The real crisis of Zionism

This is not the time for Progressive Judaism’s failing agenda or Orthodox Judaism’s feelings of self-congratulation

Torah scroll 300 (photo credit: Stockbyte)
Torah scroll 300
(photo credit: Stockbyte)
Revelatory moments are few in life. I had such an experience 11 years ago. I was teaching 7th graders an afternoon class at a religious school in a South Florida Conservative synagogue. I decided to see how much the students knew about Jewish history and Israel. I asked them who the first prime minister Israel was. My question was met with silence and some giggling. Then I asked who Theodor Herzl was. Again, silence. Finally, I asked the students if they had ever heard of Bar Kokhba. None had. They had no idea who he was. Somewhat shocked, I provided the answers.
Then and there, I began to realize that the future of American Jewry was, for the most part, in the hands of a “lost generation.” I did not need the recent Pew Research Center polls to tell me that. My first instinct after that experience was to leave America and head for Israel.
Unfortunately, my attempt at aliya failed, due to my own mistakes.
I decided to return to the United States and use my skills to bolster a faltering community. It has been an uphill battle.
I have been an educator in the Jewish community in South Florida for 16 years. Although most of my activity has been in the realm of teaching Jewish history and thought in adult education programs associated with hostels and universities, much of what I do has involved Jewish children of barand bat-mitzvah age. Today, I serve as rabbi of a small Conservative synagogue in Boca Raton, Florida.
Jewish outreach is a priority for my synagogue. But kiruv is a tremendous challenge, especially when we are faced with a Jewry permeated with ignorance of Judaism and Jewish history.
In the past I also prepared bar and bat-mitzvah students for their “big day” in an upper-middle class city in this region for eight years.
The Conservative synagogue where I taught the 12-year olds was a great place to work. The pay was good. The kids I taught were bright and showed me lots of respect. I also had a very good rapport with the parents of these children. I taught about 175 students. It was a good place to be and opened many doors for me.
But the experience at this synagogue did trouble me. While I was blessed with an elite of students who were proficient in the Shabbat service and the Torah and Haftarah readings – and who went on to be active in the synagogue – there must have been about 40 students who could not read Hebrew. I had to transliterate the material for them into English. It was not one of my brightest moments as an educator – but I had to make sure they could lead Shabbat services for “the big day.”
I certainly do not condemn the religious school program at the synagogue for this ignorance: there are so few hours to educate kids in all aspects of Judaism. This renders it impossible for afternoon and Sunday school teachers to do their job. In my estimation, these teachers are the heroes of Jewish life in America. They –and teachers in day schools – are on the front lines in the battle for Jewish continuity.
They deserve to be recognized.
But at some point American Jews must take responsibility for this scandal of ignorance.
If you really believe that the ability to read Hebrew is not important to Jewish survival in America, you are fooling yourself. It is true that Jews in the past were able to live and thrive not knowing Hebrew – ancient Alexandria and the Septuagint are a good example – but we live in a different world from that of our ancestors. Knowledge of Hebrew is essential to our community and continuity. For many students the language barrier is a formidable obstacle in forging a lasting connection to the Torah, the prayer book, the Jewish people and the State of Israel.
Yes, volunteering to work in a soup kitchen for the homeless is important and the essence of Jewish piety. But it is no substitute for being able to chant the Ten Commandments from a Torah scroll in the original Hebrew and understand what you are reading. Both activities should go hand in hand.
Professor Xu Xin, the pioneer of Jewish studies in China, invited me to present an academic paper at Nanjing University two years ago.
My presentation – it dealt with the messianic idea in the thought of Reform scholar Rabbi Abraham Geiger and Religious Zionist theologian Rabbi A.I. Kook – was part of a symposium on Western religion.
At the June 2011 conference, I was particularly impressed by the Chinese doctoral students – none of them Jewish – who were proficient in Hebrew, adopted Jewish names, studied in Israel and were focusing on such areas as Second Temple Judaism, the Book of Job, and the thought of Martin Buber.
Although I was one of many visiting scholars from all over the world who delivered papers at the symposium, the dedication and knowledge of the Chinese students impressed me most and has stayed with me. I only wish that such dedication – and knowledge of Hebrew – would ignite a spark among young American Jews, many of whom have “no religion” according to the Pew Research Center poll. The dedication of these Chinese non-Jews to Jewish studies puts our community to shame.
Let us get real. Is the crisis of Zionism and American Judaism due to young American Jews being alienated from the Jewish state and Judaism because of Israeli policy in “the occupied territories”? If it were only so – at least it would indicate that young American Jews are concerned about Israel and Judaism. Many young Jews are ignorant and indifferent – the State of Israel and Zionism barely register on their existential “radar screen.” I give credit to those American Jews in their teens and twenties who have studied in Israel, are engaged with the texts of Judaism, and want to live a meaningful Jewish life.
Young American Jews are bright, energetic and want to find success in their lives, both personally and professionally. But we deceive ourselves if we think the key to engendering their support for Israel and Judaism is to bring back the Zionism of the prominent 20th-century Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise.
Only someone with no connection to the reality of the “facts on the ground” could come up with that thesis.
Journalists, bloggers, academics, leaders of organizations and pundits can believe what they like about “the crisis of Zionism.” But please take it from me – I have actually had many years of involvement in America’s Jewish community and with the young people we are preparing to take the helm of Jewish life. We need to hear less of Rabbi Stephen Wise. We need to hear more of Akiva, Judah Halevi, Nahmanides, Gracia Nasi, Rabbis Alkalai and Kalischer, and Rav Kook.
This is not the time for Progressive Judaism’s failing agenda or Orthodox Judaism’s feelings of self-congratulation. Nor is this a time to don sackcloth and ashes for American Jewry. We must find a remnant of the “lost generation” and return them home. Otherwise, they are gone for good. They will never return.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.