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Three Ways to Save American Jewry From Extinction

October 4, 2013 6:57 am 3 comments

Orthodox Jewish men and their children. Photo: Wiki Commons.

By now you’ve heard about the Pew Research poll, published this week, which concludes that American Jewry is on its way to oblivion. No need to wait for Hassan Rouhani of Iran to drop a bomb on us. We’re doing an incredibly fine job of destroying ourselves, thank you very much.

What all this shows is that what my friend mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and I have been saying for years is unfortunately correct. Despite the untold billions that have been sunk into Jewish communal outreach for the last half century, it has barely made a dent in the rate of assimilation.

Here are three ways to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to our dying community.

1. Stop creating a divide between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.

Today’s model of outreach is fatally flawed, as it necessarily forces a choice on non-affiliated Jews to choose between the Jewish and mainstream worlds. So a student at University who hangs out with his non-Jewish friends is encouraged to stop going only to mainstream University events and come instead to Hillel or Chabad. I’m not knocking that. We need Jewish organizations that invite Jews to classes, religious services, lectures, social events, and debates. But far more effective is not forcing the choice on them in the first place. Bring Judaism instead to where they are. On campus, do colossal events that bring Jewish values, teachings, and wisdom to all students so that young men and women are not forced to choose.

Last week, in collaboration with Rabbi Yehuda Sarna of Hillel at NYU, our organization, This World: The Values Network, staged a huge event of more than 1,000 Jewish and non-Jewish students that had me moderating a discussion on genocide between Elie Wiesel and Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda.

In a similar manner, bring Judaism to the culture via TV shows, plays, and music that are mainstream and intended for all audiences. Some examples include the new Shlomo Carlebach-based musical ‘Soul Doctor,’ produced by Jeremy Chess, which is currently running on Broadway, the music of Matisyahu, and the TV show I hosted on TLC called ‘Shalom in the Home.’ Like the Kabbalah movement, bring Judaism and Jewish values to everybody instead of just focusing on the Jews. We are not a proselytizing faith, but that is no excuse not to make the Jewish people a light to all nations.

2. Fix the broken and boring Synagogue service.

The overwhelming number of Jews who still step into a Synagogue do so for three days of every year and then swear they will never come back. Sometimes I think we should ban secular Jews from High Holy Day services and shift their attendance instead to Simchas Torah and Purim. But since that’s not going to happen, let’s take the focus off of cantorial recital yodeling, which makes congregants into spectators, shift the teachings away from dry sermons, and focus instead on having services engage the heart and mind. Carlebach-style services that make people sing real spiritual melodies rather than listening to opera is the way to go.

Rabbis putting out moral questions between each of the seven readings of the Torah on Saturday mornings is a means by which to influence congregants to apply the lessons of the Torah to their everyday lives, making Judaism relevant rather than aloof. And don’t forget a fantastic Kiddush with fine single malt whisky. Can’t afford it? Build less elaborate buildings and have a more elaborate cholent and sushi.

3. Make the Rabbinical and Jewish day school teaching professions fashionable again.

You basically become a Jewish day school teacher or a Rabbi after your fifth rejection from Harvard Business School. There is no social clout in it, and you get paid in cholent beans. How do we change all this? By having AIPAC, Federation, Birthright, and other prestigious Jewish organizations respect Rabbis at their major conventions rather than having them say the blessing on the bread. How do we ensure they can make more money?

Take the ten smartest Jewish hedge fund managers and have them create a fund open only to Jewish activists where there money will be managed by the smartest people in the world so that a teacher in cheder will have enough money to marry off his children without having to moonlight as a bar bouncer. The more money rabbis and teachers make, without putting strains on the communal purse, and the more clout these professions enjoy, the more talent we will attract to those professions that are supposed to be inspiring our youth.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the winner of the London Times Preacher of the Year Award and the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.


  • Lawrence Kulak

    Rabbi Boteach has written a valuable column here. Rabbis who have acted somewhat egalitarian and open minded within Orthodoxy have sometimes due to pressure and criticism swung toward the right and abandoned their enlightened ways. Their desire not to risk good shidduchim for their children if they did not conform overtook what they thought was best for their congregants. Shlomo Carlebach would not have given a hoot about this even if he did not split with his wife. his own daughter sings in front of men anyway. Its important to have judaism on all levels; not to compromise in any way with halacha, but to make it palatable for the masses as much as possible. I am sure that the real gedolim would agree.
    I only disagree with Rabbi Boteach as far as his criticism of chazzanut. For some people the heautiful and melodious tefillah help them get through the service. In that regard, he should speak only for himself.

  • After 2000 years, why shouldn’t we again seek converts?

    (also, I am sure that beautiful Hazzones is NOT the problem!)

  • American Jewry would NOT go extinct in any case. It would follow the UK model, where assimilation drops the population of Jews until the Orthodox and Hasidim reach the criticial mass needed where their lack of assimilation and high birth rate exceed the loss of secular/liberal/Reform Jews.

    The real question is not demographic extinction. The question is political extinction. The Hasidim will have to learn to engage the larger communities in which they are active and take part in the political life of their country. This may actually be easier for them in America, due to the large segment of the population (Evangelical Christians and Mormons) who share their traditional beliefs on marriage and homosexuality. Europe has no comparable counterpart anymore, except maybe in Russia.

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