A Rabbi Sees Silver Lining In Study’s Findings


So, young Jews don’t want to affiliate? Wonderful!

Such a statement in response to the recent Pew Research Center survey, coming from a rabbi no less, surely sounds absurd. But give me a chance; hear me out.

First of all, let me not be misleading. The Pew portrait of American Jews is very disturbing, but it is definitely not surprising to anyone who is involved in Jewish community affairs. Particularly, those who, like me, have been in this field for many years (I recently passed my 40th year of fulltime work in the Jewish community).

Nevertheless, I do see a silver lining here in that it forces us to come face to face with the most salient fact of the report — that young Jews don’t want to affiliate with organized religion or religious organizations. This gives us an opportunity to start a frank discussion about the very nature of Judaism; how it has evolved here in America, and what we must do for Judaism to flourish.

It is clear from the report that Jews are not rejecting their Jewish identity. On the contrary, more than 90 percent are proud Jews. Rather they are rejecting a particular evolution of American Judaism.

The institution of the synagogue as we know it today is not mentioned, even once. The only similar references are made to the Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem, which served as the site for the thrice-annual pilgrimage. The core of Judaism, according to the Torah, is the 613 mitzvot (commandments). These mitzvot are divided between the laws that govern the service in the Temple and laws that govern conduct “between man and man and man and God.” The concept of a synagogue or temple evolved after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, when an obligation for individual prayer (male and female) was substituted for the Temple service, and it was intended to facilitate the male (only) obligation of prayer with a minyan.

Herein lies the crux of the matter. The current American form of Judaism developed as a reaction to the mass immigration of Jews into a free society and the headlong drive to acclimate and acculturate to the societal norms of the time. In order to prevent the masses of Jews from abandoning Judaism in the process of adjustment to a new land, a new emphasis was placed on the institution in Judaism. This emphasis reflected the prevailing religious norms of the society, namely those of Christianity, which is church-centered.

Many Jewish leaders encouraged this trend because they, too, were overwhelmed by the American gift of government neutrality to religion and mistakenly conflated and this with cultural neutrality in society at large. However, the fact is that there is no such thing as a neutral culture, and the culture of America was, and is, Christian in content and orientation. As a result these leaders failed to recognize the dangers inherent in the approach of trying to fit Judaism into the prevailing cultural (i.e. Christian) norms of religion.

The practical result was that the synagogue, and membership in these institutions, became the distorted focus of Jewish religious life. It no longer mattered if one lacked in Jewish observance or Torah learning. So long as one was a dues-paying member of the synagogue or temple and attended regularly, or even just occasionally, one fulfilled the obligation necessary to be a good Jew. One could even become a prominent and respected member of the community in this way — particularly, if one contributed generously to the institution he or she belonged to, or contributed to the local federation and Israel.

I believe that it is this synagogue-focused paradigm that young people are rejecting — and I don’t blame them. Though it is true that the accumulated impact of close to a century of this misconception has left its mark, I believe that this is reversible. 

The Jewish community needs to pivot from this current prevailing model to a more authentic one that emphasizes the personal observance of mitzvot and engagement in religious life. Whether it is the realm of “between man to man or man to God” they are both ultimately about man’s relationship with God. Without this core, nothing can be sustained for long. As has been noted by many commentators, there is little that is uniquely Jewish about social action, but everything is uniquely Jewish about mitzvah observance. (The basic point of the divergence of Christianity from Judaism was to dispense with the obligation to observe mitzvot.)  

We must recognize that we can’t successfully compete with the twin forces of American culture and religion with only a single force of culture. Sure, Jewish culture can compete in the marketplace of American culture, but that will inevitably lead to it becoming absorbed into the white noise of American culture.

Judaism belongs to every individual Jew. And each one of us needs to take personal ownership of it by actively incorporating Judaism in to our day-to-day lives.

Everyone needs to act as part of the solution. Our Judaism is too important to be left to the professionals.

Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan is the director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Maryland.