Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
The American Jewish community is getting older. There is a graying of the Jewish community that is happening across the country. I recently sat at a presentation on the findings of new research on the demographics of a major American Jewish suburb right outside New York City. The average age of a Jew in that suburban community: 48. The age trend is only going up. American Jews are having less children and those children are less likely to remain part of the Jewish community in their adult lives than in previous generations. Why does this matter?
The researcher at the findings presentation I attended pointed out that Jewish identity is complex. Jewish families are complex. We used to assume that certain life choices about marriage partners, institutional affiliations and other metrics meant either an increase or a decrease in Jewish commitment. However, this recent research found that the Jewish partner in interfaith partnerships, for example, overwhelmingly reported being proud of their Jewish identity. Regardless of whether their partner or their children reported the same, at least the Jewish partner retained a strong Jewish sense of self.
Yet, Jewish life is more than the singular point of the “I.” Jewish life has always been conceived of as a shalshelet hadorot, a chain of generations. The power and profundity of Jewish life finds its expression in the story that is woven from the early days of a husband and wife “going forth” to a land that God would show them through countless generations. “You shall tell your children” becomes a central clarion call of forging Jewish destiny for every generation in Jewish time, linking the generation that was with the generation that will be.
If the central objective of Judaism is to provide a powerful spiritual, religious, ethnic or national experience for just me than there would no Judaism beyond me. I would be the first and the last Jew. This notion runs contrary to the milieu that we find ourselves in today. In a world where personal expression and the primacy of the individual is dominant, the idea that we have obligations beyond ourself seems outmoded and outdated.
To those who see this striking situation that we find ourselves in and wonder what can we do, there is a simple path forward. When you open up any financial planning book or financial magazine or speak with a financial advisor, they will all tell you the same thing: Planning for the future? Invest! Open up a 401k account. Create an emergency savings account. Do you have children? Plan for their college years with a 529 college savings plan.
Does a lifetime of investing and careful planning guarantee completely a successful future? We have all heard of the stories or known people who have lost it all through one horrible moment. 2008 was a disaster for so many people who had planned all their lives. Bernie Madoff destroyed the futures of many otherwise careful people. However, should the unfortunate moments and chance disasters discourage us from careful financial planning and investing in our future? Absolutely not.
Why is it any different with our Jewish future? Does it matter to you that your children share the value that Jewish living is worthwhile? Do you personally yearn for Jewish meaning that you can transmit to your family and close loved ones? These goals do not happen instantaneously. They require years of investment and of careful planning. The modern life is one of choosing one thing over another. It is impossible to do band practice, soccer league, swim competitions and ballet lessons all in the same afternoon after the school day. We make choices of one item over another. Where does Judaism fit into that matrix?
I am amazed how often I hear from people the following: “I’m not Shomer Shabbat (Sabbath observant) because I am not Orthodox.” Where are denominations written in the Torah? Where does it say “six days you shall work but on the seventh day, if you are Orthodox, you shall rest”? Shabbat is probably the single most powerful transmitter of Jewish identity in the entire toolbox of Jewish life. Yet, for countless Jews, Shabbat is pushed aside, week after week, to the other important day on the Western calendar: Saturday. Saturday is a day of errands, it is a day of movies and malls and beaches and parks. Week after week countless Jews choose Saturday over Shabbat, because they “are not Orthodox.” What would it look life if the collective American Jewish community reclaimed Shabbat?
Abigail Pogrebin, former producer for 60 Minutes and Charlie Rose, has been spending a year documenting her journey towards a meaningful Jewish life. This past week she experienced Shabbat. Pogrebin enjoyed a Shabbat dinner with a group of young adults spending a year in the remarkable Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps program. The fellows live together in communal housing and navigate the process of negotiating an intentionally Jewish and diverse home together. Throughout the meal in the apartment in Washington Heights, an upper Manhattan neighborhood, Pogrebin encounters young Jews staking out and claiming Shabbat as their own. She quotes one of the fellows, David, who shares that: “Judaism to me isn’t about religious observance. It’s about building community through values.” That certainly does not seem very “Orthodox” but it is a statement of David’s investment in his Jewish future. What would the American Jewish community look like with many more people like David?
The American Jewish community is heading towards retirement living. There is absolutely nothing wrong with retirement living nor with retirees. I hope to be one someday. But if we also want a Jewish community that has a future that transcends this generation, that is diverse with varied ways of being Jewish, we need to make a serious investment into that future. Yes, we are supposed to begin investing in our future right when we get our first job and the American Jewish community is way beyond our “first job” but any good financial advisor would not tell someone, no matter their age, that it is too late to begin investing. I offer one possible path forward in that investment direction, one stock to begin buying right away: Shabbat. It offers the potential for the highest return on our investment and the best thing about Shabbat is unlike a 401k we can begin to enjoy our investment right away with no early withdrawal penalties.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.