Jay Sanderson on not pushing away young Jews from the Jewish community

Our young people are redefining their Judaism. We need to be an active part of that redefinition process. It is up to the Jewish community to reach out, engage and embrace them.

…we are committed to not just engaging our young people, but engaging them in our reimagination and our transformation. They are not the problem. They are a part of the solution.

Many of our organizations have built models based on philanthropy first. We need to move away from “pay-to-play” Judaism. If young people are meaningfully engaged, they will become philanthropists. But we are pushing too many of them away by expecting them to give before they connect.

Jay Sanderson, “Crisis and Opportunity – Reflections on the Pew Report”, The Jewish Journal (11-17 October 2013), 44.


“People will observe the Shabbas if it actually works for them”

I am actually not interested in simply furthering that we represent the Jewish people. I understand that it was a blip, a modern blip, exacerbated by the Holocaust, the Jewish peoplehood and “more than the Jews kept the Shabbas, the Shabbas kept the Jews” – that’s just a lie. It’s okay, I appreciate it, but for Jews who stopped keeping the Shabbas, it’s wonderful rhetoric, but it has nothing to do with how people function. People will observe the Shabbas if it actually works for them in their life to help them flourish. They’re not going to keep it because it keep them. I love the rhetoric and so I’m interested in shifting the balance – and I think this is great for rabbis – from Jewish peoplehood to actually Torah, to the wisdom and practice.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, “Texts Without Borders”, Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship, Third Cohort, Session #1 (Clal: New York City, 8 November 2011).

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The Decline of Ethnic Judaism in America & of Big Jewish Organizations

America loves your religious identity, it doesn’t care for your ethnic identity. If you want to have a Catholic school system in America, “That’s great, we respect your religious difference”. “Oh, you want to have a Presbyterian school, בסדר, we have one of those.” “Methodist school? Great!” “A Polish school? I don’t think so.” “Oh, you want to have a Catholic parish? Great.” “You want to have a Spanish-speaking school district? No way.” America is founded on religious difference and a tolerance for religious difference and a great, agitating inhospitability to ethnic difference. And so, as a result, the Jews who come from 1920-1960 to the United States have to figure out a way to do Jewish. And the way they do it is they cloak their ethnic experience in religious terms. The symbol of that is the social hall in the synagogue. You will never find a social hall in a synagogue in Eastern Europe, because it doesn’t make sense. A social hall is where you go to hang out with other Jews, because you can’t build a Jew club; America won’t let you do that.

Institutions like Hillel, the Anti-Defamation League, Hadassah, UJA-Federation; any of these big organizations are outgrowths of that ethnic Jewish expression. And what we are facing in those organizations right now is a crisis in the decline of ethnic Judaism. That’s why Federation dollars go down, why the ADL is not as relevant, why young people are not so interested in the parochial concerns of Jews all around the world any more. This is one of the two master stories: the decline of ethnic Judaism.
The last gasp of this effort was the Richard Joel line of “Jews doing Jewish with other Jews”. That is the definition of ethnic Judaism: make a building on-campus, you’ll feel safe here because you won’t be tolerated anywhere else, and you’ll just hang out with other Jews.

When the majority of people who are not Orthodox in the United States intermarry, why would you have a building for Jews doing Jewish with other Jews? That doesn’t make sense.

Rabbi Daniel Smokler, “Jewish Enrichment”, Hillel Institute (Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life: St. Louis, 30 July 2013).

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The Tribe as a Means for Judaism….

Judaism is about the wisdom and practice to help human beings become deeply human. And it is not, for me, an idealogous, tribalist, experience. The tribe is a means, the people is a means, and, although I understand and I walked away from synagogue life to work inside, strengthening the Jewish people, exclusively, at a moment in which I thought that the fundamental issue was to strengthen the Jewish people, to rescue a million Jews from the Soviet Union, to rescue 60,000-100,000 Jews from Ethiopia, to build the political infrastructure, and to help build the political structure of American Jewish life so that the body politic could be protected in a physical way. So I got that.
But I never imagined that was an ends. I cannot believe that, basically, we’re down to and American organized Jewish community that, at the core, worries simply about its security and survival. And it has taken that anxiety and projected it upon issues of identity. I’m mind-bogglingly blown away that that is what has happened to a 3,000-year-old wisdom tradition that has been knocking around the planet that has been asking and moving around fundamental human questions. I just cannot believe it.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, “Texts Without Borders”, Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship, Third Cohort, Session #1 (Clal: New York City, 8 November 2011).

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The Jews have an old relationship with wine

…the Jewish relationship to wine has remained rooted in religious practice. Despite challenges in simply finding a bottle [or an amphora] of wine, our ancestors were able to maintain their wine traditions. I would venture to say that we Jews have the oldest codified relationship to wine of any people on earth. In this light, how could wine be anything but critical to Jewish life?

Jeff Morgan, quoted in Rob Eshman, “People of the Vine”, The Jewish Journal (30 August – 5 September 2013), 26.