Can You Help Me?
When I lived in South Africa I used to take school-aged kids with limited Jewish backgrounds on away Shabbatons. Part of the programing was an activity where Judaism is shown in museum of the future as an old religion that is no longer around. The message was that if we do not care about your heritage then one day our grandchildren will walk through a museum of Judaism as Jewish life will cease to exist. Cute activity but in South Africa 20 years ago there was very little assimilation and intermarriage and this all seemed a little far-fetched.
We them moved to a small city in Australia. They had not had a Jewish wedding for 20 years. Gavin worked in a large medical practice on a main road. People would come in and see his kippa (skull cap). Older Jews would share their concern that there grand children were not connected. Younger ones would comment on his kippa “My mom is Jewish” and Gavin would respond “Oh that means you are Jewish too” and of course the response was “I am not just my mom is”. For the first time we saw assimilation in action. We decided that we would host a Shabbat meal for any young Jew we could find. We reached out to anyone we met, Gavin’s patients etc. and our first event we had 40 young people attended a Shabbat dinner. That was the beginning of our 20 year journey engaging young people in Jewish life. I was just 21 at the time and clearly understood that this was my personal issue. Neither Gavin nor I had grown up with much Jewish back ground and we appreciated that we had discovered a gift in our Judaism and that most people simply had no idea about. Gavin and I shared a vision and passion to reach out and connect Jews and to give them the opportunity to experience the beauty of Judaism.
We have come a long way from our small outback town in Australia. I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in one of the world’s most densely populated Jewish areas with an abundance of shuls, community organizations and thousands of Jews. Yet the urgency to reach out is no different. We read the surveys e.g. Pew Study and we know the community is in crises. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitude…
I see millions of dollars poured into community initiatives and we don’t move the needle much – we are losing our people. I see so many people who attend JICNY events who choose to intermarry. These are the people on my database who attend events, who identify as Jewish and we are losing these people and we all know that for every one person attending events and having some level of connection to community life we have 5 people that none of the myriad of organizations have managed to reach.
I am as passionate as I was at 21. After 20 years of devoting 30 plus hours a week as a volunteer and all our personal financial resources I am not tired, or less motivated. Even more so I see the need. I see our community searching for so many solutions, spending money on so many ideas and we keep missing the most important aspect of keeping our grandchildren Jewish. Inclusive communities and bagels with cream cheese are nice but they can be experienced anywhere. Only Torah Judaism passed down from Moshe for 3000 years has the power to guide our grandchildren. I recently read an email from an organization with tips for a Pesach seder and a suggestion was to add an orange or tomato to the seder plate so that you can recall the injustices in the world. I ask all of you reading this blog to leave an empty seat at your seder table to represent a Jew that is being lost to Judaism, not because of Hitler, not because of Stalin, but through ignorance, apathy and distance. I ask you to share this post, to invite someone that would not otherwise have a seder, to tell your guests and kids why you have an empty seat at your table. I ask each of you to partner in changing our Jewish future because together we can make a difference.
Originally published: April 8, 2014
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