The Secret to Jewish Survival

For many years, my wife and I would spend time in Boyton Beach, Florida where my in-laws used to live. They lived in a lovely community populated overwhelmingly by Jewish retirees from Long Island, Westchester and New Jersey. It’s a whole world of shuffleboard, mahjong games and early bird specials and over the years I got to know a good number of the older people who live there. Although most of the Jewish residents are not observant, they are extremely proud and Jewishly-identified. The men proudly walk around the pool area with their big Chai necklaces and one will often hear the women speak to each other in Yiddish. But again and again when I would get into conversations with them about their children or their grandchildren, there was this huge disconnect. One after the next, I would hear about how their children have assimilated and have little or nothing left to do with the Jewish community. One older gentleman, a Holocaust survivor, with whom I’ve become quite friendly, told me his 35 year old son, who lives in Manhattan, intermarried and so his grandchildren are not Jewish.

How is there such a gap between these parents who feel an almost visceral attachment to the Jewish people and to Jewish causes and their children who do not?

There’s something in the Torah readings of Sefer Vaikra (Leviticus) that we are now reading, readings that focus on the life and rituals of the Kohanim (Priests) in the Temple, which sheds some light:

In speaking to Moses about the life of the Kohen, the Torah tell us: And God spoke to Moshe, speak to the Cohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them, to a dead person you shall not become impure (Leviticus 21:1)

Rashi, the great Biblical commentator, picks up on the double language: Emor, Vamarta: speak to the Cohanim and say to them. Why is the word “to say” repeated? Quoting from the Talmud, Rashi answers: “Lehazhir Gedolim al haketanim”: to warn the adult Cohaim to educate their children about the kahuna, about the priesthood.

But what was the education the Kohanim parents were to give their children? Was it the philosophy of the priesthood? Was it the concepts and purpose of being a Cohen?

No. As the next 16 versus demonstrate, the parents were obliged to educate their children in the details and lifestyle of the Kohein. That, except for certain close relatives, the Kohein should not come into contact with the dead. That they should not marry certain individuals in the community… all the instructions were of a practical and behavioral nature.

There’s no philosophy that the parents are told to teach their children and in general, throughout the Torah, there is very little mention of philosophy – it’s mostly about a lifestyle we are commanded to observe. And I think much of the Torah is that way for a very simple reason which I have seen in my outreach work:

A lifestyle can be passed on. Feelings and sentiments cannot.

Philosophy and theology are of course important but without out a lifestyle surrounding it, without the mitzvot and observances, they are simply not transmittable to the next generation. This helps us understand why someone with such a strong Jewish identity, who proudly wears a Chai chain around his neck, is somehow unable to transmit that sentiment to the next generation: because without a lifestyle, without the mitzvot, something most of our Jewish brothers and sisters in America were simply not trained or inspired to observe, many of our own grandparents were unable to convey their deeply held Jewish values to their own children.

Mitzvot are not simply commands. They are practical ways to transmit our most cherished values and ideas.

If we want a child to develop a certain belief or value a certain way of thinking it has to be conveyed in a concrete and tangible way. For example, if we want our children to be thoughtful and caring, we, the parents must model that behavior by engaging in acts of chesed, of giving and of tzedakah, of charity. When a child sees his or her parents volunteering time for a cause or writing a check to an organization, that conveys the values of being selfless and giving.

A few years back one of our donors called me to tell me his son was coming over to deliver his annual donation to MJE. I told him he didn’t have to bother sending over his son, that he could simply put the check in the mail but he insisted: “no I want my son to see that I’m giving some of my hard earned money to charity so that one day he will do the same”. And I can tell you, he probably will because children most often don’t listen to what their parents say, but they certainly notice what we do. If I want my kids to study Torah, probably the least effective method would be to preach, to tell them to learn, but if they see their mother or father taking time out from their busy schedule to study Torah themselves, there are no guarantees of course, but that goes a lot further than all the preaching in the world.  Talk is cheap and kids know it and that’s why Torah is mitzvah-centered.

Mitzvot are the way we communicate our most cherished values and beliefs.

We convey our belief in God’s creation of world by observing Shabbat. We transmit the Jewish value of gratitude by reciting blessings before and after we eat. We give over the Jewish trait of being open to others through hachnasat orchim – opening our home to others. We convey our belief that God responds to the cries of His people by celebrating Passover, that God gave us the Torah by observing Shavuot, and that God protects and sustains us, by sitting in huts on the holiday of Succot. The power of speech and that what we say in life matters, is transmitted through the laws of lashon hara – the laws of slander. The Jewish values of humility and modesty are expressed through the laws of tzniut, by the way we dress and how we present ourselves to other people. On Purim we can sit around and talk about Haman and his evil plot to annihilate the Jews of Persia but if we want to ensure that that our children will one day tell that story to theirs, then we need to come to synagogue and read from the Scroll of Esther. We need to send mishloach manot, baskets of food to our fellow Jew and give gifts to the poor so everyone can enjoy the Purim feast. We need to perform a ritual. We need to perform a mitzvah if we want to successfully transmit our beliefs and our values to the next generation.

The mitzvot are vital for continuity for another vital reason. If approached correctly, they can shape us in a way that nothing else can. One of our participants, a young woman, who more recently decided to become Torah observant, shared that she was raised in a home very much removed from anything Jewish. When I asked her what sparked her interest in exploring Judaism, what brought her to MJE, she said it was an incident that took place when she was a student in Medical School. She shared that when they brought out the cadavers for the students to work on, most of the class exhibited a kind of numb or even callous attitude, some even disrespectful. But there was one student in the class, a young man who seemed to relate to his cadaver in a more respectful manner. When she learned that his behavior emanated from his Jewish religious background she was intrigued and began to inquire into Judaism‘s approach to death. She was impressed with the Torah’s concept of kavod hames, the honor that Jewish law accords to the dead, and that inquiry led her to study more and eventually to take on a life of Torah and mitzvot.

She saw that it was the Torah’s laws and lifestyle that imbued this young man with the sensitivity he displayed.

Mitzvot have the power to shape us in way that nothing else can. We know of course that simply performing mitzvot, in of themselves, doesn’t guarantee anything and we Jewish educators could be doing a better job articulating why we are performing mitzvot and the spiritual benefits they offer; that we recite blessings, not simply because our Sages said we must, but because we want to become more grateful people; that we put down the iphone on Shabbat not just because electricity poses halachic issues on the Sabbath, but because Shabbat is designed to help us create deeper connections with each other, something technology can often hinder.

In the end though, Judaism is about living a lifestyle and not simply talking philosophy. Only a lifestyle can have the impact upon us that will truly make a difference. Ideas are nice but they don’t make the kind of impression actions do and ultimately ideas can’t be passed on unless they are expressed behaviorally in a way of life.

Keeping mitzvot isn’t just good for the soul. It’s the secret to Jewish survival.

About the Author
Rabbi Mark Wildes, known as The Urban Millennials' Rabbi, founded Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE) in 1998. Since then, he has become one of America’s most inspirational and dynamic Jewish educators. Rabbi Wildes holds a BA in Psychology from Yeshiva University, a JD from the Cardozo School of Law, a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University and was ordained from Yeshiva University. Rabbi Mark & his wife Jill and their children Yosef, Ezra, Judah and Avigayil live on the Upper West Side where they maintain a warm and welcoming home for all.
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