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Come for the X, stay for the ‘why?’
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Come for the X, stay for the ‘why?’

A few issues back I wrote about Rabbi Andy Bachman and the ways he is attracting young families and previously disengaged Jews to his booming Brooklyn synagogue. Bachman spoke in Whippany at a conference of Jewish communal professionals, nearly all of whom are worried about the declining number of Jews who are joining synagogues or other Jewish institutions.

Bachman urged his listeners to toss out a few assumptions — and even some fiercely held principles — if they hope to attract the kinds of people who are more likely to spend their Saturday mornings at the Brooklyn Flea or Cafe Grumpy than their local synagogue. Forget denominations, he said. Welcome the intermarried. Emphasize hands-on social action and the arts. Encourage diverse views on Israel, and provide both community and meaning.

Bachman, I wrote, was urging his audience to imagine a Jewish world where the only bottom line is engaging Jews in what he called our “valued tradition.”

I was moved to revisit the column after receiving two letters from readers in Elizabeth. The writers, Joel M. Glazer and David Twersky, are deeply skeptical of Bachman’s approach (and my praise), and for similar reasons. “Is religious observance important anymore?” asks Twersky. “Nowhere was there any mention of Halacha — kashrut, being shomer Shabbat, davening every day, or traditional Jewish education, to name a few.”

Glazer has a similar critique. According to Orthodox Judaism, he writes, “service to God means daily prayer, learning, and a commitment to Torah.” He adds: “There may be Jews who give generously to Jewish causes, stay in the finest hotels of Israel, go to numerous Holocaust programs, do volunteer work, and openly identify as Jews. That is important and necessary. But there is more to it.” Namely, “observance of Torah and service to God.”

My first concern was that I had misrepresented Bachman. It’s true that, as a Reform Jew, Bachman does not feel bound by Halacha (rabbinic law), certainly not the way an Orthodox Jew does. But it’s not as if Bachman is running a Jewish settlement house. His Congregation Beth Elohim has a busy schedule of prayer services and adult Torah study classes, and its mission statement emphasizes “meaningful reflection, joyful song, and enriching Torah study.”

In his remarks in Whippany, Bachman described how it was his job to connect secular impulses with spiritual and traditional values — bringing people along so that they begin to see their volunteerism or cultural pursuits in a specifically Jewish context. Think of the “come for the X, stay for the Y” cliche of tourism advertisements. Jewish professionals covet the disaffiliated Jews who come for X — day care, a book talk, Mitzva Day. It’s their job to make sure they stay for Y — prayer, study, a deeper engagement with community, or any combination thereof.

For some, of course, that’s still not enough. And I agree that without a specific Jewish vocabulary, a shared comfort with Jewish text and liturgy, and a sense of peoplehood that borders on the parochial, there is little to distinguish a Jewish life from that of your average civic-minded, socially conscious, spiritually inclined Brooklynite or Livingstonian.

The study of Torah and the observance of mitzvot are paths to a beautiful, meaningful, sustainable Jewish life. Communities built on both are thriving as never before. But if you insist that “observance of Torah and service to God” represents the only authentic Judaism, you are going to cut off those who find their Jewish meaning in other expressions — philanthropy, secular Zionism, or tikun olam, to name a few. You might find the rare ba’al teshuva who makes the leap from secularism to Jewish maximalism. But you’ll lose plenty more who aren’t willing to go that far.

Many who privilege halachic Judaism over other expressions seem to be embracing a romantic version of Jewish history. According to this version, all Jews were “Orthodox” before modernity threw open the gates of the shtetl and the majority was corrupted by secular education and earthly temptations. And yet the shtetl was never that homogenous, and even if it were, there is no reversing the impact of the Enlightenment (unless, of course, you are part of a haredi, or fervently Orthodox, movement that invents a Torah-centric planet all its own).

Since the Enlightenment, all Jews, like the haredim, have been inventing their versions of a Jewish life. Some of these inventions have been more successful than others. Bachman’s is one type of invention, a community that accepts people as they are and encourages them to find a way to mark their choices in a Jewish way. Others have raised the barriers to entry a little higher, and some of their experiments — the Chabad house comes to mind — have been successful as well.

Some institutions will thrive by emphasizing prayer and Torah above all else. Others will tap yearnings for community and meaning among people who reject the Jewish vocabulary about God and mitzvot, or find more meaning in the work of their hands than the prayers of their hearts. The beautiful thing is that we don’t have to choose one way or the other, not yet.

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