The Pew Report on the state of American Jewry has frightened us, but there is a way to counter the assimilation of the younger generation. I saw it on a recent Saturday night.
It was a post-Shabbos gathering in a beautiful modern building across the street from where I live in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. I had been told that 303 was the apartment number and I found the door unlocked. When I entered, a few young people who were chatting together welcomed me into the conversation. Lots of folding chairs were arranged around a table in the center of the room. While we talked, young men and women kept arriving, two of them with flutes, five with guitars, one with a harmonica as well as his guitar.
The wine, spices, and candle for Havdalah were placed on the table, and tea lights were lit. The singing began – slow end-of-Shabbos melodies.
I had heard singing from across the street several times at the end of Shabbos but hadn’t realized the singing was a prelude to Havdalah. I was told that this weekly gathering “happened organically,” that the secret was “the wonderful personality of Ari Levine.”
I thought I would visit the gathering for a minute or two but had not realized how moving it would be.
The gathering happened spontaneously, but not overnight. In order to be drawn to this shared experience, a person had to care about a meaningful Havdalah, and in order to participate in the singing one had to know the words. Everyone had either studied in a day school or been introduced to Torah life and learning through NCSY or the Manhattan Jewish Experience or a beginner’s minyan. A number of them had the good fortune to have spent a year or more learning in Israel.
Among the people I recognized were graduates of Yeshiva, Stern, and several other colleges. Some are in graduate school while others are at work as physical or occupational therapists, lawyers, teachers and a variety of other fields.
They have not led a cloistered existence. They have gone to El Salvador and Nicaragua on humanitarian missions to help build libraries in small towns where the natives had never seen a Jewish person before. They have visited Mexico, Russia, and communities across the United States and Canada to add their youthful ruach and joy to Shabbos and Yom Tov. One of the best examples of their idealism is a program my teen-aged niece participated in this summer; it’s called GIVE, and that is what the kids do –give help to poor communities and places devastated by hurricanes.
It takes a lifetime to be an observant Jew. For the fortunate children born in observant homes, it begins with modeh ani at two years old and progresses to berachos, to what’s involved in keeping a kosher home and in eating only kosher food, to the weekly preparation for Shabbos and the delightful atmosphere of enjoying time with family and friends without the intrusion of a cell phone, computer, or any other electrical device.
With every passing year I appreciate more profoundly the structure for life Hashem gave us in the Torah. We have to live in a community in order to attend shul on Shabbos; because we don’t drive on Shabbos or Yom Tov we can’t live in a suburb with acres of land around each home. This guarantees a closeness among members of the community: a new mother has meals brought to her and her family for several weeks after she gives birth; everyone is invited to a kiddush for a special occasion; when a death occurs, a chevrah kadishah prepares the body for burial and everyone in the community comes to console the mourners.
The movements that told their members they didn’t have to observe halacha and study Torah were misguided. Ismar Schorsch, the former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has commented on the mistake the Conservative movement made in ruling, when Jews began moving to the suburbs, that driving to shul was permitted on Shabbos. People drove to other places besides shul and Shabbos was destroyed.
It will not take commissions and studies and federation programs to change the situation in the United States. Anyone who wants to make up for all that he or she has missed can call NJOP to find a class in reading Hebrew, in basic mitzvos, an outline of Jewish history. One has to have an interest in finding out what is in the Torah, both Written and Oral.
A person has to intuit that ignorance is undoing his or her Jewishness. He has to feel repelled by vulgar bar mitzvah affairs and by the use of low-class terms in Yiddish; she has to sense that something is wrong when sitting shivah is limited to a few hours for a day or two and turns into a social event with food, drink, and raucous laughter.
A Jew will marry a Jew if he or she has experienced a meaningful Torah life and has learned Torah. The organizations exist to teach, and there are many observant people who will be happy to invite a newcomer for Shabbos and Yom Tov meals.
Everyone is welcome at the Havdalah at Ari’s; it is each person’s decision whether or not to come.