Should I Stay or Should I Go?

As an irrepressible, even relentless, optimist, I hold great hope for Jewish life in America. I wonder if that is because I fell in love with Judaism as an adult. It is true that I carry no terrible memories of Hebrew school as many do — nor resentment born of feelings of outright rejection by non-Jews or Jews. At the same time, having been raised in a secular home, I had no lovely memories of Passover seders or singing in the glowing light of an heirloom Hanukkah menorah, sitting with my bubbe [grandmother] in shul, or seeing my parents involved with their faith tradition.

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The first synagogue we joined when our son entered Hebrew school was singularly unwelcoming to us, and when we drove home each week my husband, Alan, gritted his teeth recalling his unhappy Jewish childhood, and I simply shook my head about what seemed to me to be a miserable experience. We left, found a different, loving shul, and created our happy Jewish family life more or less from scratch in the embrace of a loving community. That’s when I fell in love with Jewish learning, faith and tradition. Because of my personal experience, I feel a close kinship to those who do not find peace in a synagogue community where they may feel that ideology overwhelms kindness, faith, spirituality and religion.

It seems that every other day, distressed and passionate individuals publish their stories of rejection and feelings of disenfranchisement. Yet, I can’t help but feel that it is not Judaism that they decry, because the authors choose to share their feelings, rather than simply turn away. It seems to me that the authors may be banging on the door they feel is closed to them for any number of reasons. Perhaps they do not appear to be in sync with mainstream Jewish teachings. However, it appears to me that in many aspects of Jewish life, the definitions of “how to be” in mainstream Judaism can seem fairly fuzzy to many — partly because many people never received more than a children’s version of Jewish education that alone cannot support or inform the challenges, choices and doubts adults face.

Additionally, some have never had wonderful Jewish experiences, or have had too many of the aforementioned off-putting ones. Sometimes, their commitment and values may be challenged even as they express their longing to find their place in our religious and cultural tradition — albeit it, for some, in a non-traditional way, and we should not be surprised when those who had minimal exposure to religious and spiritual Jewish life are unsure about where to look for a hand-hold (or a hand to hold) when they need it most.

I find it curious when I hear Jews say that when Hitler came for the Jews he didn’t care, in his ill will, who was secular or who religious — we were all seen as one, yet we have so much trouble doing the same for one another for the sake of good will. We are quick to decry any distress to our people that originates “outside,” but I think we need to ask ourselves if we’re causing too much pain from within. Is any movement’s ideology more precious than the individuals at our doors, or more dear than their children?

This is not to say that the theologies of the movements should not be respected — they should be. Yet we need to understand that many, if not most, disenchanted and disenfranchised Jews, often their partners, and nearly always their children — drift farther away from the faith and tradition — and they and their potential generations are lost to us forever.

But I said I am an optimist, and this is why: The Jewish people have a rich tradition of reinventing our faith and practice — from the wilderness to Temple times, through the expulsions and the Middle Ages to the mystics and the Reformation, over continents and through social change and challenges that could not have been imagined even a hundred years ago. In every generation we have recreated Jewish life, treasuring its essence and keeping the flame burning. If we did not, our precious faith would have been lost long ago.

If you are feeling disenfranchised, please don’t walk away. Please, please stay, and turn your gaze toward the good, and your passion and creativity to creating Jewish communities that are as true to the essence of Jewish faith and learning as they are to their desire to meet the challenges of contemporary reality. They can begin in your living room, at a gathering of neighbors and friends, or in a synagogue near you.

Stoke the fire, keep us all on our toes, and please, don’t take “no” for an answer.  

We need you.

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