Jewish, Conservative, Egalitarian in Rockland County, NY … and thriving?
Talk about intense! This, the first day of October, is my first day to sit and digest what took place in our community over the past 25 days. By my rough calculation, nearly 8000 individuals crossed our threshold over this three and a half week period. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were, by all accounts, filled with beauty and spiritually uplifting. The joy of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah was certainly enhanced by the weather; but the prayer, song, multi-generational fellowship and shared appreciation of our rituals raised the celebration through the roof and above the sparse clouds. Long-time members were enthralled to see new faces—and so many little ones!—while new attendees marveled at the warmth, enthusiasm and passion emanating from so many. Not bad for a Conservative, egalitarian synagogue in Rockland County, New York with just over 500 families calling it their spiritual home! So you can imagine my astonishment (and perhaps you share the sentiment), as I bask in this warm glow, when I open my mail to read of the latest Jewish population survey, the first in ten years. According to the survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center, we are facing a major challenge to Jewish identification. Among non-Orthodox Jews, there is a growing segment of our community that identifies as Jewish, but without religion. Thirty-two percent of the Jews born after 1980 claim to be ethnically or culturally Jewish, but also claim to have no religion. Of particular concern is that of these self-identified Jews, two-thirds are raising children without any Jewish identity. If these results are to be trusted, then they predict that nearly a quarter of the children now being born to Jews will not be raised with any sense of Jewish identity.
I have taken you from the highs of Tishrei (the month with the most holidays) to the lows of Mar-Cheshvan (“bitter” Cheshvan, the month with no holidays), and the news of the day can certainly be deflating. In our little corner of the Jewish world, however, we know the answer to the challenge. We see it happening before us week in and week out. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it over 50 years ago, becoming a Jew is “a personal problem,” meaning that we must speak to every individual, to their joys, anxieties, fears, insecurities and searches for meaning. “Community” is merely a buzz word if it isn’t accompanied by true concern for the individual. Our communal celebration of Jewish life models one type of identification; more important, however, is the empowerment of individuals to transform their own homes into places of meaningful connection to each other, to Judaism and to God.How blessed we are to celebrate the first day of Chanukah on Thanksgiving this year. I predict that more Jews will celebrate the holiday of Chanukah this year—in its intended spirit and with greater meaning—than ever before. The secular values of our American Thanksgiving celebration prime us for a day of gratitude (and full bellies) and appreciation. Originally a day celebrating the harvest, Thanksgiving parallels our holiday of Sukkot. The first Chanukah celebration was, in fact, a delayed celebration of the Sukkot harvest festival. And just as the Raiders and Cowboys kick off the second game of the day, Jews will add to the warmth of this day by kindling our lights of dedication, freedom, gratitude and appreciation. Perhaps gifts will be exchanged; more importantly, however, a Jewish spark will be ignited in the midst of a secular experience. A flash of meaning will be reflected in every participant’s eyes. A connection will be established. A seed of Jewish identity and identification will be planted.
So don’t believe everything you read. The seeds are there. Water them with me, and we will witness another Chanukah miracle in our time.
Be’emunah, with faith,
Rabbi Craig Scheff