The recent NY Times article on the newly released PEW findings on Jewish continuity paints a bleak future for American Jewry. The study, among other findings, reported that nearly six in ten Jewish respondents (58%) who have gotten married since 2000, have married a non-Jewish spouse. The study also showed that only 20 percent of those who have intermarried are raising their children Jewish by religion.
There are, I’m sure, many reasons for this worsening situation including a serious lack of Jewish education for most American Jews, a more than ever distracting world in which living any kind of religious life becomes more challenging, and many other contributing factors. However I believe there is another cause, which I have seen in my 20 years of outreach to the young and less affiliated: the sheer lack of joy or meaning that so many young Jews associate with Judaism.
More often than not, the perception young people have of Judaism is of a faith filled with rules and restrictions which offers little or no joy or meaning in return.
But why should young Jews be left with any other impression? When Yom Kippur continues to be the most celebrated Jewish experience in synagogue what else should we expect? How many American Jews are present for the somber Yom Kippur service, complete with fasting and chest-pounding/forgiveness asking but are no-where to be found the next week when joyous singing and dancing in honor of Simchat Torah takes place? That balance of reverence and joy is vital to keep our interest and it is so authentically Jewish. In the Temple of old, the Beit Hamikdash, the feeling on Yom Kippur was one of awe and even trepidation as the High Priest performed the service to secure atonement for all of Israel, but the next week that same Temple was filled with a sense of joy and exuberance during the Simchat Beit Hoshava (water drawing ceremony) on which which the Talmud tells us: “Whoever never witnessed the Simchat Beit Hashoeva has never in his life seen true joy.”
Like most synagogues, MJE has always drawn larger numbers for its Yom Kippur services than for Simchat Torah. This year however, for the very first time, we had approximately the same number of participants for both holidays. It took us 15 years but we did it. The same number of previously less affiliated 20’s/30’s who were willing to fast and pray with us on Yom Kippur returned to sing and dance with us on Simchat Torah.
Young Jews desperately need to experience both the serious and lighter sides of Judaism. We can no longer allow our beloved faith to be marketed as a religion of guilt and restriction without even trying to present it for what it truly is: a path which can ultimately bring joy and meaning to contemporary life. And we must learn to properly articulate how the limitations Judaism does place on our lives are important in helping to create that more joyous and meaningful existence.
The goal of our synagogues and Jewish institutions today must be to demonstrate this balance of reverence and joy; fealty to tradition with personnel meaning and relevance. Jewish educators need to be better trained to invest more explanation and inspiration into our prayer services and provide greater depth and insight as to how living a life of Torah can actually improve our lives and make us happier and more fulfilled people.
Otherwise, for most American Jews, why bother?