Moving from What to Why

Last Shabbat I had the honor of giving a d’var Torah at a retreat sponsored by Palo Alto Congregation Beth Am. Ten years ago, I would not have even known what a d’var Torah is, much less been able to give one. What changed over the past decade for me raises a question I’ve been thinking about for sometime — why do we see so many stories about people who have left Jewish life behind, and so few stories about those who have returned to it?

Our Jewish communities believe that the door of return is always open; however, we focus very little on learning about and from the people who actually walk through it.

A revolution happened in the world of psychology when Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the field known as “positive psychology,” decided to stop focusing on the many disorders that make people unhappy, and start researching what actually makes them happy instead.  This change led to a paradigm shift. Although it may seem obvious now, when Seligman began this new approach, it was a radically innovative idea. Today the program he leads at the University of Pennsylvania defines positive psychology as “the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive.”

Jewish community life offers many of the characteristics that positive psychology research has shown contribute to the strengths individuals need in order to thrive. Yet we tend to be more concerned currently with the notion of “engagement,” as we confront worrisome demographic trends. Quantitative research can tell us much about the numbers of people who are or are not engaged Jewishly, but it can’t tell us much about why.

Imagine what we might learn from qualitative research focused on individuals who have actually moved from the “not engaged” to “actively engaged” category across age groups. In contrast to quantitative research, which is primarily concerned with the “what,” qualitative research is exploratory in nature. It seeks in-depth understanding of perceptions, motivations, direct experience and other avenues of inquiry into the “why.”

Judaism teaches that people can grow and change over a lifetime, so the idea that someone in the “not engaged” category must remain there should be challenged.  Consider the life of Theodor Herzl.  According to author David E. Fishman in The Book Smugglers, Herzl expressed his belief in a diary written as a young law student that the Jews should fully assimilate.  Fishman writes, “The diary showed what an unlikely candidate Herzl was for his future role as a leader of the Jewish national movement.”

Few of us will have the impact of a Herzl, but many Jews on the margins have potential for their own personal return, enriching their lives and enabling our  communities to thrive.  A good place to start is by learning from those who already have made that journey. We can also seek to understand more about the much greater numbers of those who have not yet returned, and inspired by Martin Seligman, study those elements of Jewish life that create what he calls “authentic happiness.”

The great sage Hillel is said to have begun his studies at the age of 40.  As a late bloomer in Jewish life myself, I know firsthand that each stage of life brings opportunities for personal growth.  And as Hillel so aptly put it, “If not now, when?”

Do you know someone who has returned to Jewish life?  I welcome your feedback by email or on Facebook.

About the Author
Shelley has held numerous executive and board leadership roles in the San Francisco Bay Area/Silicon Valley Jewish community. She led development of the Palo Alto Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life as Executive Director, was board president of Hillel at Stanford, and has served on the advisory boards of the Jewish Chaplaincy at Stanford Medical Center, the Taube Center for Jewish Studies, the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture, and the Jewish Theological Seminary Library. At Stanford University, she was Director of Business Development and Executive Director for Public Affairs at Stanford Health Care. Currently she is co-president of the Stanford Jewish Alumni Network. Email: