The PEW study confirmed what most of us already knew: despite our efforts to the contrary American Jews continue to assimilate and lose their Jewish identity. Intermarriage has risen to 58 percent and outside the orthodox community it’s up to 71 percent. Only 43 percent of American Jews have ever visited Israel and perhaps the most disturbing finding to me as a rabbi is that less and less of our people look upon their Judaism as a faith or a spiritual path for their personnel lives: 62 percent of those polled say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15 percent say it is mainly a matter of religion.
I feel like I confront this phenomenon every year when I visit my mother in law in Boynton Beach, Florida. She lives in a pleasant community which is approximately 90 percent Jewish, most of who are retirees from Long Island, Westchester or New Jersey. On each of my trips I’ve gotten to know a good number of the older people and although many are not observant most are extremely proud and identified with the Jewish community. It’s not uncommon to see many of the men wearing large chai necklaces or hearing woman speak to each other in Yiddish. But when I get into conversations about their children, there is this huge disconnect. One after the next I hear about how their children have assimilated in one way or the other. This one has intermarried, this one married a Jew but has no affiliation with anything Jewish. One older gentleman, a Holocaust survivor who I see at services three times a day, told me his 35 year old son who lives in New York intermarried and so his grandchildren are not Jewish. Another woman when she heard I direct MJE pleaded with me to reach out to her daughter who also lives in New York and regularly dates non-Jewish men. How is there such a gap between the parents who feel an almost visceral attachment to the Jewish people and their children who seem so far removed?
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchick tz”l pointed out that the first two biblical personalities to live in exile were Jacob and then later his son Joseph. Jacob was forced to run away from his brother Esau and spend the next twenty years living with his Uncle Laban away from his ancestral home in Israel. Joseph was also taken from his family and brought down to Egypt and spent the rest of his life in a foreign land outside of the land of Israel.
However each of their experiences was radically different. Jacob spent his time in exile on the run and then in a difficult working situation with Laban whereas Joseph’s life in exile was characterized by prominence and affluence. But both remained committed to the monotheistic beliefs and traditions of their forbears. In doing so, Rabbi Soloveitchick taught, each was to model a different type of existence for us living in exile years later. Jacob’s life in exile was, in the words of the Rav, “to prove that the Torah is realizable in poverty and oppression, that the immigrant-no matter how hard he has to work for his livelihood, no matter how poor and oppressed he is-is capable, if he makes up his mind, to give devotion and loyalty to his ancestral tradition”.
Joseph’s mission on the other hand continues Rabbi Soloveitchick, Joseph’s life “was to demonstrate that enormous success, unlimited riches, admiration, prominence and power are not in conflict with a saintly covenantal life”. Thus, both Jacob and Joseph’s life in exile teach us that no matter what kind of situation we found ourselves in, our Jewish identity can nonetheless be maintained.
So what happened to our community here in the United States? How is it that parents who have such a strong Jewish identity and feeling for their own Judaism have been unable to transmit that to their own children?
There are many answers but the most obvious has to do with Jewish education. To no fault of their own, most of our parents and grandparents never received a substantive Jewish education. Without that knowledge and specifically an understanding of the mitzvoth, their ability to transmit the values they so felt in their own home growing up was severely compromised.
Mitzvoth are not merely rituals. They are vehicles through which we communicate and transmit our most cherished values to the next generation. Any parent knows that if they want their child to develop a certain value or belief they need to convey it in a concrete and tangible way. If you want to raise a child to be thoughtful, the parent needs to model that behavior by engaging in acts of kindness and charity. When a child sees his or her parents volunteering time for a cause or writing a check to an organization, that conveys the values of selflessness and giving. A few years back one of our donors called me to tell me his son was coming over to deliver his annual donation to MJE. I told him he didn’t have to bother sending over his son, that he could simply put the check in the mail, but he said, “I want my son to see that I’m giving some of my hard earned money away to charity so that one day he will do the same”. And I can tell you, he probably will.
Children most often don’t listen to what their parents say, but they certainly notice what we do. If I want my kids to study Torah the last thing I should do is preach about it. However when they see their mother or father taking time out of their busy schedule to attend a class or open up a Jewish book, that goes a lot further than all the preaching in the world. Talk is cheap and kids know it and that’s why Torah is mitzvah-centered.
Mitzvoth are actions and behaviors through which we communicate and transmit our most fundamental and most cherished values and beliefs. We convey our belief in God and in His creation of world by observing Shabbat. We transmit the importance of spending quality time with our family and community by shutting down the world around us and having festive meals. We transmit the Jewish value of gratitude by reciting blessings before and after we eat. We give over the Jewish trait of being open to others by engaging in hachnasat orchim and opening our homes to others. We convey our belief that God responds to His people’s cries for help by celebrating Passover and we transmit the belief that He gave us the Torah by observing Shavuot. We teach our children that God sustains us by going out of our homes and sitting in huts on Succot and we convey the power of speech and the idea that what we say in life matters is transmitted through the laws of lashon hara. The Jewish values of humility and modesty are expressed by the way we dress and speak and by the way present ourselves to others. On Chanukah we can sit around and talk about the Macabees and how they fought to preserve the Torah in the face of Greek persecution but if we want to ensure that that story lives on, that our children will one day tell the Chanukah story to their children then we need to light a candle. We need to perform a ritual. We need to engage in an activity. We need to do a mitzvah if we want to successfully transmit our beliefs and our values to the next generation. Otherwise much of our feelings and genuine sentiments for Judaism get lost in translation.
Our generation has seen this first hand but our generation is also witness to an amazing return to mitzvoth and Jewish life which is truly inspiring and which should also give us great hope for the future. The Pew study may get us down but let’s not forget the many young men and women who have returned to a life of Torah and mitzvoth. And as more of us engage in these activities our most cherished beliefs and values are brought to life. We reveal not only what is in our hearts but also what has been in the hearts of our parents and grandparents but which was never given adequate expression. Mitzvoth will not only bring purpose and meaning to our lives but they will help ensure the survival of the Jewish people. May we merit to perform the mitzvoth and in so doing serve as a link in the chain of the transmission of our Torah and in the eternal values it embodies.