Motti Wilhelm

Count Mitzvot Not Membership

A Family Hangs a Mezuzah in Portland, OR

From our start we’ve been obsessed with demography.

Jacob’s family is counted as they enter Egypt (there are 70), at the Exodus there are 600,000. A year later Moshe conducts the first census and before he passes a second one, described in our Parsha – Pinchas. Joshua counted the people as did David.

Today, Brandeis University has a center dedicated to surveying and analyzing Jewish communities.

The results are somewhat predictable: Affiliation is down, assimilation is up, feelings towards Israel are changing and antisemitism maintains a worrying presence.

The words “Pew Study” contain a full agenda for any Jewish communal meeting.

Yet, a beautiful trend is not getting the attention it deserves.

A recent study of our Portland Jewish community confirmed that which the 2020 Pew Study shared: Jews love doing Mitzvot.

In Portland:

  • 75% lit Chanukah Candles last year (Pew reports 80% of Jews own a Menorah)
  • 58% attended a Seder (in line with national average of 60%)
  • 48% have a Mezuza (the national average is a whopping 66%!)
  • 25% keep some form of Kosher (higher than the national average of 17%)

Jewish institutions are vital, they are also facing significant challenges. In Portland only 20% belong to a congregation (the national average is 35%).

But the data is saying that engagement with Judaism is higher than connection to its institutions.

Perhaps we need to focus less on affiliation types and levels and nurture the peoples thirst for Mitzvot: To make Shabbat candles, Challot, Mezuzot, Tefillin and Chanukah candles more available.

Can you imagine grant agencies supporting the creation of Kosher restaurants and Judaica shops?

In the Torah’s two censuses the key to being counted was the eligibility to go to war on behalf of the Jewish people.

I am confident that were Pew to ask the question “are you willing and able to defend the Jewish people and what they stand for?” we would get a near 100% participation rate. We love our Judaism and our Mitzvot.

About the Author
Rabbi Motti Wilhelm received his diploma of Talmudic Studies from the Rabbinical College of Australia & New Zealand in 2003 and was ordained as a rabbi by the Rabbinical College of America and Israel’s former chief Rabbi Mordecha Eliyahu in 2004. He was the editor of Kovetz Ohelei Torah, a respected Journal of Talmudic essays. He lectures on Talmudic Law, Medical Ethics and a wide array of Jewish subjects and has led services in the United States, Canada, Africa and Australia. His video blog Rabbi Motti's Minute is highly popular as are his weekly emails. Rabbi Wilhelm and his wife Mimi lead Chabad SW Portland as Shluchim of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
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