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A letter to Ronald Lauder from the front lines

It's not Israel that's driving young people away from Judaism, it's ignorance of their religion's ageless wisdom
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Berlin, Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014.(Photo credit: AP/Markus Schreiber)
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Berlin, Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014.(Photo credit: AP/Markus Schreiber)

Dear Mr. Lauder,

For many years, I have watched from afar and was inspired by your dedication and commitment to the Jewish people. That is why, when I read your piece in the New York Times (Israel’s Self-Inflicted Wounds), I was deeply pained. Partially because you took to the pages of a paper that relishes criticism of Israel, and partially because there is potential for those whose interests are inimical to the Jewish people to use your criticism for nefarious reasons. And most importantly, I was pained because I think some of your assertions are simply not a reflection of reality.

Young people, you write, are being turned off by Israel because of government policies, the disagreements over the religious nature of the country, and issues of the peace process. While there is no question that these issues are important, the claim that it’s what is driving most young Jews away from Judaism is simply not true. In a masterful PR strategy, the liberal Jewish leaders have used the Kotel to create a so-called crisis with world Jewry. But most of world Jewry are not even aware of that crisis. Yes, the leadership of those movements is concerned, but the average college student or young professional starting his or her career does not care if there is a joint entrance or not.

The real issue is that young Jews don’t know much about Judaism. The process of assimilation is a century and half old. America and other western countries provide unparalleled freedom and Jews today do not feel vulnerable like those of decades ago in the post-war era. They did not live through the trials and tribulations of Israel’s birth or hear the blood curdling threats to “throw the Jews in to the sea” before the Six Day War. Anti Semitism has been pushed to the societal fringe, Jews don’t feel threatened and so they don’t coalesce inward. Nor are there issues like Soviet Jewry to capture their imaginations. Jews in America are comfortable, Israel a Westernized high tech country in a tough neighborhood.

The real issue is that young Jews do not see the relevance of of Judaism in their lives. To them, a page of Talmud is like hieroglyphics, religious observance a faint encounter at a bar mitzvah. They don’t know the difference between Rashi and Rabbi Akiva. And the Passover seder was the Maxwell House haggadah, a few words in Hebrew, maybe the four questions and a family dinner. Less and less young Jews are getting even the basics in Hebrew School. Campus rabbis and Birthright leaders tell me that there has been an interesting phenomena in the last few years. Today’s students know much less about Judaism than those of a decade ago. Many don’t even understand the nuanced differences between traditional Judaism and the liberal movements.

The real challenge is not Israeli politics — that’s just an excuse for those who have an agenda either promoting a peace process or religious pluralism in Israel. They hope that by claiming that American Jews are being turned away, it will advance their cause in Israel, where liberal movements are tiny and have little political clout.

Those issues don’t resonate amongst most young Jews. What touches their souls is meaning and purpose and we do see great numbers beginning to connect in that way. As a Chabad rabbi who has been in the trenches for four decades, I have been astonished to see the tens of thousands who, step-by-step, are reconnecting with the spiritual core of Judaism. While a few members of “If Not Now organization” are getting headlines protesting in front of the offices of some major Jewish organization and lamenting about Jews being turned off, 1,000 young Jewish professionals attended a Chabad Purim event in Los Angeles.

According to a survey by the Jewish Federation of MIami 47% of Jews 35 and younger are active in Chabad-80% not orthodox. Why are young Jews listening to the rabbis in the black hats, and the rebbetzins with shaitels? Because they are the ones talking about the deeper issues: what the Torah has to say about their lives, and that Israel is not ours because of the Balfour Declaration or the UN, but because legacy that reaches back to to Abraham.

Yes, there are issues that divide Jews around the world — but what’s new? Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai was in a conflict with the Zealots led by his nephew, Abba Sikrah, during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the year 70. When Avraham Geiger started the Reform movement in Germany, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch opposed him. Ben Gurion championed Labor Zionism, and Jabotinsky and Begin put forth an alternative vision. But there is a major difference between young Jews today and those of a century ago. Then, they were much closer to observance and had a modicum of Jewish knowledge. Then, the debates that engulfed the Jewish world were important to most Jews. Today, the debates are amongst the leaders and activists while the vast amount of Jews are simply not in tune with those issues.

There is only one tried and true way of creating Jewish renaissance. The priority is not changing the politics of Israel — even though getting all to treat each other with greater Ahavat Yisroel (Love of our fellows) is an admirable quality. It’s making Judaism relevant to their lives, and that is by teaching Torah. Sharing with the next generation the wisdom of the ages that reaches back to Mount Sinai, the moment that formed us as a nation. Imparting the Divine Gift of Knowledge embedded it the Torah providing us with the navigational tools, a Waze to find a path in life. Today’s challenge is roll back over century of paucity of Jewish learning, inspire the next generation with knowledge of the past, so they too can live a rich Jewish life.

And, once they are knowledgeable, they can participate in the debating the great issues of the Jewish world.

Sincerely
David Eliezrie

Rabbi Eliezrie is a veteran Chabad Shliach in California, and author of “The Secret of Chabad”.

About the Author
Rabbi David Eliezrie is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County California
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