Thirty-seven years ago, practically to the day, President Carter, seeking re-election to this nation’s highest office, made the following comment during Presidential Debate #2 with Ronald Reagan: “I asked my daughter Amy (then 13 years old) what the most important issue (confronting the United States) was?”
I hadn’t thought about the “Amy question” for the longest time. Last week, the “Amy question” resurfaced when a leading Jewish newspaper in this country queried 18 rabbis what they thought was the most serious issue confronting American Jews. As might be expected, 18 different answers were proffered… And then some.
At the risk of adopting a “sour grapes attitude” in that I wasn’t among the 18 (come to think of it, I would have declined comment, had I been asked), I should like to share my answer with you, my faithful readers: The most serious issue confronting American Jews is American Jews.
I offer three reasons:
A good many American Jews spend a good many hours reading a good many reports on the state of American Jewry. As a result, there are those who work themselves into a tizzy and run around spouting jeremiads that the (Jewish) sky is falling. Pish-Tosh! The sky is not falling and the earth is not shaking under our feet. Times are a changing, and a new American Jew is emerging. Yet American Jewry is no worse off than it was, say, half a century ago. As a matter of fact, in some respects, American Jewry is far healthier than it has ever been. I do not recall major American cities having as many kosher restaurants as is currently the case. Nor do I recall so many Sukkahs being constructed for the festival. The variety of food bearing kashrut symbols is simply staggering. The number of Jewish Day Schools is “naches to the nth degree.” Sure, assimilation is spinning out of control and yes, endogamy is not what many of us would like it to be, but there are many aspects about American Judaism that even our grandparents would never have believed.
I used to think that “I’m proud to be a Jew” was a meaningless statement. I now believe that “I’m proud to be a Jew” is a dangerous statement. Unless one is a Jew by choice, being a Jew is purely an accident of birth. It requires absolutely nothing of the Jewish individual, not even a declaration of faith. What I have yet to hear is for someone to exclaim, “I’m proud of my Jewish accomplishments” or “I’m proud of the time and energy I’ve put into becoming a better versed, as well as better educated, Jew.” We live in the age of workouts and personal trainers. Shouldn’t there be Jewish workouts and trainers as well? Recently, I served as a personal “trainer” to someone who wanted to learn to lead prayer services. In less time than one could imagine, that person achieved his goal. In doing so, he has every right to exclaim, “I’m proud of my learning how to lead synagogue services.”
It began with the slogan “a shul with a pool.” The thinking was to let the Jewish community be all things to all Jews. As praiseworthy as it was intended to be, while such thinking has strengthened the Jewish community, it has, by the same token, taken its toll on individual Jews. By spending considerable time, as well as a great deal of effort, in taking advantage of so much that the Jewish community has to offer, little if any time and even less energy is left for prayer services, education classes, and instructional programs. I’m not aware of Jewish handball or Jewish basketball, but I am very much aware of serving HaShem. Communal prayer has always been and continues to be at the top of that list. Jewish education has always been a sine qua non for our people. Individual participation has always been the most important thing.
Anti-Semitism, terrorism and all other “isms” are real and genuine concerns. None of them – individually or collectively – will destroy the Jewish people or the Jewish religion.
What I want…what’s most important to me, is a guarantee that Judaism, synagogue Judaism, prayer Judaism, home Judaism, and street Judaism will remain strong and vibrant. Such a guarantee is not as farfetched as you might think, despite all other serious issues confronting American Jews today.