Why American Jews are tuning out on their faith

Illustrative image - B'nai Israel Synagogue in Galveston, Texas, Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A recent Jerusalem Post article entitled, “The Faith Crisis of American Jewry” (9/12/18) caught my eye, citing the devastating rate of intermarriage, lack of synagogue attendance and even a considerable amount of those who have no belief in God.

Having been an Israeli citizen for the last 25 years, I turned to some American Jewish friends to find out why they, too, seem to have tuned out on their faith. Their responses are probably typical of many secular American Jews, and so here is what they had to say:

  • I would have still been involved with the synagogue and more devoted to Judaism, but my husband and my kids gave me a hard time.
  • My husband didn’t like the rabbi, so we changed synagogues, but it eventually closed.
  • My husband was not really brought up very Jewish.  His parents didn’t celebrate holidays or go to synagogue.
  • My husband has had a strong influence on my children, making it impossible to be observant.
  • I wasn’t educated as a Jew even though my mother was religious.  I never had a Bat Mitzvah or studied Hebrew, so I couldn’t understand what was being said at the synagogue.
  • The childhood Jewish melodies I knew changed throughout the years, and so when I finally attended synagogue as an adult, I was out of the loop and in unfamiliar territory.
  • When my brother goes to temple, all he does is talk.  He doesn’t pray.
  • My husband and I know we’re Jews, we’re proud of it, keep kosher, make holiday meals, donate to Jewish charities, light memorial candles and that’s enough for us.
  • The rabbi didn’t offer any support when my father was dying even though he came to the hospital daily to visit a rabbi in the next room.
  • The cost of good seats was unaffordable.
  • They wanted control from cradle to death – everything including yeshiva (instead of public school), membership on the Jewish youth sports’ teams, daily involvement and unreasonable financial support.  We were not willing to make such a commitment.
  • We felt services were boring, not relevant to our daily lives and lacking in spiritual inspiration.
  • The only synagogue in our area was not one to our liking.

A common thread in all of the above reasons seems to be a lack of something genuine and fulfilling as well as a good dose of suspicion concerning the control factor. Let’s face it, aren’t those the things which cause most people to tune out?

All of us are seeking to live our lives as best as we can, balancing work, family, social activities and also desiring to be inspired along the way.  That source of inspiration is often expected to come from those who point us back to our faith and why it helps us to be a better version of the fallen person we are. When that source is tainted by elements of control, excessive financial gain, social climbing or just plain indifference to our needs, we tune out. After all, there’s no spare time for a counterfeit that doesn’t satisfy.

American Jewry has lost its way from the early turn of the century when most of our grandparents arrived from European shtetls to the shores of what hoped to be a better life. Living clustered in urban neighborhoods which reflected their culture, language, lifestyle and faith was what kept Jews as a closely-knitted group which almost never sought intermarriage, leaving the fold or breaking ranks. Yet today’s American Jewry no longer live that way. With the exception of the very orthodox, most American Jews have totally assimilated, consider intermarriage as a completely viable option and are only loosely connected to a tiny smattering of Jewish tradition which may include circumcision, bar-mitzvah, a Passover Seder, lighting Chanukah candles, sitting shiva (a week of mourning) when a Jewish person dies and marrying under a chuppa (canopy). There just isn’t much beyond that.

Ziona Greenwald, writer of the Jerusalem Post Article states, “For multitudes of Jews to have not only eschewed their heritage but completely shucked off any shred of faith, any relationship, however fraught, with their Divine Creator, gives new meaning to the term “lost souls… The apparent drift toward godlessness among American Jewry should set off alarm bells for Jewish leaders and major organizations.”

I couldn’t agree more with Ziona Greenwald, but the real soul-searching must come from those who hope to entice American Jews to turn towards their faith, but, in this case, it seems to be a classic case of the blind leading the blind. A successful spiritual leader must possess a heart for his constituency – which means real empathy, feeling and genuine love and concern for each individual. The absence of those characteristics will be felt and internalized by the potential members, and the creation of something real and meaningful will be replaced by dry ritual, showy performance and forced commitment, none of which are attractive or appealing.

As far away as this “withering faith group,” as Ziona calls it, may have wandered, it is my fervent belief that there is a dormant seed inside of every Jew which longs to burst  through the hard and fallow ground of their sleeping faith. The desire to really know God and feel intensely connected to Him, does not entirely dissipate. It is there, but it must be nurtured. It begins by someone taking a personal interest especially when times are tough. It grows as you remain committed to that individual, and it blossoms as they feel inspired and valued. God does this for us, and we need to do it for one another. Faith is so much more than a weekly trek to the local synagogue. It is truly a daily lifestyle with a daily commitment to be to one another what God calls us to be in order that others can see and feel His love and care extended to them.  If we were to live that way, there is no doubt that it would attract not only every Jew, but every non-Jew as well.

I am reminded of Zechariah 8:23 which says, “In those days ten men from all the nations will grasp the garment of a Jew, saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” This is no portrait of a “withering faith group.” To the contrary, this is a compelling picture of the most attractive, appealing and vibrant Jewish faith which makes “trending” look minor. It is a must-have and a “like” to the extreme. According to the scriptures, this is the place where the Jewish faith will arrive. How will it get there? It starts with you and your own need for the real, the genuine and the sincere expression of God. Find it, live it and then spread it to others in real and tangible ways. I guarantee you – No one will tune out on that!!!