I would like draw our attention to the other 75%. The approximately 75% of Jews who, according to the Pew report, do not attend a shul and do not feel that Jewish community or Jewish observance is a necessary part of being a Jew. We spend a lot of time thinking about, teaching, and interacting with the 25% who come to a shul, but how do we reach the majority of our people? What would make them want to be part of Judaism in more than name?
We all worry about this and many of us commit our lives to addressing this poor state of our people. We make our shuls more welcoming so Jews can easily come in, we offer Chanukah menorah lightings at the mall to bring Jewish ritual outward, and invite all who will come for Shabbat meals. But in fact we touch only a relatively small number of individuals this way. Our efforts have certainly not begun to stem the tide of assimilation, and worse the ingrained sense most Jews have that Judaism has little of value to offer them or the world.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggested, in a recent address to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations, (thank you to my father for bringing it to my attention), a way of engaging the 75% that I think deserves our attention. Rabbi Sacks begins by pointing out what we all know -that many Jews today often see no good reason to be Jewish, and unlike in the past, no one from the Jewish or non-Jewish surrounding society is compelling them to practice, or to be labeled, as a Jew. They will connect only if there is a good reason to, if Judaism has something unique to say to their concerns and the concerns of the larger world.
If Judaism has a positive voice in general society, says Rabbi Sacks, if it can make people proud in the public arena to be a Jew, then it may have a chance of engaging the other 75%. Judaism can and must, speak loudly and publicly to the moral, intellectual, and spiritual challenges of our time. If we can bring a voice that non-Jews find compelling then jews will also.
Rabbi Sacks did this by spending a great deal of time as Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth offering inspiring words in the national media and writing books about Judaism’s deep and positive message for the larger world. Of course if one is the chief rabbi of a country, assuming one speaks well and has something to say, the job of bringing Jewish thought to the public is an easier one. But alas, one chief rabbi does not a Jewish renaissance make. What kinds of things can all of us do, the 25% of our people who are involved, to bring to society at large the deeply important messages Judaism is supposed to bring to the world, the guidance it can extend and light it can spread?
I think we live often as Jews today in response to the holocaust. We live as Jews in our homes but do not bring our Judaism into the public sphere. We tend to take an insular stance. We are not for the most part interested in sitting on local school boards, taking part in city politics, or being present at general city or community events, unless it can further our personal Jewish agenda. Some would say this is how it should be, that we should only be involved with the larger world when we must do so in service of the Orthodox community. But it is this attitude that stops us from engaging the larger world, being a blessing to it, and in our particular culture today -from engaging a wider array of the 75%.
Here are a few suggestions, though I am sure there are many more to be had.
1. Let us take advantage of opportunities to be present in interfaith environments. Meet the non-Jewish clergy in your area and find out how you can bring the Jewish voice to the religious and general civic community. America is a non-Jewish country in which Christian voices are present, but Judaism has a lot to say that is meaningful and our Christian neighbors often really do want to hear it.
2. Community service is a valuable venue in which the Orthodox and general Jewish community can be present in the bigger society and bring something to it. The common refrain, every time the opportunity for general community service arises that, “we need to help other Jews in our community first”, stops us from ever moving outside the walls of our own. Yes, we should help other Jews first, but if we do not ever get beyond our own walls we will not succeed in bringing a Jewish voice to the larger world. Perhaps we can think of fellow Jews as our brothers and sisters and non-Jews as our cousins.
3. Let us not be afraid to quote from our tradition. Why keep the Torah a secret? Next time you find yourself at a meeting within a non-Jewish or wider Jewish population and you think, “Pirkey Avot says something that would really bring depth and insight to this,” -say it. We must not hold back in today’s world from bringing our deeply Jewish selves into our workplaces or civic life. We live in a society that touts the benefits of multiculturalism, of the value of being an individual, let us help them, and us, live it.
There are many other opportunities to bring our Jewish selves and our Jewish voices into the public arena and the general culture. First though, we must realize how important it is, we must reach beyond our fears and our insularity, and we must know that God gave us the Torah so we could share it with the world and with fellow Jews. Let us not be afraid.