Laying My Soul Bare as the City Burns
I attended a small focus group of founders, philanthropists, and high profile leaders in my community that focused on the challenges facing the Jewish community in San Diego. The demographics facing the Jews of our city are, for people like myself, greatly distressing, and highly opportunistic. Over 80% of the Jews here are unaffiliated. Despite having a high level of Jewish pride, they don’t have a connection to ongoing Jewish learning or spiritual growth which in my mind is as essential for spirituality as working out is to the body.
The fact that many Jews don’t attend synagogue isn’t really troubling for me. As someone who has long preached that the synagogue model has got to go (What??? I thought you were a rabbi!) this isn’t the end of the world. And, if you look at the numbers, this is the way of the world. Certainly I am not advocating that Jews stop going to synagogue as we in the more ‘traditional’ communities are obligated to pray three times a day in a quorum of at least ten people, but outside of that, I’d be more than happy to see the doors closed on an institution that worked well in America for many years but simply isn’t anymore.
The “Temple” as it was referred to as I grew up (I identified as a Reform Jew) wasn’t used for daily minyanim, because my reform synagogue didn’t have daily minyanim. It didn’t have Shabbos morning services. Friday night services were lightly attended. I am/was aware that Conservative synagogues did have more prayer opportunities, but except for Friday night the ones I attended were not very big. Rather, the synagogue served as a community center. I find this model highly problematic for a variety of reasons.
The first issue is the tremendous overhead costs in paying for the large building, staff, rabbinic salaries, etc. These costs, paid for in theory by membership dues, means that people pay a lot of money for services of which they rarely take advantage. You only have so many kids for Bar/Bat Mitzvah training, you only get married once (or a few times), you can only die once, etc. So there is a high cost for participation in an institution that you don’t see a lot of daily value from.
And then there is the quiet panic over the fact that the millennial generation simply are not going to synagogue anymore. The beautiful massive buildings are largely empty, membership has plummeted to the extent that now many shuls are offering it for free, and the older generation is making endowments to the buildings to ensure their continuity in the absence of the clear succession of younger people to lead.
Why are 80% of people disengaged and not part of a synagogue? First, as a student of business, I want to point out that this is a clear statement by the market that no one wants the product. At least in San Diego, the Jewish community is high decentralized, the synagogues don’t provide the inspiration or community feel they once did, and most Jews only frequent there a few times a year or when the lifecycle events require it (birth, bar mitzvah, marriages, death). The rabbi is more of a figure head instead of a halachic authority as he was in millennia past, and Jews today who are not orthodox (and many who are) don’t have a personal, close relationship with a rabbi.
As a ‘renegade rabbi’ without a shul, I have been getting more and more opportunities to do lifetime ritual events myself, with those who come to me asking to do their children’s bar and bat mitzvah training or weddings saying that they don’t connect with a shul, don’t want to pay the buckets of money it costs for membership and would rather a more tailored, personal experience that I can offer.
So with this in mind, I came to the meeting of Jewish leaders which was wrought with plenty of hand wringing and shocking statistics of Jewish disengagement. Sure, people are still giving money to Jewish causes, but it’s a lot less. And a lot fewer people are donating than in previous years. Jewish institutions are shifting away from education and into the morass of ‘social causes’ that have little to do with being Jewish except that it employs Jewish owned capital. The group was quick to point out that this doesn’t perpetuate Jewish engagement, but perhaps that isn’t the institutional goals of the groups making this shift.
The heartbreaking book, The Unheeded Cry, recorded the tragic and heroic efforts of Rabbi Chaim Michael Dov Weissmandl’s attempt to save Jews during the Holocaust. There was a lesson or concept in the book that has haunted me for years. Rabbi Weissmandl had successfully negotiated with the Germans that for a specified amount of money, the Nazis would stop the transports. He spent the war running all over Europe to raise funds from Jewish communities to save Jews. And largely, as history has shown, he was unsuccessful. Each community turned towards their own needs, instead of funneling funds towards the more pressing need of saving Jews.
To an extent, that is where I feel we are now. Yes, thank G-d our physical security has never been better. We are blessed with wealth, comfort, and status not seen by our people in millenia. The spectre of the Holocaust or anti-Semitism, for most of us, doesn’t hang over our heads. But at the same time, in my mind our people’s spirit is at risk. Disengagement symbolises a spiritual malady that our brothers and sisters are removed from their heritage, uneducated about why it’s important, and most crucially, being denied authentic, relevant, and transformative Jewish experiences. “Saving” Jews spiritually through education and engagement, in my mind, just costs money. You need someone/people who can do the job, but they exist. And the right money, spent on the right things/institutions/people could cause a renaissance in our community.
What works is engaging education. What works is relevance. There is a fire inside Jewish hearts that just needs to be kindled. As someone who’s spent over a decade in the field, and my entire life either looking to be inspired or inspiring others, I know that the methodology might change, but the need is the same. And if we aren’t lighting the fire of Jewish pride and stoking the desire to connect on a profound level, then we aren’t doing our jobs. There is nothing wrong with the Jewish community. We as people who are educated, or do have a platform, have to get better, in order to turn the tide. If people aren’t engaged, look at the leadership. Look at the people taking money to lead, and ask if they are the right people for the job.
My blood boils when I consider how much money is spent on salaries for so little clear return. It’s the blood money that Rabbi Weissmandl was looking for. If our leaders can’t inspire, don’t know enough about Judaism to make a compelling case, or can’t channel the funds to people who can, let them step aside and give someone else a chance. Ironic as it is that someone in Jewish non profit work hates Jewish non profit, but I feel that we just shut off any sense of logic or reason when it comes to our leaders.
I know many people who oversee millions of philanthropic dollars to be dedicated to Jewish causes. Do these people ever sit and learned anything Jewish? Do they themselves practice Judaism? Do they know what they are talking about? Oh…wait…maybe that shouldn’t be a requirement. The shuls sit empty. There are enough Jews in my city to fill them all to the rafters. Does anyone bother asking why the leadership isn’t pushed to increase engagement?
So perhaps I am the armchair quarterback. Or perhaps I am the boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes fable, calling out the obvious that no one sees or dares articulate. But on the other hand, perhaps it isn’t so obvious. Right now, the way our community is facing the spectre of assimilation and apathy is like standing up to a tank with a sword. It’s not happening.
We moved here two years ago. When we got to San Diego, I couldn’t wait to move back to LA. I didn’t know how I could raise my kids here because I felt that they didn’t have the role models that we had there. Something over the last year changed. I feel that this community has become my responsibility. I saw there are people here that could inspire me, and could be good role models for my children (of course I know the first stop of responsibility is my wife and I). I see what’s going on and it makes me so sad. So many Jewish people, from children to seniors, are here looking to be inspired. And there are so many meetings. So many committees and non profits and non profit professionals who are here justifying their salaries. On the ground our spiritual lives are in peril. Dying from lack of nourishment. Dying from lack of engaging opportunities. There is no shortage of social activities, no shortage of charity, no shortage of service opportunities. All of them are great. But there is a big shortage of spirituality.
That’s where my focus is. What can I do? How can I do that? I almost want to give up on the money. I invest my own blood, sweat, tears, and cash into building an online platform because I feel that’s all I can control. And that’s all I can afford. I need to get my message out there, I need to do my part and get to work while the people who could provide the needed funds that would allow me to multiply my ability to be effective across many different demographics sit and talk about what to do, or how to do it. Maybe the money will come, maybe it won’t. Maybe I’m naive and like every person before they see the rigors and challenges of the job itself have this youthful naivety that once you actually get the ability to make changes you see how hard it is.
But I don’t buy it. Honestly, I don’t. If there is one things Jews do is not take into account how hard it is, according to the laws of nature, to be successful in inspiring the next generation. If we did, we would never have started up against the Syrian Greeks. Or any of our other enemies. We just do it and if we die, we go down in glory. But overwhelmingly, when we put it all out there, we win. Because G-d wants us to win.
As Vince Lombardi says “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.
Maybe this is nothing other than my own call to action. The letter that will accuse me after I pass on to the next world of me seeing the issue and not doing enough. Or maybe it’s a rallying cry for our community here to go forward and actually do what needs to be done. It matters that our people are connected to spirituality, not writing obligatory dues to a synagogue they don’t attend or a foundation they support because their grandparents supported it in the past. Ask tough questions. Are our leaders leading? Is our philanthropic money actually doing anything to perpetuate Jewish survival? Are we ourselves on fire, and if not, why? What can we do?
I feel strongly G-d is putting the crosshairs on our fine city and asking for leaders to rise up. To fight an authentic fight. To bring inspiration where there is apathy. History speaks for itself, but maybe we should raise our voices and be heard.
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