By Rabbi Patrick A. Beaulier
Co- Founder of Kehillah
A few years ago, a young man attended a Shabbat dinner in Stefanie’s and my home. He seemed to have a good time: was very social, met many interesting new people, enjoyed the meal, and even volunteered to help clean up when he could have left plenty early.
Before he left, the young man told me that although he enjoyed himself, attending Jewish functions was not something he saw himself doing in the foreseeable future. He commented, “I don’t need to be around people like me. I don’t need Jewish people. I want to surround myself with people whose values I share, regardless of their background.”
Another story. A woman asked me to marry her and her partner in a non-religious ceremony. I conduct non-religious marriage ceremonies in addition to my rabbinic work, so this is not new. What surprised me later was to find out that the bride was Jewish, and never thought to mention it to me, the rabbi!
When I asked she replied, “my parents are Jewish. And I am not.” I suspect she knew that Judaism does not view her Jewish identity this way, but to her, religious identity is about beliefs and practices. She has different beliefs and practices than her parents, and that is that. It does not matter what Judaism thinks about her. It matters what she thinks.
I suspect that throughout the life of these two young people, there were plenty of opportunities to participate in Jewish life, but that they declined. At the same time, I am certain that they found other activities and issues that mattered to them, and gave their time, talent and financial resources to those things.
So the question is, why does Jewish identity not matter to them? Sadly, I do not have an answer for those two individuals, but I do have a broader sense of why many people disengage from us and from Judaism.
The reason people honor us with the opportunity to be in community with them is more than cold fish and bagels, or a plea to the history of their ancestors, or in-group guilt, or existential threats from antisemites, or the promise that their non-Jewish loved ones can come along for the ride if they act nicely.
Jewish community building that is completely neutral, that does not take a stand on anything, that constantly clutches its proverbial pearls when questioned, that does not clearly draw lines in the sand on moral and social issues, is simply not going to last another two generations. People have other things to occupy their minds. We are not the priority, and surviving through inertia is not the same thing as success.
I truly believe that COVID-19 has caused people to reflect on big issues, to reevaluate what matters to them, how they spend their limited time in this world, and the legacy they wish to leave behind.
‘Rise to the challenge’
We must rise to the challenge of answering those questions with authentic Jewish answers, and not be afraid to ruffle a few feathers along the way. I am certain it will work out far better for everyone involved if we are truly honest with what we believe and why it matters, even if it is unpopular.
Let’s stop asking “how do we get people to sign up” and instead ask “what in life is worth signing up for?”
Editor’s Note: Editor’s Note: This Rabbi Reflection was part of Rabbi Patrick Beaulier’s remarks during a Kol Nidre service at Feed More in downtown Richmond. Kehillah was able to make a monetary donation to Feed More that provided 1,600 meals to those in need in Central Virginia.