Joel Hoffman
Rabbi, Teacher, Columnist

Calling All Orthodox Jews

Every Orthodox Jew is needed to do something to curve the assimilation crisis in America.

Rabbi Noah Weinberg z”l periodically repeated a teaching from the Chofetz Chaim that says: if a person sees someone drowning then s/he has the obligation to try to save him/her.  If the person does not know how to swim, and everyday s/he sees people drowning, then s/he has an obligation to learn how to swim.  But if the person is afraid of water or cannot learn how to swim, then s/he has the obligation to hire a lifeguard.

The vast majority of American Jews are spiritually drowning. In the most recent study of American Jewry (Pew 2013) if one pulls out the data on the 10% of American Jews who identify as Orthodox, the following is revealed about the non-Orthodox Jewish population: only 60% attend some kind of Passover Seder — which is down from 68% in 2000; just 13% of Jewish women light Shabbat candles — which is down from 18% in 2000; and only 29% marry another Jew — which means an intermarriage rate of 71%.

In splicing some of the statistics by denomination (I dislike denominational labels but that is for a different essay), only 31% of Jews who identify as being a Conservative Jew say they keep kosher at home, and only four percent of the membership of Reform temples can be found in a temple on a random Shabbat. No, that is not a typo. Four percent!

If it were not for Birthright Israel of which 400,000 American Jews ages 18-26 have participated over the past 16 years, JDate which continuously maintains over half a million paid members, and the tireless efforts of what now amounts to 1,500 outreach rabbis and approximately 3,000 Chabad rabbis (plus the rest of their family members), the above statistics depicting non-Orthodox American Jews would be even worse.

Conversely, thousands of Jews every year turn 180-degrees in the other direction by beginning a multi-year journey towards Torah observance.  In fact, 30% of Orthodox Jews today were not raised Orthodox.  Nevertheless, we are losing the battle to assimilation — not because the Torah is an inferior product compared to the other options, but because there are more Jews than our rabbis can realistically reach.  

To look at the math, if every outreach rabbi and Chabad rabbi in the United States were able to influence 10 Jews per year–of the 100s of Jews each of them interacts with–to get on a path of significantly increasing their learning and observance of Judaism, this would only amount to 45,000 Jews per year.  This amount, however, is just one percent of the non-Orthodox population of 4.5 million.

Therefore, what is necessary to curve the assimilation crisis is for 100,000 observant Jews to step up and take personal responsibility for spiritually reviving the Jewish people.

The three actions I suggest for engaging in outreach are as follows:

1. Host Non-Observant Jews for Shabbat Dinner Experiences.

Very few people on their own decide to start doing Mitzvot such as lighting Shabbat candles or reciting Kiddush without first experiencing such practices.  In fact, every Jew who has become Torah observant began their journey, perhaps unknowingly to them at the time, by accepting a Shabbat dinner invitation from an Orthodox rabbi or rebbetzin.   

A Shabbat dinner experience is effective because there’s a transformative beauty to Shabbat, and a dinner setting allows one to build more intimate relationships which are essential for supporting one’s spiritual growth.  In fact, in Jewish outreach circles it is said, albeit half-jokingly, that the most important segment of time in adult Jewish education is in between the soup and the chicken.

If one is apprehensive about inviting guests for Shabbat, Project Inspire offers a guide book on how to be a host.  Also, having a Sukkah party is ideal for the first time inviting guests — this is because one can invite several guests for one event, it is social and fun, and it makes the follow up Shabbat dinner invitation less intimidating.

2. Teach 6th or 7th Grade Hebrew School.

The shortage of applicants to Hebrew school teacher positions who have a good knowledge of Judaism has been at a crisis level for several decades.  Although college students and secular Israelis mean well, they are not as effective as someone who can not only make the learning process fun and engaging, but who can also share from the heart a deep and meaningful explanation of Judaism.  Hebrew school is an important “frontline” in the battle against Jewish ignorance and assimilation.

As a Hebrew school teacher one will experience first-hand Rabbi Chanina’s maxim: “I have learned much from my teachers, even more from my colleagues, but from my students I have learned the most” (Taanit 7a).  It has been over a dozen years since I taught Hebrew school, and although I have a yeshiva education, teaching Hebrew school this year has caused me to rethink how to explain every episode in the Torah, holiday, Mitzvah, and prayer that was on the curriculum so it is relevant for a 7th grader.  This experience has contributed tremendously to my own growth in Jewish learning.

Being a Hebrew school teacher also provides for the opportunity to invite families for Shabbat dinner experiences (see #1 above).  You are sales rep for Judaism and this is like getting ten highly qualified new leads every year.  Additionally, throughout this past school year I began tutoring three of my Hebrew school students for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah which has also given me an opportunity to build relationships with their families.

3.  Periodically Share a Jewish Article or Video.

The answer to every question one could have about Judaism can be found on the website which has over 1.5 million unique visitors every month.  Their articles are purposely short and easy to read, and the videos are of high quality and inspirational. Emailing the link of an article or video prior to a Jewish holiday to one’s not-yet observant friends is one way to share Jewish wisdom, as well as posting videos on Facebook, but I recommend posting no more than once per month.

Of course the above list is not exhaustive but some of the most effective outreach strategies which the masses can immediately employ.

Rabbi Hillel’s dictum “If not now, when?” is very apropos.  Assimilation is getting worse every year.  The Jewish people are shrinking and the clock is ticking.

Hashem wants to have a relationship with every Jew, therefore, He has to help us succeed.  We just have to accept being Hashem’s partner and have the courage to make the effort.


About the Author
Rabbi Joel E. Hoffman is a special education teacher for his "day job," and in his free-time he teaches and writes about Judaism.