Too Many Young Jews Think Judaism is Irrelevant
Speaking to Jewish high school students I was alarmed by their ignorance and indifference to Judaism.
How do you take the pulse of a nation? Get into the classrooms and speak to the kids. Walk on college campuses and have some conversations.
Standing in front of an assembly of high school children, I was confronted with the spiritual malaise that is taking place amongst our children. They lack the courage to stand strong for our people. Too many don’t know enough about who they are as Jews, their purpose, their mission, their reason for being.
Indifferent or ignorant – take your pick.
Concluding a talk on Jewish pride, I offered to take questions. A hand shot up in the front.
“You speak about our heritage and what it means to be a Jew. So many around us are clueless when it comes to Judaism. How can we share with others and teach more?”
Another hand shot up in the back. The young boy stood up and said loudly, “To speak up and think that you have what to teach the world about your Judaism means that you think you are better. That’s racist!”
A wave of tension swept through the auditorium. I had just a few moments to respond before my time with these teenagers was up. Here before me sat the future fathers and mothers of our people. These souls would soon be asked to lead, commit, create and cry out for Israel and the Jewish People. How tragic to believe that knowing our holy mission in this world and understanding that we are to be a “light amongst the nations” is racist.
Like Abraham, we are charged to go out and make a difference in the world, to be a moral and spiritual compass. That’s not racist. It is a life of purpose.
I explained in those few minutes that striving to share our legacy of wisdom and justice is far from being prejudiced against others. It means that we are obligated to know who we are; how we have the ability to sanctify and make this world into a better place as we tenaciously hold onto the wisdom and values of the Torah. Like Abraham, we are charged to go out and make a difference in the world, to be a moral and spiritual compass. That’s not racist. It is a life of purpose. Kindle the light of Shabbat, banish the darkness, and bring illumination to the world.
Another student raised his hand. “Why do you think most kids my age find Judaism to be irrelevant?”
I threw the question back. I was curious. “Why do you think they do?”
“Because,” he responded flippantly, “it is.”
“Yes,” another student added. “It’s archaic. How can you tell me how to live? I resent that.”
It is difficult for me to describe the sadness that I felt that moment.
“I am sorry for you,” I responded. “I am sorry for you because that’s not my Torah that you are describing. My Torah is my oxygen. My Judaism carries me day and night through light and through darkness.”
We spoke about Torah’s relevance in this world. I shared how Torah is alive and gave examples from the harm of oversharing on social media to protecting the dignity of women Judaism is current and viable. One just needs to know where to look and how to study.
I was grateful for the questions. I touched a nerve. But this was only the beginning. Obviously we have a problem here and I don’t pretend to have all the solutions.
There are some glaring issues though that we, the parents and grandparents, the educators and lay people, must confront.
First, the passion is missing. What are we willing to sweat for, sacrifice for, and stand up for?
As a child I remember standing in the cold and marching for the freedom of Russian Jewry. I recall being in synagogue when the Yom Kippur War broke out. I saw real tears being shed; worry and grief etched on the faces around me. It had nothing to do with being religious or not. At that moment we were a family of Jews, united. I felt part of a people, a nation that stood together because we were family.
The eyes that once searched for Jerusalem now seek the next best app.
Somehow, we’ve lost that connection. When asked what they are willing to sacrifice for, what will our children say? Most will respond: making money, becoming famous or playing fortnite for hours on end. This bond that had held us together as we were scattered throughout the four corners of the earth has frayed. The eyes that once searched for Jerusalem now seek the next best app.
For millions of Jews, Judaism has become irrelevant. What can we do?
Let’s recognize that we must put our hearts and heads together and think hard about the Jewish education, in school and at home, that our children are getting. It’s time for a detox. All the excess that we’ve thought to be religious values but are really spiritual junk food should be let go. These meaningless bar and bat mitzvah parties that have become the defining moment of our children’s Judaism. The open bar which have nothing to do with mitzvah, the watering down of Torah study and knowledge of our people and history, and the desire to live less as Jews and more as ‘citizens of the world’ have all contributed to our children’s disconnect.
We must look at ourselves in the mirror. What do we reflect when we greet the Shabbos Queen, when we sit at our holiday table, when we speak about our faith and our values? How do we pray? Our children see it all, watch it all and take it all in. Do we live as active Jews and make Judaism come alive each day? Do our children ever hear us make a blessing, express gratitude to God, study Jewish wisdom and embrace a mitzvah?
Finally, when it comes to Israel, our homeland, we have taken our gift for granted. After thousands of years of persecution and indescribable suffering, God has brought us home. The world slammed its doors on us. No country wanted us even after we were taken by cattle cars to be gassed in ovens. From a nation of skeletons we reclaimed Jerusalem, fought the Arab nations who surrounded us and pierced the sky with the sound of the shofar by the Western Wall. Brave soldiers touched the ancient stones and wept. We witnessed miracles from Above.
Yet today our sons and daughters are clueless. Their heritage eludes them. Our story remains blank. There is no memory. The promise of our Land is written in our Torah. It is up to us to educate, to teach, to speak out and speak up.
We have much work to do. Let us strengthen ourselves and touch the hearts of the next generation. The future of our people is in our hands.