Home is Where the Judaism Is

by Rabbi Naphtali Hoff

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) recently released a draft of a strategic plan that speaks to the ongoing challenge facing non-Orthodox Jews in this country. The release was accompanied by data showing that the Conservative movement has lost 14 percent of its affiliated families since 2001, and twice that percentage in the northeast. This plan came on the heels of the Union of Reform Judaism’s announcement of an 18-month think tank session, to include all the major arms of the Reform Movement. While some of Reform’s need for reassessment emerged from the broader economic downturn, it was mainly driven by the loss of membership in the movement’s congregations. In a similar vein, Reconstructionist rabbis were recently challenged to “rethink the rabbinate” in light of the shrinking market of non-Orthodox Jews and the lack of congregational job opportunities. Much of the blame for dwindling numbers and general disconnect has been laid at the doorstep of the non-Orthodox synagogue. It is claimed that these houses of worship have become increasingly irrelevant. (Perhaps the only Jewish institution that suffers greater criticism is the synagogue’s stepchild, the congregational religious school.) For that reason, many Jewish funders are more eager to fund alternatives to synagogues than innovations within synagogues.

Certainly, the problem of Jewish disenfranchisement is not new. Non-Orthodox Jewry has for some time recognized the enormity of the predicament that they have created for themselves. Consider this, from the American Jewish Committee:

Jewish teaching has long underscored the principle that to be a Jew connotes lifetime encounter with Jewish heritage, ideally from cradle unto grave. Regrettably, however, for too many American Jews Jewish learning has been reduced to its most elementary levels… The Jewish community continues to agonize over its future continuity.
(AJC Policy Statement on Jewish Education, December 13, 1999)

What the aforementioned Jewish leaders, think tankers and funders all seem to be missing is that the synagogue is not the issue; no institution can really be effective in a vacuum. In order for Jews to connect deeply with their place of worship, they must experience their religion deeply, in a manner that particularly interconnects with the Jewish home. In this pre-Pesach [Passover] season, our attention has turned to Yetzias Mitzrayim [the Exodus from Egypt], the miraculous culmination of centuries of Jewish servitude in Egypt. Of course, in addition to our daily obligation to remember this seminal event, we are also charged once annually to relive both the oppressive challenges of slavery as well as the joys of national redemption. We do that at the Pesach seder. It certainly would be logical to suggest that such detailed national recollection should occur collectively in shul, our spiritual center in the absence of a Bais Hamikdash [Holy Temple]. However, the seder takes place in the Jewish home, surrounded by family and guests, much in the same way that we experienced our national redemption over 3,300 years ago.

When spring comes, and nature bestirs itself outside our doors, our spring celebration does not call out into the flowering meadows and the happy open fields; nor does [it] summon us to dim temples… When spring comes… there is a stirring in us too… our homes and dwellings come to life… At [our] table are fathers and mothers, parents and children, brothers and sisters, and members of the household… For all of them, that night in which G-d was all-protective [leil shimurim] in order to lead His people out of the land of Egypt [has come].
(Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Collected Writings, Vol. I, Feldheim, pp. 90)

The Jewish home is a place where G-d rests His Presence, and thus is a place where we can not only “find” Him, but also the only place where so many applications of Jewish living can truly be fulfilled. Judaism maintains that that it is the Jewish home, first and foremost, where our connection with our Maker is strongest, most fulfilling, and most clearly evident. “And you should build for me a mikdash and I will dwell in them” (Shemos 25:8). Hashem resides within every Jewish home. That is, assuming that we create the proper environment for Him. It is certainly admirable for Jewish thinkers and funders to want to explore new ways to connect Jews with their Judaism. However, it must be understood that in order for that connection to occur, it has to be through an immersive process, in which we are in constant touch with our Jewish identity and Jewish values. We cannot rely on a “synagogue experience” to keep us connected. Many generations of disconnected and disenfranchised Jews have made this point abundantly clear. It is only in the home, where Judaism is lived, rather than simply visited, that such a connection be forged.

Distributed by Survival Through Education.

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8 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    The heterodox movements are attempting to do something that is either very difficult or impossible – to teach kids that Judaism matters, even when it does not matter a great deal to their parents. Arguably, the issue is how to teach us heterodox Jews to make Judaism valuable.

  2. Reb Yid says:

    Ori: Your first sentence is no less true about important segments of Orthodoxy.

    The trick is to show the beauty of diversity, of multiple interpretations, that not everything is black and white…it’s very easy to be dogmatic and rigid on either side of the ideological spectrum. This is certainly true of both politics and religion.

  3. Ziv Carmel says:

    Reb Yid, I’m a little confused by your comment. Orthodoxy does not have a crisis of empty shuls. To the contrary, it is because Judaism matters a great deal to orthodox parents that their kids have a strong and dedicated commitment to religion.

    How does “dogmatic rigidity” fit in to this discussion?

  4. Bob Miller says:

    It’s really hard to teach basic principles within movements that leave all principles up to the individual’s discretion.

  5. L. Oberstein says:

    Ziv Carmel has a lovely Hebrew name and maybe lives in Israel. i say this because he or she does not realize the crisis in the orthodox community. Sure, our shuls are full and we are a lot more successful than the other “streams”. We have many children who go through the motions of orthodoxy but do not feel spiritually elevated or find real relevance in their lives from the teachings in their schools. We have far too many youth who are attracted to alcohol, drugs, and other addictive behavior. We have a crisis of molestation that cries to high heaven for recognition . Because our numbers have grown so much , we overlook how many are falling through the cracks.

    Conservative Judaism filled a need for a few generations and now finds what it is preaching irrelevant to many of the children of its members. That doesn’t give me any cause for joy, for every person who becomes more observant, there are many who lose any affiliation. I once heard in the name of Rabbi Berel Wein that there are more Jews today who eat only shmura matzoh and more who don’t eat matzoh at all.

  6. L. Oberstein says:

    In re-reading the article I realized that you tie to Jewish survival to the Exodus from Egypt. How then can the Conservative Movement survive when one of its leading rabbis, Wolpe of LA told his congregation from the pulpit that the Exodus never happened, that it is a legend unsupported by any evidence. He claims that it lack of factuality doesn’t make a difference. I beg to differ, if the foundation of our religion is a lie, then there is no basis for anything. The whole thing is a sham.
    I am not too sure that Reform which is also based on Bible Critcism believes in the Exodus either. It’s a shame that so many people are led by non believers. I speak not of some side point of our faith ,but of the cardinal principal, the Exodus.Without that, it’s not real and why sacrifice for a sham?

  7. Ellen says:

    “The heterodox movements are attempting to do something that is either very difficult or impossible – to teach kids that Judaism matters, even when it does not matter a great deal to their parents.”

    Yes, this was the achilles heel of both Reform and Conservative Judaism in my childhood. Instead of being entrusted with the mission of confirming in school (and the rarely attended shul) the values of the supposedly Jewish home, they actually had to subvert the values of the unJewish home to provide the children in their Hebrew Schools the sense that Judaism was in anyway important at all. Conservative rabbis who tried to get the parents to take Judaism more seriously were usually fired by their congregation’s board of directors.

    What do you do with a movement leading a group of people who want nothing more than lipservice to the religious tradition they are nominally supporting, even though this will lead to the ruin of the movement in the long run? It’s a difficult dilemma for the movements, and one whose results were easily predictable 40 years ago. Do you alienate the current dues-paying parents or the future dues-paying children? They chose the latter and are now paying the price.

    The Orthodox outreach movement, which started around the same time, had it right. Forget about the parents. They are hopeless, essentially. Try to bring back the young adult children of these parents – during the period of their lives when they are naturally a little bit rebellious and might rebel against their wayward parents rather than the Jewish tradition they know nothing about and do not practice.

    The Orthodox outreach movements were very successful in the rather inauspicious context in which they were working because they positioned themselves as a counterculture to the modern, pop, secular culture at a time when that culture was already degenerating, although still very influential. Nowadays Chinese tiger moms can write screeds about how awful contemporary American culture is and become cause celebres, but in the 1970’s it took a lot of guts to go up against the most powerful force in the modern world. The Orthodox were the only ones in the Jewish world willing to take on that challenge and they are now reaping their just rewards. They deserve every bit of their current success.

  8. Ziv Carmel says:

    Rabbi Oberstein,

    For the record, I live in a decent sized out-of-town community in the US. I am quite aware of the problem of “off the derech” youth.
    The point of my post was that the success of frumkeit is the fact that most parents in the frum world do care and as a result, the majority of orthodox kids inherit that commitment. This is why our shuls are full. I am not denying the problems that exist, but these problems generally stem from disfunctional behavior and other communal/family issues, not because of observance of halacha and a proper atmosphere in the home. I think that was really the point of the original article.

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