Not Enough Joy and Meaning

    The recent NY Times article on the newly released PEW findings on Jewish continuity paints a bleak future for American Jewry. The study, among other findings, reported that nearly six in ten Jewish respondents (58%) who have gotten married since 2000, have married a non-Jewish spouse. The study also showed that only 20 percent of those who have intermarried are raising their children Jewish by religion.

   There are, I’m sure, many reasons for this worsening situation including a serious lack of Jewish education for most American Jews, a more than ever distracting world in which living any kind of religious life becomes more challenging, and many other contributing factors. However I believe there is another cause, which I have seen in my 20 years of outreach to the young and less affiliated: the sheer lack of joy or meaning that so many young Jews associate with Judaism.

    More often than not, the perception young people have of Judaism is of a faith filled with rules and restrictions which offers little or no joy or meaning in return.

    But why should young Jews be left with any other impression? When Yom Kippur continues to be the most celebrated Jewish experience in synagogue what else should we expect? How many American Jews are present for the somber Yom Kippur service, complete with fasting and chest-pounding/forgiveness asking but are no-where to be found the next week when joyous singing and dancing in honor of Simchat Torah takes place? That balance of reverence and joy is vital to keep our interest and it is so authentically Jewish. In the Temple of old, the Beit Hamikdash, the feeling on Yom Kippur was one of awe and even trepidation as the High Priest performed the service to secure atonement for all of Israel, but the next week that same Temple was filled with a sense of joy and exuberance during the Simchat Beit Hoshava (water drawing ceremony) on which which the Talmud tells us: “Whoever never witnessed the Simchat Beit Hashoeva has never in his life seen true joy.” 

    Like most synagogues, MJE has always drawn larger numbers for its Yom Kippur services than for Simchat Torah. This year however, for the very first time, we had approximately the same number of participants for both holidays. It took us 15 years but we did it. The same number of previously less affiliated 20’s/30’s who were willing to fast and pray with us on Yom Kippur returned to sing and dance with us on Simchat Torah.
    Young Jews desperately need to experience both the serious and lighter sides of Judaism. We can no longer allow our beloved faith to be marketed as a religion of guilt and restriction without even trying to present it for what it truly is: a path which can ultimately bring joy and meaning to contemporary life. And we must learn to properly articulate how the limitations Judaism does place on our lives are important in helping to create that more joyous and meaningful existence.

  
    The goal of our synagogues and Jewish institutions today must be to demonstrate this balance of reverence and joy; fealty to tradition with personnel meaning and relevance. Jewish educators need to be better trained to invest more explanation and inspiration into our prayer services and provide greater depth and insight as to how living a life of Torah can actually improve our lives and make us happier and more fulfilled people.

    Otherwise, for most American Jews, why bother?

Israel: The Power to Inspire

    After just completing MJE’s Annual Trip to Israel I’ve got much to say about
this place and its impact on those who visit. Between our two groups there
were about forty participants in their 20’s/30’s. We traveled from up north
in the Golan and the mystical city of Tzfat (home to Kabbalah) to Jerusalem. We spent time visiting holy sites such as The Kotel (Wailing Wall), the City of David and the holy city of Hebron. And though this is the thirteenth consecutive year I have led this trip, with some of the same sites year after year, Israel never fails to inspire me.


The breathtaking views we saw as we hiked the waterfalls in the Golan, the magical and mystical feeling of Tzfat as we walked the narrow passageways, and the extraordinary archeology and spirituality of Jerusalem filled us all, newcomer and veteran alike, with a sense of awe, history and purpose that no other “Jewish experience” can match.

 

My wife, myself, and two MJE participants on the bus going to see the sights!

 


What is it the power of this country to inspire? A power that has propelled
today’s most important Jewish philanthropists to invest 100 million dollars
per annum on the most ambitious outreach project ever– Birthright Israel.

There are many factors that contribute to the awesome impact Israel has on
us all. The youth, vibrancy and fast paced growth of this young country are
just so compelling. Everywhere you go there is building and construction;
young people come from all over the world and settle the land. I spent
this past Shabbat in Ranana visiting my cousins who made aliyah, only to see
thousands of others in their community who have done the same. More singles
and families keep coming, building beautiful homes and bringing a spirit
that is simply contagious.

Israel will never fail to inspire because it has got the goods, and I don’t
mean Israel’s phenomenal technology and innovation. It’s got that too and
yet another source of pride (my kids were blown away by Tel Aviv’s
skyscrapers) but more importantly it’s got our history and heritage right
here for us to see, feel and touch.

The sense of Jewish pride one feels when seeing a chayal, an Israeli
soldier, patrolling a street, also makes a huge impact. We brought our group
as we do each year to an army base and we had lunch with the soldiers.
“Strong but humble” would be the best way to describe the special people we
met there. You felt in these young men a definitive sense of pride and
purpose in defending their country, without the glorification of war or
violence that often goes hand in hand. You felt that under better
circumstances these soldiers would prefer to be somewhere else but given the
reality there’s nowhere else they’d want to be.  At the end of our visit I
gathered our group together with the soldiers at the base to recite the
mishebereach l’chayayalei tzahal, the blessing we say each Shabbat for the
IDF, and as I began, one soldier put his hand on the head of another soldier
who didn’t have a helmet or kippah. He responded to the prayer by saying
amen and then a sweet thank you, to which I responded: “no, thank YOU, not
only for your service but for filling us with such pride”.

Despite these wondrous experiences, I still must say that what I believe most profoundly impacts the Jewish “visitor” to Israel is the realness. As I said to our group at Shabbat Dinner as we sat overlooking the Kotel, so much of the Judaism we grew up with in America sounds like fairytales; sweet stories of our ancestors and heritage that may or may not be real or true at all. But when you come to Israel and you walk the streets, you touch the stones, you see the archeology and for the first time you are presented with some kind of real physical imagery of these stories. It all starts to come alive. As the old T-Shirts used to read: “Israel is Real”.

The Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and I as I asked him questions during “Rabbi Roundtable.”

 

Our history literally is this place. It’s not just a nice story. And so for the diaspora Jew, Israel is the ultimate authentication and validation of Jewish history and of our Jewish heritage, and THAT impacts us.
That, my friends, is inspiring no matter how many times you see it. 

Love, the Jewish Way: On Relationships & Sexuality in Modern Times

    With the recent passing of Tu B’av I was inspired to write about the important role Judaism holds in relationships, not only on holidays but every day. Many people today question the certainty of their feelings and their ability to truly trust in others. Is it worth the risks of heartache and potential rejection? We struggle to understand the importance God has placed on intimate connections. Many men and women today are conflicted with feelings of solitude and the fear of “settling down,” and losing ones independence, on the other. 


     A number of years back there was a NY Times article which discussed the current dating scene for the many 20’s and 30’s of New York City. The article discussed how on one hand many people in this age group are looking for real relationships, not just a one night stand, but on the other hand still value their independence and not having to commit to one person on a permanent basis.
I was having this conversation with a colleague, Rabbi Ari Berman, who said that to defeat the sense of existential loneliness we naturally posses, we must be with someone who both understands and accepts us for who we are. However being in a relationship with someone who really “gets you” can only happen if you’re willing to open yourself up so the other can understand you and more importantly, accept you for who you really are. The only way for that to happen is to expose and reveal oneself so that the other person can truly know you.
    

    We find this very idea symbolized in the Torah in Genesis where Adam and Eve find themselves naked in the Garden of Eden; the idea that they had totally exposed themselves to one another, making themselves vulnerable and open to one another. This is why a relationship can ultimately only take place within the context of a committed relationship. For who is willing to reveal one’s most intimate secrets to someone who may disclose them to another person the next week? Who is going to confide in another and expose themselves unless they feel secure with that person? And so truly opening oneself up to another can only realistically take place within the context of a committed relationship. That’s one of the reasons why Judaism promotes marriage so much because marriage sets up a very high level of commitment within which people can feel comfortable sharing and revealing their true selves so ultimately they can feel understood and accepted. 


    And herein lies the spiritual connection to sexuality. The Torah says: “and Adam knew Chava his wife and she conceived”. Sex is just another way of knowing another, of revealing ones true self to the other but once again, only after a safe and committed environment has been established. Judaism considers that “environment” marriage. Marriage allows for the ultimate revelation since it sets up a kind of safe house, within which the couple can feel comfortable exposing their true selves and in doing so connect on the deepest level. In our society sex is often viewed as a gauge, one of the many determining factors of a choice of mate. The Torah on the other hand sees sex as a powerful and holy instrument, not to determine if the other is “the right one”, but to bond man and womanafter they have made a commitment to one another. This view of marriage helps ensure that sex is not merely a physical act but a holy one which elevates a relationship in a way almost nothing else can.


    We return to our original question: Can we have a real and meaningful relationships without making a commitment and losing some of our independence? Probably not, but like anything else valuable in life, it’s worth the sacrifice.
Rabbi Mark officiating at MJE Couple Jen and Gaby Minsky’s Wedding

Shalom

Shalom uvrucha!Hello and welcome! My name is Rabbi Mark Wildes. I am the Founder/Director of Manhattan Jewish Experience, a cutting edge program for young Jewish professionals in their 20’s and 30’s, with less of a  background in Judaism but who are interested in connecting more to each other, to the community, and to Judaism itself. MJE is a place where young men and women can explore Jewish life and meet new people. We run a wide range of inclusive, engaging and innovative programs for thousands of young Jewish professionals, including parties, an annual ski trip, classes, beginner prayer services, marching in the Israel day parade, Friday night dinners and much much more. MJE was founded in memory of my late Ruth B. Wildes z”l who was known for her warmth, hospitality and her expanding Shabbat table at which everyone was made to feel like a member of our family.  

This blog seeks to cover topics that are relevant to young Jewish professionals and every week or so I will be publishing my thoughts on topics such as health and happiness, food, philanthropy, professional advancement, sexuality, relationships, style, and of course upcoming events at MJE. My focus will be to relate as to how these topics are relevant not only to the teachings of Judaism but how we can use what the Torah teaches to better our everyday lives when it comes to these subjects and more. I welcome not only your feedback but your suggestions on these issues. In the coming days, please tell me what you’d like to see more of, less of, anything that is of interest to you, or just leave a comment about how you think I’m doing. Everything will be considered and appreciated.  Thanks so much and I look forward to undertaking this journey with you all.

                                                                                                       –Rabbi Mark