By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
The Jewish world seems to be in quite a raucous state of shock over the recently released Pew Study on the state of American Jewry. The results are quite alarming, and I wonder if you have any insights to share on the matter.
— Mark L.
Many of the results of the study you mention are, indeed, very alarming and unsettling. One of the most sobering findings is that one fifth of American Jews don’t identify themselves as Jewish by religion. The trend rises to one in three among younger Jews. This has catastrophic effects on American Jewry, as these “Jews of no religion” are very unlikely to marry other Jews, raise their children as Jews, donate to Jewish causes, have any connection to Israel, or see their Jewish identity as something important in their lives.
As one writer summed it up, “In short, most Jews of no religion have both feet out of the Jewish community — or at least are on their way to the exit sign.” Over 70 percent of all Jewish marriages are intermarriages (when you factor the Orthodox community out of the equation), and only 20 percent of the children of those intermarriages are being raised exclusively Jewish. And the dire statistics go on.
I am alarmed and have been for many years. That’s what brought me to Dallas to start DATA more than 20 years ago, to try to do my part to turn back the tide. Struggling with the decision to leave my beloved home in Israel and come to Dallas, I discussed it with one of my mentors, the renowned sage R’ Shlomo Wolbe, ob’m. He quoted to me an article written by Rabbi Shimon Schwab in which he proclaimed that American Jewry was in a state of spiritual holocaust. (This, uttered by a survivor of the Holocaust.) R’ Wolbe told me that we must not sit complacent during a time when our people are, spiritually, going up in flames. He ended: “You are going to Texas. That’s what needs to be done!”
I don’t want to oversimplify a very complicated issue or claim to have “the answer” of what to do, or that there even is an answer. If there is, it is certainly multi-faceted and with manifold, interlocking plans of action. The underlying theme, however, is clear. Education, education, education!
I don’t believe most Jews who are “on their way to the exit sign” are doing so maliciously or out of a conscious desire to escape Judaism. Rather, it is out of apathy, borne of complete ignorance of the richness, depth and beauty of our belief system.
A young South African Jew, known by his friends as “the skeptic” due to his rejection of anything Jewish, once attended our DATA weekend retreat after much arm-twisting by his friends. After a weekend packed with positive, engaging Jewish learning, during the time the participants shared their experiences with the group, the skeptic spoke. He said he agreed to come, certain that he would actually teach the rabbis a few things, as he already knew it all. But the opposite happened, and he found a weekend of immersion in real, authentic Jewish wisdom. For the first time, he felt proud to be part of this people and this amazing wisdom, and no longer wanted to opt out of the Jewish tradition. He ended by saying that he wasn’t yet ready to give up shrimp, but that from then on he wanted to date only Jewish girls and he believed his home should be a Jewish one.
That is a success. The proof is in the pudding. If every person reading these lines takes it upon himself or herself to introduce an unaffiliated Jew to an opportunity of authentic Jewish learning, we will make a difference!
A rabbi once visited pre-perestroika Soviet Russia as “a tourist.” The customs agents emptied out his suitcase at the airport, taking out numerous pairs of tefillin, tzitzit, shofars, mezuzot and books of Torah study. They looked at him and said, “Tourist, huh?!” They proceeded to return all the mitzvah artifacts to his suitcase, but left out the books. The agents said, “These you can’t have. … These are the enemies of the people!” They understood that if anything were to foster a Jewish feeling in the people the rabbi met, it would not be simply the mitzvot that he did; only Torah study could ignite the spark of their Jewish souls.
Let us understand what the Bolsheviks knew. Let’s find ways to communicate pure, unadulterated Torah, to ignite as many Jewish souls as possible. The resulting fire of Sinai could transform the Jewish people again into a proud and committed nation that will keep their feet inside the door!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.