Twelve-year-old Elisheva Cohen was finally permitted to the Surfside site where her father and uncle remain missing. Sitting off to the side on her own, she began reciting Tehillim. Crying out to the Almighty on behalf of herself and her family, her prayers were also on behalf of all of the missing and all of their families. This beautiful, private, and for her, natural moment of faith so inspired Surfside’s mayor that he spoke about her to the press, bringing Elisheva international media attention and a request to meet from President Biden.
Elisheva’s faith and concern for others resonated with so many that the vibrations were felt and heard around the world. But let’s be honest with ourselves: what percentage of Jewish American 12-year-olds today know what Tehillim are? Know how to call out to the Almighty? One fourth? One fifth? Think again. The recent Pew Study Report (May 2021) indicates that just 12 percent of American Jews attend religious services at least weekly in a synagogue, temple, or “less formal setting” of any denomination.
The Jewish people, individually and collectively, are good at coming together and crying out on each other’s behalf when there is a devastating tragedy, or when we share an external enemy. We wish we never had to experience the moments in history that tear at our hearts like Meron and Surfside. But when we do, we turn to Hashem and to each other.
Our challenge has always been our ability to focus on unity when we are not responding to devastation or fighting outside enemies. And that challenge is unprecedented in modern history.
Decades ago, when Rav Noah Weinberg, zt”l, founded Aish, he did so out of concern for our collective Jewish future. Jewish souls were being lost through assimilation and intermarriage in increasing and disturbing numbers and he knew something had to be done. A culture shift began, which continues today, to make outreach an integral part of being an observant Jew. He radically changed the Jewish world’s cognizance that “kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh” meant, and means, concern for our fellow Jews “asher lo yodea lishol” – that do not know how to ask.
As a people, we have seen so much change. The religious and proudly Jewish population is the only sector whose number has grown in the past 20 years – except for one other portion of the population: those that check the box of “Jewish” but do not consider Judaism their religion.
The Pew Study also reports that 17 percent of U.S. Jews under the age of 30 say they are Orthodox, compared with three percent of Jews ages 65 and older. At the same time, 41 percent of young Jewish adults do not identify with any particular branch of American Judaism. Most of the people in this category are “Jews of no religion” – they describe their religion as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular.
Those children and grandchildren that we did not reach, that do not know Torah and did not impart it to their children – where are they?
They are immersed in secular contemporary culture and media. Raised without an appreciation of the gift that is Judaism, sometimes given Jewish culture without any Torah knowledge, they are tragically left with little reason to see Judaism as more than a burden. Surrounded by a culture that tells them Judaism is antiquated and negative, some Jews naturally distance themselves. They have no reason to mistrust all that is said about us in the mainstream media. They consequently attack Israel.
As a people, we have not successfully stemmed assimilation in the U.S. We have allowed it to grow, which means we have allowed a situation to develop in which young Jews are in the fight – against other Jews. It’s in our Jewish DNA to be builders, fighters, activists. However, left misdirected, that drive to change/fix/grow is being used to “fix the world” by attacking other Jews, turned against ourselves. Take a look online at the IfNotNow movement to see just one example of Jewish millennials actively using their talents and passions, their sense of identity, to attack the Jewish homeland.
Tisha B’Av is the one moment during the year to reflect deeply on the disunity that caused the tremendous loss of the Beis HaMikdash. It is also a time to contemplate the lack of our true unity today. Our real work is not just in listening to a moving online shiur or to refocus on our kindness to each other or stopping our lashon hara.
What are we doing to stop the pervasive hatred of Jews and Israel – by Jews? What are we pledging to do differently, out of our comfort zone, to rescue our brothers and sisters right now?
The answer is as it always has been since the beginning of time: education. The answer is finding new and creative messages and avenues to share with those who do not know, that our heritage is beautiful, timeless, and critical – a true blessing. That in fact they were entrusted with a gift, not a burden, and all that comes with it.
At the same time, we all must accept and internalize the reality that the education we have used until now isn’t enough. Yes, we have reached some, but we have failed so many more. We must reach them where they are, with a self-awareness that we have not been doing so. Aish.com successfully added voluminous amounts of information online to Aish’s in-person experiences for two decades. Consumers have been shifting from websites to social media platforms for information, so today, our education must as well. Because it’s where they are, it’s where we need to be. We have dedicated ourselves to a new vision of connecting three million Jews to the beauty of Torah in the next ten years with social media platforms an integral piece of our strategy. We can impart knowledge only if we can be seen and heard.
If we can spark curiosity, if we can inspire a conversation like Elisheva Cohen did in Surfside, then we can create critical openings for understanding.
Sadly, the destructive fire of Tisha B’Av still burns today. The fire of Jewish hatred and discord has reached raging levels. Are we individually and collectively ready to take the hard steps to pull our own out of the fire and do what it takes to stamp it out?