New shoes for Jews

Music.     Shoes.     Jews.

Yes, there’s a connection. Please stay with me.

Over a million words of commentary have been written in the wake of the Pew Survey. A mountain of words to obsess over a report that stated – well – the obvious: the Orthodox are becoming more numerous, intermarriage is the norm in many non-Orthodox quarters, assimilation is picking up speed rapidly, and the center is collapsing. Not exactly cheery, but not exactly news – just look at other demographic studies or walk around the diverse quarters of our Jewish community a bit, and you’ll get the picture very quickly.

So if Pew is no surprise, then why all the hand-wringing (or in some cases, insistent denial)? Because Pew starkly reminds us that, for all our efforts and hundreds of millions of dollars spent over the past few decades on continuity projects, so much of what we’re doing isn’t working.

We’ve tried so hard. We’ve promoted Jewish culture, Jewish peoplehood, “tikkun olam.” We’ve offered fancier Kiddushes. We’ve extended the age requirements of Federation “Young Leadership” groups well into middle age. We’ve even, in an attempt to be “welcoming,” cultivated a cadre of rabbis who will officiate at interfaith weddings, sometimes with a priest or minister at their side in the middle of a Shabbat afternoon. And we’ve also invested in more serious undertakings like day schools and Jewish camping. And yet, the Pew Survey comes along to tell us that we’ve hardly made a dent.

I don’t pretend to have the magic bullet. But I’m going to take a stab at what the underlying problem may be.

We are the problem. We, the American Jewish community, utterly lack confidence. Not in ourselves, but in Judaism, our relation to it, and its ability to speak to our modern-day lives and those of our children. Many of us aren’t sure what our “product” is, we can’t quite articulate why someone would be interested in it, and we’re all too willing to soft-pedal a 3,500 year old tradition that has transformed the planet because we’re petrified we might offend someone with an approach that’s “too Jewish.”

Lacking confidence and clarity, we fall back on cries for continuity that sound desperate to assimilated ears. We don’t truly expect the masses of Jews on the margins to come rushing into Jewish life. We can’t imagine that more than a fraction of a fraction of non-Jewish spouses in intermarriages would find Judaism compelling enough to want to become Jewish themselves. We don’t believe in our heart of hearts that we have a destiny and a purpose as Jews that is both life-changing and world-changing.

And so we muddle on, declaring victory when someone displays even the most minimal attachment to Jewish life, and at the very least, trying to stem the bleeding.

It’s not enough. It’s not working. And it never will. In Judaism, as in anything else, low expectations, coupled with lack of clarity about the end-game, will produce meager results.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Fortunately, a devoutly agnostic and utterly assimilated Jewish musician in Boston may hold the key to turning the tide on Jewish engagement. Enter Ben Zander, a world-renowned conductor and teacher at the New England Conservatory with whom I had the privilege to learn back when I was a student there.

Ben is an inspiration – if all classical musicians and rabbis had his drive and sense of purpose, both the concert halls and the pews would be filled.

Ben tells a well-known story that offers a prescription for what we, the Jewish community, need to do. He tells about two shoe salesmen who arrive in the backwoods of Africa (you can watch it here, in his presentation for TedTalks). They discover that the locals don’t wear shoes, don’t know about shoes, and seem to get along fine without them. The first salesman wires back to headquarters: “Situation hopeless. They don’t wear shoes.” The second salesman wires back: “Glorious opportunity! They don’t have shoes yet!”

We live in the Era of Shoeless Jews. Situation hopeless?

Hundreds of thousands, actually millions, of Jews haven’t put on their Jewish Shoes. Or sometimes, we’ve opted to hand them inferior quality Jewish shoes, the kind that wear out with constant use, or can’t stand up to inclement weather. While some in our community have celebrated these disposable Jewish Shoes, Pew shows that many have found them to be exactly that – disposable.

But what if we offered sturdy, comfortable Jewish Shoes that could last a lifetime? What if we all spoke and acted like the second shoe salesman? What if we all were utterly convinced that Jewish Shoes were necessary for life, and were so passionate about our Jewish Shoes that the great shoeless masses clamored to try them on?

It doesn’t have to be a pipe dream. Ben summed it up in his presentation for TedTalks – just substitute “Judaism” or “Torah” everywhere he says “classical music” and you’ll get the idea:

“Now there’s a similar situation in the classical music world. Because there are some people who think that classical music is dying. And there are some of us who think ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’ . . . There are 1,600 of you in the audience. My estimation is that 45 of you are passionate about classical music. . . . then there’s another, bigger group .  .  . who don’t mind classical music . . . Then there is the third group . . .  who never listen to classical music. It’s simply not part of your life. . . That’s probably the largest group of all.”

Ben continues: “But it doesn’t work for me to go on . . . with such a wide gulf between those who understand, love and are passionate about classical music and those who have no relationship to it at all  . . . So I’m not going to go on until every single person in this room will come to love and understand classical music.”

Ben then takes the audience through a classical music piece, never dumbing it down, but conveying its essence with such passion and clarity that the audience considers it their own by the end. What if we did that with Judaism?

Ben describes how we could. Again, just substitute “Judaism” or “Torah” everywhere he says classical music:

“I say classical music is for everyone. But . . . my profession, the music profession, doesn’t see it that way. They say ‘3% of the population likes classical music. If only we could move it to 4%, our problems would be over.’ I say [said without enthusiasm], how would you walk, how would you be if you thought only 3% of the population likes classical music, and if only we could move it to 4%. But [said with much more excitement] how would you walk, how would you talk, how would you BE if you thought Everybody loves classical music. They just haven’t found out about it yet.”

In fact, there are those in the Jewish world who have taken Ben’s exact approach. And they’ve proven that it works. Birthright began with the vision that every young American Jew should go to Israel, and that if they did, it would change them. Birthright has become a rite of passage for Jewish college students everywhere. Yet, when its founders proposed the idea, the mainstream Jewish community initially dismissed it as unrealistic, unworkable, far-fetched.

Chabad began with the conviction that Judaism and mitzvot are for every Jew. Had the Rebbe first spoken to the mainstream Jewish community about his vision to send Chabad emissaries around the world to accomplish this, they would have told him he was dreaming, that unaffiliated Jews would never relate to a rabbi in a black hat, that his fantasy didn’t stand a chance.

Yet today, 5,000 Chabad emissaries (and counting) encircle the globe from Park Avenue to Peoria to Peru.

What if all us acted this way? What would happen if all of us offered Judaism substantively and unapologetically? How would we walk, how would we talk, how would we be, if we felt, in every fiber of our being, that Judaism has something life-altering to offer every Jew that they can’t get anywhere else?

Perhaps not every Jew would respond, but exponentially more would eagerly try on their Jewish Shoes. As a colleague of mine put it rather colorfully: “Shoot for the moon, and you might wind up on the barn roof. But if you only shoot for the barn roof, you’ll wind up deep in the . . .”   Well, you get the idea.

The time has come to dust off those Jewish Shoes and shoot for the moon. What do we have to lose?

About the Author
Harold Berman is the co-author of "Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope," the first true life account of "an intermarriage gone Jewish." Harold was the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and has held senior positions throughout the Jewish communal world. His musings on Jewish life and spirituality have appeared in numerous print and online publications.
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