The big elephant in the room

Many of you are not going to like this article, probably about 90% of you based on the results from the PEW report on the Jewish population in America.

For about 42 of my 48 years I had been a member of 3 of the larger conservative shuls in the Washington DC area. I always enjoyed the Rabbis, was actually married by two of them and was somewhat active in their communities. Although there were always many things that didn’t make sense to me and I always had questions that really never got answered, I was happy where I was Jewishly and had no interest in changing. I was like most secular Jews, uninformed and becoming more apathetic.

One day my wife pushed me to attend a high holiday service at an Orthodox outreach center in Rockville Maryland. I went fighting. My reasons for the apprehension were that I grew up going to a certain shul and it didn’t matter what else was out there, I was stubborn and stuck in my ways and had negative views about any other way of Judaism except my own. It was my way or the highway. Boy was I in for a shock! One of many things I enjoyed was that there were non-stop classes. I didn’t have to worry about sitting and standing at the right times in the service and I actually came out of it inspired and wanting to learn more.  After many months I started learning on a more regular basis and was gaining more clarity in what it meant to be a Jew and why we are here.

It’s now six years later and after much learning and teaching, I can see the big picture and the results of my growth. I have 5 amazing children who look forward to Shabbat every week and count down the days until Friday, where they look forward to having no electronics. I have a relationship with my wife and family, not based on the whims of society and the way people around think we should live our lives, but based on the values that the Torah teaches that have lasted thousands of years. I have children who actually run to shul on Saturday mornings. My life and my family are so full of blessings that I can’t imagine going back to the way that I was. I actually feel bad when I see other Jewish families struggling with their family relationships. The Torah isn’t just about men in robes walking through the desert, it teaches us practical knowledge such as how to raise kids, how to have a great marriage and how to get the most pleasures out of life. I know what most people reading this are going to say, “it’s not for me” or “I can’t imagine ever doing this.” To those people I would say, get back in the line with me. I remember seeing the other Jews walking to shul as I drove by and thinking to myself, I’m not one of those Jews!

For many years I have been hearing people ask about how we should engage the Jews of America. In every Federation, synagogue, JCC, Jewish youth group and every Jewish publication, this is always the big dilemma. The results from the latest PEW report are not surprising. A decline in the conservative movement from 43% to 18% since 1990. That’s not a drop off, that’s a collapse! An inter-marriage rate in the non-observant world of 71%. How can you be a Jewish leader or rabbi and not think to yourself that whatever it is you’re doing isn’t working? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  It’s time to make a change.

No one loves the Jewish people more than than anyone who devotes their life to the Jewish people, especially the rabbis. This is why I am writing this because I feel that this message will resonate with them and they will stop at nothing if they know it will help the Jewish people.

So here it is, the big elephant in the room, staring at us right in our faces.  Trying to be Jewish in America but not TOO Jewish isn’t working.  The idea of interpreting the Torah so we can assimilate into American culture is a death sentence for the majority of non-observant American Jews. The Jewish movements are killing us. That’s right, get out your computers and start writing how crazy this is and that I’m nuts, judgmental, etc…

Jews have survived thousands of years by following laws given to us at Mt. Sinai and in the Torah and until the movements started, there was never a question of whether or not the Torah was a document from God.  Either God authored the Torah or he didn’t. If you don’t believe that the Torah is from God, then you might as well be a Scientologist. It’s a lot easier and you don’t have to fast on Yom Kippur. Someone asked me recently that if there was proof that the Torah was written by man, would you keep kosher? I said to him that if I found proof of that, besides not being a Jew anymore, we would be headed to Red Lobster. But if you believe that the Torah is from God, and it isn’t very hard to prove to anyone learning from a qualified rabbi, then we can start the discussion on how to better bring the Jews back to the beauty and wisdom of their God-given heritage.

Imagine young impressionable kids going to synagogue and learning that the Torah has laws about keeping kosher, Shabbos, family purity, but no one in the congregation are doing any of these things, many times not even the rabbi! That reeks of hypocrisy. What does it say to a child when he has a Bar Mitzvah and there is shrimp being served. Why would this child ever think of staying Jewish? Rabbi’s can rationalize their way and talk about their interpretation of the Torah and say how things written 3000 years ago are not relevant anymore. My answer to that is come see the families in my community and see how relevant it is to them and how they live their lives. You can interpret all you want but I’ll stick with what has lasted 3000 years. People can’t even comprehend what being a Torah Jew is because it seems completely foreign to them, it certainly was to me. My analogy of how I was previous to discovering my Judaism is like eating bologna your whole life and never even considering a steak. Every morning I wake up and thank God that I’m now aware of all the choicest cuts of beef that are available to me. Wouldn’t you want that choice from your synagogue? Or Imagine going in for a test in school and the teacher telling you that while the whole class gets 100 questions you are only getting 10. How would that make you feel? I guess if that is what you want then you should be happy because that is exactly what you are getting.

Being Jewish is not all or nothing. No one is doing all the mitzvahs, not even the most observant rabbis. But not even giving people the option to know what they could be doing gives them nothing to strive for.

The Jewish movements in America have done an excellent job of moving the Jews. Which direction that is, is up for you to decide. We can argue all day about the differences in interpretation but I’ll stick to the one that was given to our forefathers and foremothers thousands of years ago and has lasted through the test of time. It might take some time for this to sink in, but our Jewish leaders and rabbis are smart people, they will always do what is best for the Jewish people. It’s time to stop the insanity.

About the Author
Daniel Ratner is an entrepreneur and a a part time teacher and speaker at Aish HaTorah in Rockville Maryland. His classes are thought provoking and engaging and his Shabbat table is often filled with newcomers who leave inspired and wanting to learn more.
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