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Is Orthodoxy Turning Jews On or Off?

on Friday, December 2 2011. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
A colleague of mine in Boca gave a sermon on Rosh Hashana bemoaning the current lack of Jewish affiliation and identity. He wondered out loud, why is it that so many are not showing up in Synagogue, Jewish day schools, Federations or anything Jewish? His question is a disturbing one, but frankly so was his answer. He said…

“I think it may be more…let me share with you…. There are those becoming orthodox, and there are those who reject the either/or thinking of orthodoxies…They don’t see the world in black and white. They reject the notion that says everyone hates me; everyone is out to destroy me. They are not fearful. They don’t view themselves or their people as weak…
There is a generation that is rejecting religion when it doesn’t listen to different voices. When it vilifies “the other.” When it only sees its own pain and not the pain of others. They reject communities that are xenophobic and too often racist. And it’s not just because they are “liberals,” but it is because they understand what it meant for US when we were denied rights, when we were a persecuted minority. They apply the lessons of our past to all who suffer in this world.”

Does the Orthodox community need to work hard to make sure we are inclusive, warm, welcoming, non-judgmental, accepting, respectful? Absolutely, and we try to improve with each day. But, to be honest, I found it preposterous, offensive and misguided to suggest that the main cause of Jewish assimilation in America is the Orthodox community.

Indeed, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat vindicated and proud this week when I attended a meeting at Donna Klein Jewish Academy with Rabbis from across the community including the author of the words above. The purpose of the meeting was to share with us the progress and growth DKJA has experienced in the area of Jewish studies and in inspiring Jewish living among its students.

The school offers it High School and Middle School students two options for davening. There is a traditional minyan, which for all intents and purposes is run as an orthodox service. And there is what they call a contemporary service which does different things each day of the week including studying prayer, journaling about prayer, meditating and more.

The question was asked about the breakdown of percentage of students who go to each service. I, and my colleagues were somewhat startled by the answer. About 40% go to the traditional service and 60% to the contemporary one. Understand that this breakdown is remarkable considering the fact that fewer than 10% of the students come from traditional homes.

One of the non-Orthodox Rabbis suggested that perhaps the reason so many go to the traditional service is because you can go there and ‘space out’ with no accountability as opposed to the other service which requires participation and attention. I was deeply moved when the school’s administration, most of whom are not orthodox themselves, completely rejected that suggestion and responded that the kids go there because they find it authentic, moving and spiritual.

What a powerful reminder to each one of us, that Torah and a traditional way of life are attractive, beautiful, inspiring and when presented correctly turn people on, not off to Judaism, as my colleague erroneously suggested just a few months ago.

Look around at all of the new faces who have joined the community through Rabbi Broide’s outreach programs. See how inspired, passionate and excited they are about their Judaism. Recognize that we have the power to influence so many more when we project everything that is right about our magnificent tradition.

Know with complete confidence that unaffiliated Jews are overwhelmingly not rejecting orthodoxy; they are just not exposed to what it’s really all about. Inspire yourself to inspire others!

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