This is the last in a series of thought pieces by Karen Kushner, director of Project Welcome in San Francisco. The articles express Kushner's vision of the Jewish future based on the changing face of North American Judaism, and are an edited version of a keynote address she gave on October 25, 2004 to the National Association of Temple Administrators.
Story: Two Sisters
An acquaintance bemoaned the state of Judaism as we ended our conversation about the day school education her daughters were receiving. "I'm not at all convinced that children growing up today will choose Jewish lives for themselves in the future!" she moaned.
Now as a former therapist I know enough to recognize that when people talk about these subjects with such angst, they are talking personally. Curious, I asked her why she was feeling so pessimistically. She began talking about Jews with Christmas trees as a terrible portent of the Jewish future. "Who?" I said, "Who are you talking about? It is someone in your family, isn't it?"
"How did you know?" she blanched. "My sister and her Jewish husband have a tree! Oh, they only use blue lights and hang stuffed animals from it, but they put it up every year. My 5-year-old niece, whom I'm very close to, wanted to make me a Hanukkah card. She put a tree with a Jewish star on the top as decoration for a card saying Happy Hanukkah! "She doesn't know that Jews don't have trees for Hanukkah!"
"Well, I said, giving her a hug, how lucky she is to have you and your family." She looked at me with tears in her eyes. "Did you know that I'm married to a non-Jew?"
Is this an unusual circumstance? I don't think so. Two sisters from the same ambivalent assimilated Jewish family. One daughter marries a Jew and follows in her parents' footsteps, increasing the movement away from Judaism. One daughter marries out.
This is what I see again and again. The intermarried family is the more committed Jewish family.
This is what I think. Without the Christian outlook toward religion, the move toward assimilation in the Jewish community could continue and produce a secular Judaism.
Christians take religion and religious education seriously because they understand that their children need to have a religion on which to develop a value system.
We Jews may now look more like our Christian neighbors, but we have made a strong turn toward becoming more educated and more committed to preserving the wisdom of the past at least partly because our Christian partners have taught us.
They understand that there is something called spiritual health. Something important beyond physical health and mental health. They are not skittish when they speak of God. They seek God's presence in their lives and talk about spiritual experiences. They enjoy Jewish rituals and Jewish worship and make them a regular part of their family life.
The educators whisper to me that these Christian moms and dads are doing a better job of raising Jewish children than lots of the Jewish parents who have advanced university degrees but are Jewishly ignorant, and whose attachment to Judaism is weak.
Where the Christian parents are clear and positive in their support of Jewish learning and Jewish ritual, the Jewish parents are conflicted and often absent from the family education events. With no spiritual life of their own they end up neglectful of the spiritual life of their children. And these are the Jewish parents who ARE joining synagogues. What about the parents who are not sending their children to religious school?
This is the Jewish future I see.
I see Jewish children being imbued with spirituality by parents who are Jews-by-choice.
I see children grasping the importance of ritual and regular synagogue attendance under the tutelage of their non-Jewish parents who live religious lives that their Jewish partners do not.
So it has come to this. Some of the best Jews of the next generation are being raised by non-Jews.
These are dramatic and radical changes. The congregations that recognize them and are the most flexible and responsive will become the leaders of the future.
Changes in attitude are always for the best.
Sixty years ago it was unthinkable that there would be a Jewish army.
Sixty years ago it was unthinkable that rabbis and synagogues would not be the center of Judaism, that they would be replaced by the Federations.
Sixty years ago, it was unthinkable that lesbian women and gay men would be rabbis.
The future belongs to those who can think unthinkable thoughts.
This calls for a new mindset, not just a change in programs but an entirely new way of thinking.
Change is essential for the Jewish community as difficult as it always is. But change we must and change we will because Jewish history demands change and action.
As Barry Shrage of the Boston Combined Jewish Philanthropies so eloquently says:
All of this is just a beginning, and we have not reached anything like the Jewish renaissance we seek, but at least we know that we are on the right path. If we work harder to make our synagogues more welcoming, to produce the programming that makes both new Jews and old Jews aware of the beauty and richness in our tradition, to help them feel they are authentic members of a 3500 year old culture, then we will not have to waste time worrying about the sky falling on our Jewish heads.
In a time of forgetfulness, we're part of the oldest living chain of learning and literature in the world, inheritors of an ancient and hauntingly beautiful culture.
In a time of loneliness, we carry the secret of community-making and caring to provide our children and grandchildren a sense of community and belonging.
In a time of rootlessness and alienation we're connected to that 3,500-year-old history and an infinite future.
If we work together and focus on this vision, we will certainly create a new Jewish reality for all our children and grandchildren and a network of synagogue welcome that will truly be a blessing.
Story: On Every Bus
Just last week I met a man in his seventies who struck up a conversation with me at a bus stop in that friendly San Francisco way. When he heard about my work, he told me this story: "My father was a Jew but I'm not. When I was 12, I wanted a Bar Mitzvah but the rabbi said I couldn't because my mother was Catholic. All my life I've had girlfriends who were Jewish and have always liked Jewish people. I'd like to think I am a half Jew. Do you think that is all right?" he asked me.
We were on the #45 bus and it was standing room only in the noisy rush hour crowd when I leaned over and said directly into his ear, "You're not only a half Jew, you're a whole Jew!"