The key may be found in the ancient text Pirkei Avot / “The Ethics of the Fathers”, which says: “Those whose wisdom goes beyond their actions, their wisdom will not last; but those whose deeds are beyond their wisdom, their wisdom will endure.
Te Pew Research Center to study on “Jewish Americans in 2020,” which was released in May of this year, shows Reform and Conservative Judaism in freefall, while the number of “unaffiliated” is on the rise. The same is true of the Orthodox, the vast majority of whom do not marry and have many more children than their non-Orthodox counterparts.
Six in ten Jews have married each other in the past 10 years, according to the poll, up from 45% in the previous decade. In contrast, only 18% of Jews who married before 1980 have a non-Jewish spouse.
These statistics, which reflect a rapidly changing Jewish world, should be a cause for pause, contemplation and action.
However, advocacy efforts to stem assimilation have not made significant progress. It is therefore clear that the current strategy to bring Jews back to Judaism must be changed. The key may be found in ancient text – Chapter 3/12 of Pirke Avot/ “The ethics of fathers” – in which Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa says: “Those whose wisdom goes beyond their actions, their wisdom will not last; but those whose deeds are beyond their wisdom, their wisdom will endure.
In other words, the focus should be on persuading Jews to fulfill the mitzvot, the commandments of God, many of which will have an impact on the person who observes even a few. Lighting candles before sundown on Shabbat eve, for example – even if one is not yet observing Shabbat – is a nice step in the right direction.
And it only takes a few minutes. Former famous Israeli actor Uri Zohar started with this mitzvah, which eventually led to him changing careers and becoming a renowned rabbi. Both literally and figuratively, the impact of the act on the actor – the one who acts – cannot be overestimated.
Unfortunately, rather than exciting the Jews mitzvot, some outreach organizations emphasize the wisdom of Judaism. But without mitzvot, the wisdom learned does not last.
Others teach young Jews to be an example to others. Yet this is the approach that Noah took in his 120 years of building the ark, and not a single person followed his example.
Instead, it was Abraham and Sarah who became the first Jews, organizing meals for strangers and telling them about God. The Torah says that they taught those accompanying them to act with “charity and righteousness.” Good behavior inspired by wisdom, in turn, created inspiration among their followers.
What we can learn from the Orthodox
In addition, Jews should be encouraged to to live Judaism, not just visiting Israel or learning about the Holocaust. Much can be learned from the Orthodox about what works and what does not.
Orthodox Jews, for example, take a break from cell phone use and answering emails one day a week. It is a great process of rejuvenation. Shabbat meals are also uplifting, as they provide parents and children with uninterrupted time to talk and be together, without everyone looking at a screen. It is an essential element of the family bond.
Additionally, since they do not drive on Shabbat, Orthodox Jews tend to live within walking distance of each other and form a community.
It is common to invite guests or receive invitations from others for Shabbat meals. Many long-standing friendships and even marriages grew out of such gatherings.
When I told a friend who was driving to our synagogue that although we liked to see him on Shabbat morning it would be best to see him all day and suggested he move to the neighborhood, I was happy let him follow my advice. He later said it was the best decision he had ever made. If I hadn’t suggested it, it might not have occurred to him.
A similar thing happened when I saw a friend in his 70s tefillin (putting on speech bubbles) at her grandson’s bar mitzvah for the first time since his own bar mitzvah.
“Abe, lying down tefillin takes five minutes, I tell him. “Could you do this every day?” “
He responded with great enthusiasm and engaged in the practice from that day forward. If I hadn’t given him the idea, it’s unlikely he would have.
The two encounters above illustrate how Jews can bond.
Another bonding custom among the Orthodox is the shiva, the mourning period of seven days after a funeral. Prayer services are conducted in the house of the bereaved family (except on Shabbat, when even mourners attend synagogue). Meals are also provided regularly to mourners throughout the week.
Shivah, when mourners stay at home for a full week and have guests with whom they remember their lost loved one, has been hailed by many as the best way to overcome grief.
Happy occasions are also rewarding. When a baby is born, for example, many Orthodox communities offer parents one or even two weeks of dinners. As a father of six, I can attest that these meals have been a great help. Such gestures are a boon for everyone involved, not just grateful recipients.
Yet many Orthodox outreach programs emphasize teaching and learning, without encouraging participants to adopt greater Jewish observance. When I asked non-affiliated teachers why they didn’t ask male students to wear kippa while studying, one of them replied that he did not know how to push mitzvot like I do. Somehow, however, he knew how to demand payment from his adult participants.
Small gestures, like the one I suggested to the teacher and the ones I extended to friends, can be magnified. The Internet provides access to assimilated Jews who might as well be passionate about their Judaism.
Birthright and other groups that get young Jews to see Israel’s miracle can have a big impact, but follow-ups are needed to make sure the effects last a long time. One of these ideas is that upon their return, Birthright participants are invited by Orthodox families to Shabbat meals to observe the beauty of Judaism.
The Pew study found that only 26% of American Jews believe in God, compared to more than half of all Americans. The complexities of the world and the astonishing fulfillment of the prophecies of the return of the Jewish people to Israel – a military, economic and technological powerhouse, with a population tenfold in 73 years – should be among the concepts employed to change the numbers among the Jews of the Diaspora. .
I am one of those lucky Jews capable of leading a religious Jewish life. Sadly, only a small minority of Jews have enjoyed such a benefit, and many more would like to take advantage of it if they could just taste the experience.
We need to be like Abraham and Sarah and bring our fellow Jews into our homes and let them know the beauty of the religion they were born into – and, in too many cases, have never heard of it. Time is running out and we must act now.
Farley weiss, former president of the National Council of Young Israel, is an intellectual property lawyer for the law firm Weiss & Moy. The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily representative of NCYI.