The NY Population Study and R. Yisrael Salanter’s Horses
Mixed emotions are best conveyed by an imaginary of scenario of watching your sworn enemy go over the side of a cliff in your new Lotus. R. Akiva had to contend with worse. When he met up with the wife of Tyrannus Rufus (Avodah Zarah 20A), he laughed, cried, and spat, satisfying three – not two – concurrent emotional needs. We might take a page from his playbook in reacting to the UJA-Federation New York population study.
R. Akiva laughed, because he foresaw that one day she would become his wife. We can likewise take some pleasure in the vindication of our prognostications for decades that the heterodox movements were doomed to self-destruct, while Orthodoxy would grow by leaps and bounds. The study shows an erosion of both numbers (40,000 lost to both Reform and Conservative between 2002 and 2011) and religious observance. On the other hand, 40% of the respondents saw themselves as Orthodox; a whopping 74% of Jewish children in New York are now Orthodox. The other movements, as predicted, are not marrying, or deferring marriage, or marrying out and then having 1.3 children (and a dog); the Orthodox marry, marry Jewish, and are fruitful and multiply as if they believed it were a Biblical mandate.
R. Akiva cried, because he understood that her beauty was ephemeral. She would die and decay, like everyone else. The study gives us no real cause for celebration. We are witnessing the decimation of the ranks of acheinu Bnei Yisrael, and have no way to stop it. It is the end of the line for tens of thousands of Yidden – lines that wended their way through thousands of years of persecution and mesiras nefesh, only to wither on the vine. The thinning of our ranks will have, at least according to the natural order of things, disastrous consequences on the quality of Jewish life in this country for us survivors. (It becomes easier each day to see the Hand of G-d nudging us closer to the Aliyah office.) We have become comfortable in this galus – undoubtedly too comfortable. Part of that comfort derives from the huge, positive impact that Jews have had on general society, which makes us richly networked and valuable to our neighbors. But it hasn’t been the Orthodox who built that power base. As the heterodox continue to disappear, the importance of Jews in America – and hence their influence – will decline. This, in times of stress, will tend to make life here gradually less comfortable.
Most importantly, the study should not lead us to rejoice, because it does not put Torah in a very positive light. One in four of those Jewish New Yorkers is poor. In the Chassidic communities of Brooklyn, the poverty figure is 43%. There is nothing shameful about poverty; the gemara says that it is appropriate for Klal Yisrael. Poverty can and often does mean less dependence on material things, and more simplicity. We should be proud of those values, regardless of the norms of our cultural surround. Poverty is embarrassing, however, when it is accompanied by an expectation that others will unwillingly foot the bill for it. (Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to deride the “cycles of dependency” inflicted upon the Black community by lax and generous welfare allocations. Just whom would he be pointing to today?) It took Peter Beinart’s blog little time to mock the growth of a community that depends on the largesse of society to survive while opposing social service assistance to other groups. It was followed not long after by The Forward. The image certainly does not promote Torah as a system that – as people in the kiruv world are wont to preach – offers the most satisfying answers to the problems of life. A community that can only survive by having others pay for their spiritual lives is hardly a kiddush Hashem.
R. Akiva also spat. He realized that the woman’s beauty was not just objectively pleasing, but also tempting. He needed to resist the temptation, and reminded himself that what is so exciting to men is ordinary blood and tissue. We as well need to resist the temptation to be triumphal or even complacent about the study. As denominational affiliation declines, the possibility of reclaiming non-observant Jews would seem to decrease. We worked for decades to open doors wide to invite return. Those doors are inexorably closing, despite our efforts.
Or are they? When R. Yisrael Salanter left for Paris, he was asked why he was turning his back on the frum communities of Lita, and heading for assimilationist Western Europe. “Picture a team of horses which have escaped the control of their master, and are charging at full speed. How do you reassert control? Your first impulse might be to run into the roadway in front of them to try to stop them. This will just mean that they will run over and crush you. Alternatively, you recognize that eventually they will tire and stop on their own. At that point, you can calmly walk towards them and lead them back where they belong. The Jews of Eastern Europe are galloping out of control. In Paris they have been running so long, that they can be brought back.”
The study suggests a new strategy for kiruv, one that poses an enormous challenge to us. Much, although not all, of our outreach has relied upon the fragile connection that many Jews still maintained with their Judaism, and tried to build upon it. Reform and Conservative were conduits away from observance for some people, but they were also placeholders for others, keeping them involved with the Jewish community and therefore available for more intense involvement when the proper programs were offered. Kiruv workers were able to push the right buttons, because those buttons were still connected and operational. We are going to see progressively less of this kind of outreach, even though it is clear that today there are still many Jews who are good candidates for traditional forms of kiruv.
When Jews move away from all kinds of Jewish affiliation and shun even the most basic observances like the Pesach seder, it becomes that much harder to reach them with some traditional kiruv techniques. Like R. Yisrael’s horses, however, those who plunge headlong into the often vacuous lifestyle of a hedonistic world will tire of it at some point. They will be looking for something to fill the void, to satisfy their quest for meaning and significance. Will we be the ones best positioned to give them what they need? Only if we get our act together, attend to the cracks in our own Orthodox edifice, and evidence to them the beauty, joy and fulfillment of a properly lived Torah life style, deeply comprehended. That is a tall order, but it is nothing less than what the Ribbono Shel Olam has always asked of us. Until now, we have been successful in many cases simply by talking about a Torah lifestyle. The talk could succeed, because there was some overlap in our Jewish vocabulary. In the kiruv of the future, our actions will speak for themselves. We must become obvious exemplars of living satisfying spiritual and material lives according to the instructions of our Torah, proudly showing off what others do not have.
On second thought – why wait?