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‘Losing Zuckerberg’ and Reform Judaism’s Opportunity


ISRAEL BIRTHRIGHT

Dear Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan,

Thank you for your article in the Forward entitled “Losing Zuckerberg – Why Did Facebook King Move Away From Reform Judaism?” In the article you lament the intermarriage of Mark Zuckerberg and ask why a young man who comes from an affiliated Reform background would call himself an atheist and choose to marry out of our nation.

Poignantly you write: “For those in the Reform movement and for those who are committed to non-Orthodox American Judaism generally, we need to take the sudden interest in Zuckerberg’s personal life as an opportunity to perform cheshbon hanefesh, to take an accounting of our accomplishments and, as in this case, our failings.”

As one who taught Reform Hebrew school for many years at the flagship Temple Emanuel in Manhattan, I agree with your concerns that Reform Judaism is too lax, too undefined, as you write: “We failed Zuckerberg and will continue to fail young people like him because the pluralistic theologies of Reform Judaism articulated since the 1960s make it difficult to grasp what we Reform Jews believe on any given issue. Our faith is too amorphous… we have lost our way, ignoring scholarship in favor of any type of “spirituality,” no matter how vacuous.”

Indeed. Even in your own article you admit that as a Reform Rabbi you would not be comfortable asking a congregant to observe some form of the Sabbath or even refrain from marrying a non-Jew. These are two Jewish fundamentals, one dealing with the culture of Judaism, the other with the perpetuation of our nation, yet you feel powerless to call for adherence. And as a result, a young Jew whom you train grows up to be less of a Jew and more of a secular humanist and is it a surprise when you raise a secular humanist that he or she looks to marry a co-religionist of that faith and not the Jewish one?

But my critique is not about Reform’s rejection of classical Judaism, because that polemic has been hashed out time and again.

My argument is that in our times there are two separate tracks of Jewish continuity: Traditional Judaism and Zionism. The real failing of Reform Judaism is that it rejected both of them. You can reject one and still survive, but you can’t reject both and make it.

To remain Jewish in America, without the external aid of anti-semitism, there needs to be a glue which keeps ideology and peoplehood at the forefront of a young Jewish mind. The traditional Torah world has strong ritual, ideology and a social matrix within the community, making intermarriage almost impossible. But an American Jew who lacks tradition does not have much to separate him or her from a philo-Semitic American gentile and he or she is likely to end up marrying one.

So the question stands: barring the super-success of Chabad and other such religious movements on campus, what can deliver powerful Jewish identity to millions of young American Reform Jews?

Your conclusion, Rabbi Dana, is that Reform Judaism needs a new infusion of Judaism: “We need to ask ourselves why he [Zuckerberg] is apparently not committed to the God of his ancestors, and to take drastic steps to rebuild our religious ecosystem.”

I applaud your sentiment, but I am skeptical. Do you really think the Reform movement will abide a “Kosher-style” surge? And even if that infusion comes, do you think that it will be attractive to young people? Conservative Jewry, ostensibly more traditional, has not fared much better than Reform.

Permit me to suggest that there is a more natural and faster track to keeping young Reform Jews Jewish. Instead of trying to rebuild a ‘religious ecosystem’, how about steering our youth to take part in the rebuilding of the physical and social ecosystem of our people in our ancestral homeland? In other words, instead of pushing more Judaism in the Reform world, why not push more Zionism?

There is a future for Reform youth in Israel. In Israel, you can be a secular humanist and still remain Jewish because you will marry Jewish. Moreover, secular Israelis do not remain Jewish only by virtue of living in a Jewish society that is rejected by the neighboring gentiles. Being a secular Israeli is very much a Jewish cultural identity. Most secular Israelis connect to the beautiful narrative of being Israeli, fighting in the Israeli army, getting married under a Chuppah, having a family Seder, and building a home in the land of Israel.

Furthermore, Reform youth can buy into Israel because Zionism is a short leap away from the Reform conception of Tikkun Olam – what is more Tikkun Olam then building a model country in the Middle East? Reform youth can be galvanized to take part in building a Jewish country, especially if we show them that their input and fresh ideas are needed and respected. Israel has all they are looking for: from Yad VaShem to lively beaches, from great hospitals to great theater, from a great history to a great future. Send them over here and let them fall in love with the land, with the language, with the culture, and with each other.

Finally, this direction is not new or alien to the Reform movement – in the 40’s Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver was one of the most important American Jewish leaders and his work assured the support of the American Jewish community, and President Truman’s, for the establishment of the Jewish state. There are many streets in Israel named after him. Today, Rabbi Richard Jacobs, the newly elected President of the Union of the Reform Judaism of the United States, with his fluent Hebrew, strong ties, and vocal support for Israel, appears to be a leader capable of implementing this directional change. With Reform rabbis making inroads in Israel, and successful Reform Kibbutzim settling the land, the path is opening up for Reform youth to buy into Israel on a larger scale.

Had Mark Zuckerberg been told that the Jewish people have a mission to rebuild a Jewish state, and that his creative talents are needed, he may have harnessed his mind in that direction. He could have been a cyber-warrior in the IDF, or may have started a start-up in the start-up nation. Had he been offered an opportunity to take part in the most exciting project of the Jewish people in two-thousand years, he probably would have taken it. (Notice, by the way, how involved Mark was in the launching of President Shimon Peres’ Facebook page. It seemed to me that he was proud to be helping Israel and thereby expressed his pride in being Jewish.)

Rabbi Dana, with great respect to your admirable mission of bringing in more concrete Judaism back to the Reform, I think that Israel holds a lot more Jewish sex-appeal for the average teenager and college student, and it is an easier fit with their current non-observant mindset. If we care about keeping the next Zuckerberg in the fold, we must help the next generation choose life by plugging them into the exciting story of the Jewish State.

Looking forward to your response,

Yishai

About the Author: Yishai Fleisher is the Contributing Editor and PR manager at the JewishPress.com, and Israel's only English language broadcast radio show host (Galey Yisrael 106.5FM). Yishai is an Israeli Paratrooper, a graduate of Cardozo Law School, and the founder of Kumah ("Arise" in Hebrew), an NGO dedicated to promoting Zionism and strengthening Israel's national character. Yishai is married to Malkah, they have two children, and they live on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.


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18 Responses to “‘Losing Zuckerberg’ and Reform Judaism’s Opportunity”

  1. There is No would of,could of,should of there is Now.

  2. It’s all up to Hashem

  3. Great piece, Yish! Love it.

  4. Well put indeed! The complete failure of both the reform and conservative "education" has led the great number of American young Jews down a path leading to extinction. The tremendous criticism that left-wing Jews so willingly express about Israel is further proof of their separation from the Jewish People. Send them to Eshchar, Shnuel!

  5. This is preposterous, the idea that Zionism will be enough to cement the minds of young Jews has been and continues to be a failure even within the "state" of Israel, there is a famous joke "the chief export of Israel are Israelis!" – the problem with Reform (a movement I grew up in) is one of confusion, "we can re-interpret the law of Moses" – except that even on a Rabbinical level the ignorance of even the most basic Talmudic legal techniques are present that added to a community the majority of which has never opened a Chumash, let alone a page of Talmud or any other Halachic work the result is clear – you produce Jews who don't things and don't know why they don't do them. The Reform never had any major success in Israel, the mindset of the majority of secular Israelis I have met, counselled and debated and befriended with is "I am not religious, but when I do it, I do it right".

    Reform has made some serious changes to its ideology and ethos since it began, one of these key changes was Zionism (i.e. the belief in a singular nation state for the Jewish people) which was included very very recently, and is in it origin as a movement the removal of any notion of Israel or Jerusalem was a key factor and part of its original philosophy. Today a movement is under way basically to replace a great of religious activities and minhagim within the Reform context, they now face a schismatic reality: they are loosing the youth but creating the system in order for them to marry/drop out within a Jewish context.

    The only way for Jews to survive as Jews is surprisingly… to live Jewish lives, beyond an ideal of "statehood for the sake of statehood" – to have a life that is imbued with Torah and Halacha.

    I do not have enough pages and time to express how damaging the Reform element of my upbringing has been, how it led to years of isolation, confusion, depression and a conversion process lasting almost 5 years. The truth is that these so called Rabbis are no more competent than my cat at giving Halachic advice, except perhaps that my cat is actually present in Halachic shiurim regularly, every change to the Jewish framework of life expresses itself not just in the moment, but for generations and generations. There is a Hindu expression that really sums it up: "Act in haste, repent at leisure".

    The main thing is for Jews to seek out ways to deepen their involvement, one Mitzvah at a time, being happy with their connection to the well spring of their tradition, it is theirs by right of birth and giving anything less than the deepest spiritual beauty is not going to have any affect on this generation who are tired of false promises and wishy-washy half baked ideals. We need the real thing, and I don't mean a can of coke.

    -Jonathan

  6. Ian Ellul says:

    By far the most relevant, to the point and succint piece I have ever read on the matter. Kol ha kavod!

  7. Rc Fowler says:

    The author needs to wise up–Mark Zuckerberg–is a pathetic God hating Marxist–his parents failed to raise him properly–rabbinic Judaism cannot rightly be expected to encourage anyone in a positive manner!

  8. Anonymous says:

    The problem with Reform (and Conservative) Judaism is that they don't accept Torah as the Word of Hashem and the Emes truth given at Sinai. If you don't have an owner's manual given by the Manufacturer, your entire trickle-down doesn't work. As long as those two "movements" preach that the Torah was written by humans, they are bogus.

  9. Is sad, it is what it is, he married a gold digger. In the long run, he is the loser for leaving his people. I think this intermarrige end an a divorce because the other one that is not Jewish and customs and believes etc.

  10. Yosef Meir says:

    Yishai I am going to have to differ with you. Secular Jews are drifting further and further away, not on food alone does a man live and not on physical building alone will the Jewish People survive.

    I always thought myself to be a "zionist", however I am coming to now just see myself as a Jew. Just like a Jew is commanded to keep shabbat, a Jew is also commanded to keep the Land of Israel.

    A Jew who has Torah without Eretz Yisrael might be able to survive, but cannot thrive. A Jew who has Torat Eretz Yisrael will thrive andgo higher and higher.

  11. אבא מיכאל קפלן says:

    Reminds me of the heyday of my reform "education"–spitballs and hangman.

  12. Terry Lowenstein says:

    Excellent. Well done.

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