Jewish, which means they won’t be Jewish.
We are, of course, having trouble with Jews as well. Only 50 % of us are affiliated. That can be as simple as a JCC membership. Worse, a new Gallup Poll shows that 15% of Jews attend synagogue every week. That’s much less than others – two of three Mormns and Evangelicals, and 44 % of Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians.
Money. We used to say it’s difficult to be a Jew, now we say it’s just too expensive. It’s Shabbat so I don’t want to talk about money much, so let’s mention a mythical guy named Neil Rubin with two kids. He spend $25,000 a year to send them to Jewish day school, which is his first $40,000 in earnings. Then there’s Jewish summer camp, keeping kosher, Shabbat food. That’s before donations. That’s just all ridiculous. How am I supposed to persuade secular Jews to do this?
Now we’re really in trouble when it comes to Jewish literacy and Hebrew literacy. You can’t access authentic Judaism, regardless of your philosophy, without it. We know more about eight on McDonald’s menu than even the fact that Maimonides had eight levels of charity. Don’t worry. I won’t quiz you.
Yes, we know more about Oprah than Akiva, more about Michael Jackson than Maharal.
I love salmon, but we’re not salmon. We can’t swim against the tide of popular culture in this country. It’s swallowing us up.
On the other hand, I’m proud to be a member of the most powerful Diaspora in history. We are 350 years into this American experience and it’s been an amazing run. We have staying power, influence and wealth. We’ll be here in100 years, stronger, more diverse
Don’t believe me, look at the numbers:
Most studies say there are 5.2 million of us, but others say there are 6.7 million. Not only that, but there are apparently 10 million people in homes with Js. Now the vast majority of them are not going to become active members of the Jewish community, but it does represent an opportunity.
And what about those inter-married, Soviets and Israelis here. If we get 10 % of them involved pick, we can pick up more than 1 million people. That’s stunning.
And why not? Judaism, after all, is the in-thing. Madonna with her faulty version of po- Kaballah has in fact given Jewish thought unprecedented exposure in this country. Now we get Matisyahu. What a blessing to have someone like that out there representing us, having him sing about God and the Jewish people.
When it comes to politics, we are more than mainstream. In the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries, nearly every candidate was Jewish, married to a Jew or had a Jewish grandfather.
We have incredible political access and influence and I’m not embarrassed to say it. That’s because we use it for the right reasons. We give of our money, time and brains.
Now we are engaged in a process of reshaping our shuls. That’s important because while we talk about Jewish families as the foundation of Jewish life, their souls are nurtured in our shuls. One operation that’s doing this is the STAR program, or Synagogue Transition and Renewal. They’re basically consultants to smaller shuls around the country. They have them doing things such as Asian Fusion Shabbat. Now I have no idea what that is, but it sounds fun. And there are Tot Shabbats, and blue jeans Shabbats and so on. Our creative programming is fantastic. I have a friend who is a rabbi in Atlanta and he used to meet college students in a bar on Tuesday night for a program called Torah on Tap. Non-traditional? Sure. Did people respond? Sure. And in Baltimore there’s been a study program called Kaballah and Krispy Kreme. I love it.
Meanwhile, our adult education, which used to be what I call adult entertainment, is now serious and hundred many, many people.
As for money, yes,it’s expensive to be Jewish. Still, more money is raised every year for scholarships. It’s getting a little easier. Yes, you have to show commitment. Would you want it another way?
Ultimately, we’re creating something new and unique in Jewish history. We’re creating a younger generation that will actually be more knowledgeable than the previous one. That is quite historic.
I could go on to talk about Jewish feminism, egalitarianism, Jewish-based social action, New Age Judaism and so on. It all gives more entry points into what Mordechai Kaplan called our Peoplehood.
Finally, -3, 4, 5 and 6 generations into this American experience, more than 1/2 of us are still Jewish. That’s not so bad. Just ask the descendants of Irish, Norwegians, French, Germans who came at same time. At best, they get a day to celebrate.
It’s not that we’ve Americanized, it’s that we ARE America
So what’s true? Is our Kiddush cup ½ full or ½ empty? As editor of a Jewish newspaper, I see both sides every day. The classical J answer is this: It depends. But I think we’re doing well.
Now I’d like to get personal again.
That’s why I say when people ask you if you keep kosher and you don’t, don’t respond, "No, not for me." Rather, use the words of Franz Rosenzweig and say, "Not yet, not yet."
Now I know that my path is not going to be everyone’s. But you can find yours. You have to, that’s because we are so American, so desirous of independence and self-discovery. We can’t just rely on "do what the rabbi says, tradition says." We need meaning for ourselves. We need the rabbi as a learned teacher, not decisor. You have a very good rabbi here, but he can’t do it all for you.
You know, the Torah teaches us of "na’aseh v’nishmah,", " you will do and you will understand". I think about that a lot.
Now a few years ago I was angry at God and Judaism on Shabbat. So I did what a good Jewish boy does in such situations. I sinned. So how do I sin? Why, on Shabbat afternoon I went to a fun restaurant in Atlanta where I then lived and ordered a hamburger. And I started eating it, and was really enjoying it. Then a thought hit me. Who’s being hurt here? God? Well, I can’t access that, can’t understand that. But I knew that it didn’t feel right for me. I don’t think I’ve eaten non-kosher meat ever since.
Now I can tell you keeping kosher adds sacred dimension to life. It forms my identity as both part of and apart from society, which is the Jew’s fate.
-That’s the nishmah. It often doesn’t come without the ‘na’aseh’. It makes me think of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik who writes how one’s natural inclination is to go towards God, even though often we put that off or ignore it. That’s influenced me greatly. I try and go toward what feels right. You’d be surprised how positive that can be.
As I said, It’s Not Everyone’s Experience, but here’s the challenge for us Jewish Jews. On our own terms, we have to deal with what it means to be Jewish. The question of "how to be J" is not superceded by "why be Jewish?"
All of us won’t come along for the journey. Indeed, as the numbers I related suggest, the periphery shrinking while the core growing. That’s the good news and bad news of modern Jewish life.
Now as we wrap up, we are about to step back inside the camp, our Jewish camp.
You already know that being Jewish is a blessing, our blessing. And what we do inside our camp matters. If we do it right it’s not that we change the world, it’s that we keep changing the world.
My job is to chronicle how you, Kneseth Israel – the congregation of Israel – does that. G-d has blessed me by putting me in a position where I grow proof and personally. G-d has blessed you and this kehilah kadoshah with a beautiful Rav and ruach.
-Our Kiddush cup half full/ may those outside the camp, see how meaningful our lives are, and come back inside, as we keep refilling our kiddush cup with our efforts and joys/