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Igniting The Spark

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It makes no sense. It defies logic. You’ve got two reliable statistics from two reputable sources and yet they stand in utter opposition to each other, like statistical non-sequiturs.

The first set of numbers is from the new 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The survey looks at major U.S. religious denominations — Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, Historic Black Churches, Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus — and compares their beliefs and demographic patterns.

Once again, we Jews have earned the remarkable distinction of standing out on the list with a bottom ranking in every category that speaks to relating to God.

For instance, under the category entitled “Conception of God,” the survey reveals that only 25 percent of Jews believe in a personal God, compared to 72 percent of Protestants.

Under the category of “Religious Beliefs and Practices,” Jews were last, with only 41 percent of Jews absolutely certain there is a God.

Meanwhile, only 31 percent of Jews say religion is very important in their lives. The only groups with lower rankings in any of these categories are Buddhists, the unaffiliated and atheists (some say that Jews also comprise a large share of the unaffiliated and atheists).

But even more surprising is what happens when you juxtapose these statistics against those of the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, which shows that approximately 59 percent of Jews fast on Yom Kippur.

How is this possible? Only 41 percent are certain there is a God, 25 percent believe that God is a personal one, and 31 percent feel religion is very important to their lives, yet 59 percent fast on Yom Kippur. Why are the extra one million uncertain Jews depriving themselves of food and drink?

There are cynics who might link fasting to a cultural habit, or suggest that while these Jews may not be sure there is a God, they are hedging their bets.

A better response, however, is summed up by the Yiddish phrase “dos pintele Yid,” which signifies the existence of an indefinable special Jewish spark in every Jewish soul that can be re-ignited under the right circumstances. The expression is often used to refer to someone who has grown distant from the faith or the fold. For instance, you might overhear two elders saying something like: “Did you hear? Kirk Douglas got in touch with his pintele Yid and came back to Yiddishkeit.”

Pintele Yid is a popular concept that is based on a rabbinic Torah commentary. In chapter 29 of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people of Israel: “Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath; but with him that stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day.”

The rabbinic interpretation of this verse is that the soul of every Jew ever to be born in the future was present at Mt. Sinai. Therefore every Jew has a “Jewish spark” because every Jewish soul, no matter how estranged, potentially retains the subconscious memory of standing at Mt. Sinai and receiving the Torah.

The pintele Yid is very much in evidence every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when millions of Jews who don’t normally attend synagogue take days off from their busy schedules to sit quietly in the sanctuary, sing prayers and atone for their sins.

It simply confirms that most Jews have a spiritual spark inside of them that doesn’t go away, even if they have wandered far from Yiddishkeit. Moreover, it is just waiting to be ignited.

We all yearn for more meaning in our lives, for an uplifting spiritual relationship with God, for a sense of identity and connection to the past. This yearning is often beneath our conscious awareness, repressed, inchoate. For some of us, the spiritual spark ignites into a substantive relationship with God. For others, it still remains a potential.

The question is, who or what is going to light our fire?

Think of a typical young American Jewish child, curious and impressionable and looking to adults for inspiration. If we examine the typical life schedules of our children, we confront the stark question, “Where and when will our kids be exposed to a meaningful, non-intimidating, uplifting, spiritual relationship with God?”

Does anyone really believe that this spiritual spark happens in the typical afternoon Hebrew school or Sunday school? Is a spiritual connection with God going to be nurtured at a Federation fundraising banquet or an Israel-based political action committee? How many families spend consistent quality time together discussing God or Jewish history? How many families even make the unwavering commitment of having Shabbat dinner together every Friday night without interruption?

The time of life when we are most susceptible and open to spiritual nurturing is childhood. Virtually all children who attend 12 years of day school marry a fellow Jew, stay committed to the Jewish people and maintain a spiritual connection with God throughout their lives. There is no statistic anywhere in American Jewish life that can beat that. The sad tragedy is that most young Jewish families can’t afford to send their children to day school.

It is now the month of Elul and the High Holidays are approaching. Jewish tradition has set aside this time of year as a period of internal reflection on our past deeds and a time of resolutions for the future. At this holy and hopeful time of year, when Jews from all walks of life congregate in synagogue, we should commit to the concept that we will leave no Jewish child behind.

It is our responsibility to make sure that high-quality day school education is available, affordable, or, better yet, free, to all who seek it, irrespective of their level of religious observance or financial resources. Providing the opportunity for Jewish education for all of our children is the only guarantee that they will maintain the spiritual connection to Mount Sinai three millennia ago.

In 20 years, when the 2028 Pew Study comes out, we can only hope the statistics will show us to be the most vibrant, spiritual and religiously educated people in America. The way to ensure it is for the Jewish community to pay attention to the pintele Yid in each one of its children.

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