Mainstreaming Judaism

By
September 30, 2007 20:19

We must accelerate trend in which Jewish values mold American culture.

4 minute read.



Mainstreaming Judaism

Jewish education 88. (photo credit: )

My friend Michael Steinhardt, the renowned philanthropist, was recently quoted as saying that he had blown $125 million on Jewish education over the past decade, and his efforts had barely turned the tide of assimilation. I sat in his office to discuss his exasperation with the state of Jewish outreach and came away largely agreeing with his diagnosis. Over the past half-century, billions of dollars have been spent trying to make secular Jews embrace their tradition. Day schools and synagogues have been built, and yes, large numbers of Jews have come back to tradition. But, overall, it has barely made a dent in the rate of assimilation. The intermarriage rate continues to hover at around 50 percent. For all the success of Hillel and Chabad in making the university campus a place of increased Jewishness, it still remains the most potent melting pot of assimilation. For every 100 Jews attending a traditional Friday night meal on campus, there are thousands who do not. Why have we failed? I believe the principal reason is the false choice that the American Jewish community has imposed upon its constituents. In essence, one is always forced to choose between the Jewish and the mainstream community. Yes, we have made the choice more appealing and made the Jewish community more competitive. But if we force the average secular Jew to choose between the larger world and the Jewish world, we are rolling the dice and are bound to lose. For many, the Jewish community is too small, too parochial, too cut off from the where the real action is to seriously engage people's interest. Jews want to fit in. They want to follow, not lead; they don't want to be excluded from all that's going on around them. I THEREFORE propose a totally different kind of Jewish outreach, based not on making the Jewish community more exciting, but on making Judaism mainstream. For the first time in Jewish history we have the capability to bring Jewish values to an international audience. Rather than enticing Jews to come to our community, we can so seamlessly integrate Judaism into the mainstream culture so that no Jew can escape it. We can make Judaism and Jewish values so central to American life that wherever anyone turns to TV, radio, the Internet or print, they will bump into something Jewish. If you haven't noticed, there are the beginnings of a revolution in America. Jewish ideas, Jewish values, Jewish personalities and Jewish culture are becoming mainstream in the American media. From my own national TV show that proudly features a rabbi with a yarmulke and tzitzit who uses Jewish values to heal largely non-Jewish American families, to radio hosts like Dennis Prager and Michael Medved, who disseminate Jewish values on the airwaves, to Wendy Mogel who wrote one of the country's most influential parenting books, which is in turn based on the Talmud, to Matisyahu, who brings Jewish lyrics and themes to mainstream music, to Rabbi Harold Kushner, who for decades has been writing highly successful best-sellers all based on Jewish ideas and which are read by millions of non-Jews, to the popularization of Kabbalah among Hollywood celebrities - slowly but surely Jewish values are molding the mainstream culture. It is time we chose to greatly accelerate this trend. THE KEY, as I learned when I served as a rabbi at Oxford University in my early twenties, was not to try to create a haven for Jewish students, like Hillel. Rather it was to make Oxford more Jewish. So we created an organization that sought membership from all of Oxford's students and brought in speakers from Mikhail Gorbachev to Stephen Hawking. Within two years of its founding, the organization had over 5,000 non-Jewish members. Suddenly, non-Jewish students were dragging their Jewish friends to Jewish events, including Friday night Shabbat dinners, where many tasted a Jewish experience for the very first time. And rather than encouraging assimilation through the participation of non-Jews, our students began to develop a determined pride in their identities, especially after seeing how excited their non-Jewish friends were about Judaism. Judaism was made so high profile that even non-Jewish students started becoming conversant with Jewish basics. And suddenly for the Jewish students, no Jewish choice was necessary. WE CAN DO the same on a wider scale in the popular American culture. Some ideas in this vein would be: • the creation of a professional think-tank consisting of national personalities who have had success in the mainstreaming of Jewish ideas in the popular culture. They would disseminate Jewish values dealing with important issues like marriage, child-rearing, business ethics and politics. • a campaign launched to harness the next generation of mainstreamers of Judaism, identifying those gifted as television hosts, radio hosts, authors, bloggers and lecturers, who can bring out the universal qualities of Judaism for a mainstream audience. • the creation of a national, weekly class to be offered on Jewish values in synagogues and JCCs across America with a curriculum that appeals to Jews and non-Jews alike. • the creation of an organization to publish, in a timely fashion, books, blogs and literature that offer the Jewish values-view perspective on every subject under the sun. • the creation of a highly professional Jewish-values based production company to package and create entertaining TV shows to be offered to the mainstream networks. The implementation of these ideas stands the best chance of bringing the universality of Judaism and Jewish values for the very first time to the epicenter of American intellectual, cultural and political life. I am working on the implementation of some of these ideas in a new organization I am founding to be called The Jewish Values Network. But it is for the mainstream Jewish community to pick up this challenge and finally bring Judaism to the American Jewish and non-Jewish masses. The writer is currently in Israel filming Shalom in the Holy Land. www.shmuley.com


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