In the past few years, I have been impressed by the amazing array of Jewish events and activities that take place in our area around Chanukah. This year there were at least 3-4 Chanukah-related events each night, and dozens to hundreds of Jews – many of whom would be considered unaffiliated – turned out to each. Seemingly, a very positive trend.
This is in sharp contrast to all the warnings we have heard from the Pew Study and other statistics about the waning of the Jews and the decline of Jewish community. From reduced affiliation rates…to declining membership in synagogues and other organizations…to the closing of JCCs, day schools and Hebrew schools. The organized Jewish community seems in serious trouble.
A pretty big disconnect, no? Are things really as bad as these studies say? Or are they as vibrant and full of possibility as this listing of events might indicate?
The answer is: Yes. And yes.
In terms of the first yes, here’s the bad news: The Jewish community is in trouble. Serious trouble. The studies are sound and trends are not looking good. Numbers are down, especially when it comes to Jewish memberships and affiliations. Even if this can be explained by, or in line with broader societal trends, the simple reality is that Jews are not doing or defining their Jewishness in the same way today as they did just a few decades ago – and the Jewish world of synagogues and organizations is slow to adapt.
This reality is particularly acute among younger Jews. In the crush of myriad opportunities and competing priorities – from sports to academics to video games – Jewish activity and involvement is losing out in this competition. And when Jews grow up without quality Jewish education or meaningful Jewish experiences, the thing that motivates them to do anything Jewish is at best nostalgia…and at worst guilt. Add in ambivalence towards Israel, lack of appreciation for Jewish peoplehood and family…and for a community concerned about its future, this is not a good place to be.
But that’s not the whole story (now for the second yes and the good news). The other part of the story is this array of events we see this Chanukah in our community and in places across the country, which will attract countless Jews who don’t normally turn out for Jewish stuff. While part of this interest may stem from a desire not to be subsumed in the ever-growing tidal wave of Christmas promotions and celebrations that also take place at this time – the bottom line is that there are lots and lots of Jews who are still interested and open to fun, exciting and meaningful opportunities.
This is an important point that can get lost when we focus on these doom and gloom statistics. Even though most Jews are not currently involved or affiliated, it isn’t that they have made a decision to opt-out; they just haven’t been given a compelling reason or opportunity to opt-in. While that may mean that many current Jewish community offerings are not speaking to people in the right way, that also means that there is hope that if we build it, or rebuild it right…they will come. Change may be hard, but it is essential – and this is a message that many Jewish organizations and synagogues need to take to heart.
That is why the growing focus of our Jewish Federation on “community engagement” is so important. As the leading community organization addressing the key challenges facing our Jewish world, addressing these issues of identity and connection and belonging is absolutely critical. One of our key goals is to engage as many in our community as possible through a variety of entry points. We work actively with our partners to promote and support cool opportunities to the broader community and help them connect and ensure a welcoming environment for those not currently plugged into Jewish life.
The story of Chanukah is the story of a fundamental challenge to the identity and integrity of the Jewish people during Greek rule. Yet we persevered. Today, the challenges to our identity and peoplehood are just as great – but there is also hope as well. The key is to recognize the moment and meet the challenge head on.
In the spirit of Chanukah, I was trying to find an appropriate quote about candles to sum up this particular moment of opportunity in our community.
The first one I found seemed to be nice poetically, but perhaps a bit too pessimistic, referring to the “candle flame which burns brightest before last flickering moments of struggling heart-torn life.” From a poem Terence George Craddock.
The second quote was an old standard from Peter, Paul and Mary: “Light one candle for the Maccabee children with thanks that their light didn’t die.” Also a bit of a downer, since I think we should aspire to do more than just survive.
The best I came up with was: “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” This is either from Eleanor Roosevelt or a Chinese proverb, and I like it because it not only encapsulates our current predicament, but also provides a course of action. May we take some of the sparks from this Chanukah and use them to light up the rest of the year.