I am an orthodox Jew.
I wear a yarmulke. I have a beard. I dress Jewish. I look Jewish.
And because I look Jewish, random people – other Jews – like to let me know that they are Jewish, too.
They approach me in public; like when I am shopping, selecting grapefruit, or looking for shoelaces. And – out of the blue – they drop a bomb. They tell me something “Jewish.” Something that feels Jewish: an off-color rabbi joke, a reference to circumcision, a quasi-Yiddish expression.
It is usually something wrong, too. Just a little wrong. Something like, “Haha look at him. He is such a goyim.”
The interaction is subtle. It’s quiet. My new friend whispers or mumbles. He speaks as if we are co-conspirators. Insiders on some big news. You know, we both know what’s really going on.
It happens all the time. It happens on line at the bank. It happens in the vegetable isle in the supermarket. It happens when I am talking to a plumber. It happens at random meetings and in odd places.
It has benefits, too. Like I don’t get charged at coffee shops. Sometimes I don’t. I order coffee. I get ready to pay. And the person at the register says, “Shabbat Shalom,” even though it’s Tuesday. And that’s it. My coffee is free.
It even happens on the phone. I once called my internet provider. My rep – his name was Justin or Jason or something – asked me, “What’s your name?” I said, “Tzvi.” “Oh really.” Pause. Lowered voice. “My name Aryeh Leib. That’s my Hebrew name.”
And the reason Jews do this – engage religious-looking Jews in inane Jewish conversations or dole out unsolicited perks – is simple.
Jews like being Jewish.
And interacting with a religious-looking Jew – in a fun and brotherly way – is a statement. It’s an expression of Jewish pride. It’s an expression of fraternity. It’s love. It’s bonding. It’s togetherness and belonging. It’s saying, “I get it. I am one of you. We’re M.O.T.”
It doesn’t mean they believe in Judaism the religion. It doesn’t mean they believe in God. It doesn’t mean they celebrate the Jewish holidays. It doesn’t mean they date or dated, married or will marry, another Jew. It doesn’t say anything about Israel or how they feel about Israel, Israelis, or politics in the Middle East.
It doesn’t say anything like that.
It says that they are Jewish. That they identify as Jewish. And that they like being Jewish.
They like it. And that’s huge.
And that’s my problem.
If Jewish people like being Jewish – and it seems they do – why are so many Jewish leaders afraid to mention it? The people who run programs – the people who lead trips, plan events, plan curriculum, lead services; those people – avoid talking about or offering up serious Jewish content.
And I don’t mean kitsch or a tongue-in-cheek sendup of Fiddler-on-the-Roof-style culture. I mean a substantive discussion that’s meaningful, honest, deep. That is upfront and real. That is unashamed and unabashedly Jewish.
What’s wrong with that?
But we don’t get that. Not often. Instead we get what some call “Jewish continuity without Jewish content:” “‘A cascade of ever-lower expectations’ resulting in a ‘culture of consensus’ appealing ‘only to the lowest common denominator’ of Jewish identity and engagement.”
And those lowered expectations are everywhere.
You see them all the time. They’re near universal. And they affect everyone. Every group, program, denomination, and affiliation; Reform temples, Orthodox outreach, holiday programs, Israel trips. Jewish educators and institutions tone-down – or dumb-down or water-down – any semblance of meaningful Jewish content.
Birthright’s CEO said that Birthright was going to change its curriculum – again – to put greater emphasis on modern Israel and less on history and religion.
Less history and religion. Really? In favor of modern Israel?
Modern Israel – Start-Up Israel – is awesome. It is amazing. It is inspiring. But it isn’t a reason to be Jewish. It isn’t a reason to get more involved in your Jewish community. It isn’t a reason to do anything. It is feel-good fluff. It doesn’t have any meaning or depth.
I don’t get it.
Jewish people like being Jewish. They accost other Jews in the supermarket. They don’t charge other Jews for coffee. Why not tell it like it is? Why not talk Jewish?
If you care about the Jewish people – if you care about Jewish continuity – you have nothing to be afraid of. Other Jews are attending your events or participating on your programs. They chose to be there. They want to hear what you have to say. They want it to be Jewish.
If they didn’t, they wouldn’t show up.
Some Jews aren’t interested in a Jewish experience. And guess what? Those Jews aren’t coming to your events. They probably aren’t hounding religious-looking Jews in the supermarket either.
But for the Jewish people who are looking for a Jewish encounter, give them a Jewish encounter. Offer Jewish content. Allow Jewish content to permeate your events, programs, trips, and classes. Your participants don’t want a culture of consensus. They don’t want feel-good fluff. They want something real.
Don’t be afraid. Give them what they want.