Much has been written about the recent Pew Research poll on the state of American Jewry which suggests that the community may soon be on life support. With a 58 percent intermarriage rate, including a much higher 71 percent for the non-Orthodox, two-thirds of Jews having no synagogue affiliation, a quarter believing there is no God, and a third lighting a Christmas tree, the community, with the exception of the orthodox, appears to be in terminal decline.
It turns out that there is simply no substitute for a commitment to ritual Jewish practice and Jewish education, something the orthodox excel at, even as they lag behind in their universalism and participation in the outside world.
So where do we go from here? And how do we ensure that the non-orthodox survive? We could all move to Israel. Some would say we should. But because that is unlikely, I will save that discussion for another time.
But it is equally unlikely that all Jews will become orthodox. Last week, I published a column on the three things American Jewry must change in order to survive. Here I offer three more suggestions, that applies equally to the non-orthodox as to the more observant.
1. Make Jewish day schools mostly free, just as Birthright is.
Without Jewish education and flourishing Jewish schools American Jewry is doomed. But the combination of high property taxes and high school tuition is breaking the backs of Jewish families. An extremist, draconian interpretation of separation of church and state makes it impossible for a dollar of our tax money to go to parochial schools, even for its secular departments. America is alone among developed counties of the world in penalizing parents who want to give their children a values-based, religious education. We have to fight this politically tooth and nail. If AIPAC can get 12,000 Jews together to support Israel, then a similarly well run political lobby can bring even greater numbers to pressure the government to pass legislation to fund the secular departments of parochial schools.
The rest of the money should be provided by creating a giant superfund that makes grants of approximately $10,000 per student per annum toward the cost of Jewish day schools, whatever the economic status of the parents, just as it works with Birthright. There is no need to recreate the wheel. If it works in taking young Jews to Israel for 10 days, it will work in persuading parents to accept the generosity of the community for a whole year. Just as Birthright provides no actual trips but instead works with tour providers, the same will be the relationship between the superfund and the schools who provide the education.
The money can and must be raised. There is simply no alternative. Ask the parents who can afford to pay to contribute the maximum they can afford to the superfund.
2. Employ non-Jews to lecture Jewish audiences about Jewish heritage.
If there is one thing I have learned from a quarter century of working in the Jewish community it is that Jewish self-loathing is so great that Jews respond far better to non-Jews embracing their tradition than Jews. Just look at what Madonna, Demi Moore, and Ashton Kutcher have done for Kabbalah. Could a Jewish celebrity have been as successful in highlighting it? The same is true of my confidante of 21 years, Cory Booker. After an intense, one year friendship and countless hours of studying Judaism together, I asked Cory to be the President of the Oxford L’Chaim Society in the second year of his Rhodes scholarship because I saw the impact his dvar Torah’s, based on our classes, made on our students. They were amazed that an African-American Christian loved the Torah enough to study it and teach it. Now, the Parsha that Cory and I study together has him lecturing to Jewish audiences around the country who are likewise inspired. After an AIPAC lecture Cory and I delivered together a few years ago on Genesis, the wife of an AIPAC leader asked me to introduce her to a Rabbi who would study with her. Why now, I asked her. She had been exposed to countless Rabbis. “If a non-Jew can love the Torah so much, I need to know what I’m missing.”
We see the same reaction to people like President Obama doing a Seder in the White House. If Joe Lieberman does it, it does not impress as much.
We should have the countless non-Jews, especially those with a profile, who love Judaism lecturing in our Synagogues and at campuses, and this includes, of course, non-Jewish defense of the State of Israel.
There is nothing particular new or controversial about this. After all, it was Cyrus the Great, a non-Jew, who rebuilt the Second Temple. Well, the first American Jewish Temple seems to be all but destroyed. It’s time to rebuilt it.
3. Spread Jewish values.
For ten years I have been saying that America’s Christian-values obsession with abortion, contraception, and gay marriage has been destroying our country because it moves us away from any focus on bread and butter values that would sustain our society, like a lower divorce rate, regular family dinners, giving more charity, and respecting our parents. When I ran for Congress, fighting that ‘obsession,’ – a word I used over and over – was my principal political platform. New values for America. Sure enough, Pope Francis just recently said the same thing and used the exact same word, “obsession.”
As a rabbi I am immersed in Jewish, rather than Christian, values and while we Jews have laws that govern abortion, gay marriage, and contraception, they are only 3 of 613 commandments. They constitute a tiny part of our morality and there is no obsession.
Even Jews who don’t want to be religious love Jewish values. They love the Jewish emphasis on spending time with family and friends every Friday night, they love that Judaism, in age of genetic predetermination, empowers people with a permanent belief in moral choice. They love that Judaism doesn’t speak of personal salvation but communal obligation. They love that Judaism almost never focuses on making it to heaven but rather fixing the earth, ‘tikun olam.’ In short, were we able to demonstrate that practicing Judaism is the means by which to have these values internalized, as well as spread them to a chaotic and confused world, tons more people would see the value of their tradition.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” because the first non-Christian to ever win the London Times ‘Preacher of the Year’ competition, and served as host of ‘The Shmuley Show’ on the ‘Oprah and Friends’ Radio Network. The international best-selling author of 29 books, he will shortly publish “Kosher Lust”. Follow him on Twitter @rabbishmuley.