Posted tagged ‘American Jewish’

One Jew Reflecting Upon Christmas

December 29, 2013

Well, we made it through another one!  Christmas has come and gone – except for the post-Christmas sales – and Jews can breathe a sigh of relief as once again we can consider ourselves part of the mainstream of American life.

For quite some time I have had a love-hate relationship with Christmas.  Believe it or not, there is so much that I, as a Jew and as a rabbi do love about the holiday.

My earliest recollections of Christmas prominently include my father taking my sister and me for a Christmas eve drive around our neighborhood so as to enjoy the beauty of the lights decorating the homes of our Christian neighbors.  I still enjoy going on those light tours, which of course today include visiting some of those over the top houses with their complex musical light shows.  I have to admit that as garish and as energy extravagant as those light shows are, they are fun to watch; that is as long as such houses are not on my street, tying up traffic, and especially not across the street from me, flashing its performances into my windows every half hour on the half hour.  But even as I revel in the beauty of the lights – and they are so beautiful – I cannot help but ponder that it is near unto impossible for me to conceive of any Jew who would actually choose to get out their ladder in the late November or early December cold in order to climb up on their roof to string lights, only to climb up there again on a frigid January day in order to take them down.  Most Jews would label that meshugah!  We call that cultural diversity.  Perhaps that is why when you come upon the occasional Jewish home whose residents have felt a need to decorate their house with blue and white lights for Hanukkah, those  displays are always pretty lame.  Yet when all is said and done, I am profoundly grateful to my Christian neighbors for bringing such beauty and light to the dark and gloomy nights of early winter!

While my love of the lights were born of childhood experiences and have remained with me ever since, they are not the only aspects of Christmas that I have come to appreciate.  Growing older and more thoughtful, my love of Christmas has extended to so many of its messages.  While “peace on earth, good will to men (all)” has become so much a cliche, I still find it to be a powerful expression of this holiday’s aspiration that the spirit of pure love and human unity take hold in the hearts of all God’s children.  To me, this is Christian teaching at its finest; in its most ideal state.  While, as a Jew, I do not personally believe that Jesus was anything other than an historical figure, I do believe, based upon my studies of the Gospels, that these are the values which he preached and by which he lived.  They are the aspect of Jesus that all people – Christian and non-Christian alike – can embrace and aspire to live up to.  From a Jewish perspective, it is precisely these types of teachings which confirm Christianity as a legitimate religious expression; as one of the truly valid spiritual paths to God.  As a Jew, my path to God is through Torah.  For Christians, their path is through Jesus.  Whichever path we choose, it is meant to lead us to the same God.  It is meant to lead us to a God who loves all humanity and who expects us, people of our respective faiths, to share that love.

In fact, that is why I love Christmas movies.  Not all Christmas movies, but several of them; the ones that I consider to be the really good ones because they embody such uplifting and hopeful messages.  As a rabbi, I freely admit that for me Christmas is not Christmas unless I watch at least one such movie.  Top on my list is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  George Bailey is the personification of the message of Christmas.  George Bailey is the personification of the message of all ethically based faiths.  Christian, Jew, Muslim, it matters not where we pray or in which language we pray.  In the end, our various faiths call upon us to live our lives as George Bailey lived his, caring for his neighbors, striving to do his part to help make their lives at least a little better.  The same can be said for the number two movie on my list – any version of Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL, though from a purely entertainment perspective I do prefer both the Alistair Sims and the Bill Murray versions.  The question we all must confront is “How much are we like the Ebenezer Scrooge from the beginning of tale and how much are we like the Ebenezer Scrooge of its conclusion?  In this day of growing corporate greed, where the income gap between executives and employees grows exponentially greater, where for the sake of profit companies outsource their jobs to nations that fail to provide legal protections for the rights of their labor force, the evolving character of Ebenezer Scrooge has so much to teach us.  Recently, I encountered a quote from Walter Bruggerman, the imagery of which really touched me.  He spoke of “eating off our hungry brother’s and sister’s table.”  How guilty are we of such an act; of filling our stomachs at the expense of those in need; of taking from them in order to increase our own luxury?  These are the types of ethical challenges which Christmas places before us as it calls upon each and every one of us – Christian and non-Christian alike – to make of ourselves better human beings; to transform ourselves from being the Ebenezer Scrooge who appears at the beginning of the tale to the one who appears at its end.

While I am deeply moved by the universal nature of the ethics of Christmas, I am also moved by its spirituality.  Even though, as a Jew I do not accept in any way, manner, shape, or form a belief in the divinity of Jesus, still I can have a profound appreciation for the spiritual forces born of those beliefs which so inspire my Christian brothers and sisters and draw them closer to God.  True faith is a beautiful thing, even if it is not your own faith, as long as that faith carries one to acts of righteousness, justice, and love.  Perhaps being a person of faith myself helps to make me more attuned to and appreciative of the spiritual power of other faiths.  The function of a true faith is to help us actualize God’s caring presence in our lives.  For those of us who actively seek that presence through the practices and values of our own faith traditions, it may be easier for us to recognize and acknowledge when the practices and values of other faith traditions actualize the Divine presence on the lives of those who adhere to those traditions.  Such is the case when I witness those who truly observe Christmas; the real Christmas – the one observed in the church and the home more than in the shopping mall and the big box stores.

And how can I not help but love the great value Christmas places on family?  It is a time when the bonds of familial love are so strong that family members are magnetically drawn together, even across the miles, and sometimes across the planet, to share their Christmas experience; to reaffirm the power of family love in their lives.  “I’ll be home for Christmas” so says the song.  Homecoming is as much a part of Christmas as is the Christmas tree – even more so.

And yes, one of the things I love about Christmas is egg nog, and it matters not whether it be the alcoholic or non-alcoholic version.  It is the consummate seasonal drink, only to be surpassed, according to my taste buds, by that Arabic winter drink, sahleb.  Once again, cultural diversity!

These are just some of the aspects of Christmas which I as a Jew and a rabbi truly love and perhaps even envy, though each and every one of them are also to be found in my own faith, that is if you would accept the substitution of egg nog for matzah ball soup.

But as I stated earlier, my relationship with Christmas is one of both love and hate.  Sadly, there are other aspects of Christmas – particularly Christmas in America – which I freely admit evoke in me anger and bitterness.  For there are those who have chosen to set aside the universalistic Christmas message of love and respect for all of God’s children and have replaced it with a sort of perverse imperialistic parochialism.  For whatever reasons, these people have come to believe that Christmas will be somehow diminished unless all people, Christian or not, are required to engage in its observance.  When non-Christians like myself tell them, “Go, enjoy your beautiful holiday but leave me and my children out of it,” we become the enemy; we become the embodiment of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  I for one don’t take kindly to that.

I have always tried to be a live and let live type of guy.  You lead your life and I will lead mine and we should respect each other for our uniqueness and individuality.  That is why it has so deeply offended me when others have tried to impose their observance of Christmas, especially the religious aspects of Christmas, upon everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.  As a Jew, I have always wanted my Christian neighbors to enjoy the fullness of their Christmas holiday, but what I have never wanted is for my neighbors to turn around and expect me, or my children, or any non-Christian adult or child, to join them in their Christmas observance.  I am quite happy witnessing Christmas from the outside, looking in, appreciating all that is beautiful and wonderful about it.  I don’t need to be on the inside, I don’t want to be on the inside, and I resent any attempt to force me or my kind to be on the inside.  I don’t mind listening to your Christmas songs as they are broadcasted wherever I go in the month of December, and often I enjoy their melodies even if I cannot accept the message of their lyrics.  But do not expect me to sing them.  Do not expect any non-Christian to sing them, especially non-Christian children.  These songs speak of a faith that we do not nor cannot accept.  When public school music teachers force such expressions from the lips of our children, what they are doing is nothing less than spiritual child abuse.  Ironically, it also diminishes the Christian beliefs which those songs are intended to lift up.  For what does it say of the purity of Christianity when the tenets of its beliefs are forcibly falsely uttered by those who reject those very beliefs?

A painful vignette:  When my youngest daughter was in 7th grade, my wife and I, being loving and dutiful parents, attended her school’s winter music concert.  The first group to sing was the 6th grade chorus.  Standing among them was a little Muslim girl, dressed in traditional Muslim garb.  When the songs they sang were essentially Christian in nature, she stood there still and silent, standing out like a sore thumb.  It was heartbreaking yet uplifting to witness this child resist the enormous social pressure as she refused to publicly denounce her faith by proclaiming another.  The next year, when we attended the concert, I was particularly interested in hearing the 7th grade chorus sing, being curious to see whether or not that Muslim child would be among them, and if so, what she would do.  As that chorus took to the stage, it soon became clear that the Muslim girl was not not to be seen.  What a tragedy!  Why should a child who happens to be a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist or a Hindu or an atheist in America – a nation which at least theoretically holds on to the principle of separation of church and state – be forced to choose between participating in a public school music program and remaining true to the tenets of his or her faith?

While this issue of celebrating Christmas, a religious holiday, in what are supposed to be religiously neutral public schools has been a source of contention for many years, going back to my own childhood, over the last few years this struggle has taken on a new and even more invasive and sinister dimension.  I speak of the so-called “War on Christmas.”  Those crusaders who claim themselves to be the defenders of the sanctity of Christmas, led by such zealots as Bill O’Reilly and so many of his colleagues at Fox News, have vigorously invested themselves in the cause of claiming black is white and fiction is fact.  In their own insidious way, they have attempted to turn the tables on us non-Christians who have worked so hard to convince our Christian neighbors that our participation is neither essential nor desirable for their own celebration of their sacred Christmas holiday.  All that we have asked is that our fellow Americans acknowledge and respect the wondrous religious diversity of our land.  Yet these Christmas crusaders have decided to redefine such respect as being an affront to Christianity and a direct assault on Christmas itself.  For them, there is no middle ground.  To say “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is an offense equal to spitting in the face of Jesus.  They have taken this struggle over Christmas beyond the public schools and out into the shopping malls and the grocery stores and onto the media – radio, TV, and print.  This year, they have even made it into a racial issue, claiming Christmas and Jesus to be the primary possession of the white Christian race.  Emphatically they have insisted that Santa is white (even though the original Santa Claus came from Turkey) and that Jesus was white (even though historically he was a Middle Eastern Jew) and that any other perspective is nothing short of a vicious lie.  Indeed, they have given a completely new meaning to the phrase “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” a song which, by the way was written by the Jew, Irving Berlin.

In all of this, look at what obviously has been lost.  The true meaning of Christmas.  The essential teachings of Jesus, whose birth Christians are supposed to be celebrating.  They have become Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL in reverse.  Instead of the spirit of Christmas transforming a mean spirited, narrow minded bigoted Ebenezer Scrooge into a lover and care giver for all humanity, they have been working to transform the loving humanistic spirit of Christmas into a festival of partisanship and xenophobia.  What they claim to be our War on Christmas is in fact their War on Non-Christians; their war on those children of God who have chosen not to share their religious beliefs.  As one such non-Christian, I cannot help but be angry and resentful.

The saddest part of all is that there is a War on Christmas, but definitely not as the Bill O’Reillys of the world describe it.  The real War on Christmas is the war to secularize it; to diminish if not strip away entirely its fundamental religious nature.  It is a war which seeks to transform a sacred season into a shopping season and the worship of God into the worship of materialism.  Box stores instead of churches become the centers of holy gatherings.  Baby Jesus and the person he would grow to become is being supplanted by that heavy set man in the red suit who fills the houses with games and toys for children of all ages.  Peace on earth, good will to all is utterly forgotten in the crush of the early morning stampedes on Black Friday.  Christmas as a family day – not so much so any more.  It used to be that Christmas day for Jews meant Chinese food and a movie.  The Chinese restaurants were the only eateries open and the movie theaters were also open but relatively empty as our Christian neighbors gathered with their families around their trees and their festive dinner tables.  At a time of year when it is typical for Jews to feel left out, having the movie theaters mostly to ourselves did serve as somewhat of a healing balm.  In fact, when I was a rabbi in Lincoln, Nebraska – in the days before multiplexes – I had one congregant family who prided themselves on their ability to travel from theater to theater to theater, catching several films on any given Christmas day.  But over the past few years, the theaters have not been so empty.  This year, our local multiplex was literally packed.  It saddened me, not so much because we had to fight the crowd, but more so because of what it represented about the changing face of Christmas in America, as the movie theater replaced the home as the central gather place for Christians on Christmas day; as spending Christmas day with the latest Hollywood releases replaced spending it at home, around the tree, around the fire, around the dinner table, with family and friends.  This is the true War on Christmas and it has nothing whatsoever to do with saying “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”  Rather it has to do with materialism, commercialism, and secularization.  Sadder still that it is so obvious to a Jew like myself, someone on the outside looking in, while for so many others, for whom Christmas is their holiday, they don’t even see it.

I am a Jew and I love my faith and I love my people.  My religion has given me so much joy, pleasure, and inspiration. Its observances – daily, Shabbat, holidays – have so greatly enriched my life.  My gratitude knows no end.  I wish that all people could receive such gifts and that they should receive them from the values, teachings, and practices of the faith of their choosing, whatever that faith may be.  I know that all true faiths freely offer such gifts to their adherents.  For my Christian neighbors, Christmas is most certainly one such gift; true Christmas, Christmas as it was intended to be celebrated.  As a Jew, I marvel at its wonder and its beauty and all that is good about it.  I see it for all it is and all it can be yet I am puzzled why, for so many Christians, that does not seem to be enough.  Why is it not enough for them to bask in their gracious holiday celebration?  Why do they somehow feel incomplete as Christians if they fail to drag others who do not share their beliefs into their observances?

As the outsider looking in, I freely admit that I love Christmas for all it was intended to be yet hate the aggressive and mean spirited holiday into which some have re-framed it.

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Is American Judaism Going Down the Toilet?: Reflections on the Recent Pew Study of the American Jewish Community

November 14, 2013

The Pew Research Center is a highly respected institute that conducts many serious studies about the nature of religion in contemporary American life.  Last month they issued a 200 page report entited “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”  It is the first such comprehensive study of the state of the American Jewish community to be released since the last National Jewish Population Survey, back in 2001.  For this study, 70,000 screening interviews were conducted, covering all 50 states in their search to identify Jewish respondents.  Of that group, they conducted fuller interviews with almost 3,500 Jews.

The results of this survey have generated a tremendous amount of conversation within the American Jewish community.  One writer claims that as his of his writing, over a million words have been published evaluating those results.[1]  I suspect that his estimate is low.

While it is impossible for me to give you all the results of the Pew Study in one posting, let me hit upon some of its highlights, both the good news and the bad news:

  1. 94% of those Jews surveyed claimed that they are proud to be Jewish.  That, of course, is very good news.
  2. The percentage of adult Americans who say that they are Jewish is a little less than 2%, which is about half of what it was in the late 1950’s.  Unfortunately, the American Jewish community is shrinking.
  3. 22% of those interviewed claim that they have no religious identity.  It should be noted that this statistic is very much in line with another statistic from a Pew survey of religious identity in general in America, where 20% of Americans claimed to have no religious identity.  Yet it should be of little comfort to us that we Jews are like the rest of our fellow Americans, moving further and further away from our religious roots.
  4. Among those Jews who claim no religious identity, it should be noted that they are far more represented among younger adults than older adults.  If you break it down by generation you find that among the Greatest Generation – those born between 1914 & 1927 – only 7% claim no religion.  Among the Silent Generation – those born between 1928 & 1945 – the number goes up to 14%.  Among Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 & 1964 – the number is 19%.  For Gen X’er – born between 1965 & 1980 – the number is 26%.  And finally, among the Millennials – those born after 1980 – the number is 32%, almost 5 times greater than the Greatest Generation and almost twice as great than Baby Boomers.  To say the least, this trend is frightening and should be of profound concern to us Jews who wish to see our faith survive long into the future.
  5. When asked if being Jewish was more about culture and ancestry than about religion, 62% of the respondents said that their Jewish identity was exclusively about culture and ancestry; 15% said it was about religion; and 23% said it was a combination of all three.  Such statistics do not bode well for those of us who work for the continued existence of synagogues like our own.
  6. The rate of intermarriage is also up.  60% of those who married since the year 2000 are intermarried, as compared to 40% of those who married in the ‘80’s and 17% of those who married in the ‘70’s.  Considering the fact that only 20% of intermarried couples raise their children as Jewish, this poses yet another challenge for the future.
  7. Regarding denominational identification, Reform Judaism is the largest denomination among American Jews, with 35% identifying as Reform.  The next largest group, with 30%, are those who claim no denominational identification.  18% claim to be Conservative, 10% claim to be Orthodox, and 6% claim to be other, such as Reconstructionist or Jewish Renewal. However, it should be noted that the Orthodox, though small, have many more young people and generally raise larger families.  So we can expect to see this percentage grow for the Orthodox in the future.
  8. Passover remains the most practiced Jewish observance with 70% claiming they participate in a Passover Seder.  However, that is down from the 78% which was reported in the National Jewish Population Survey.
  9. 69% of those surveyed stated that they feel an attachment to the State of Israel.  This statistic remains unchanged from the National Jewish Population Survey.  We would have hoped to see this number rise as a result of programs like Birthright.  At least we are holding our own.
  10. When asked, “What Does It Mean to Be Jewish?” 73% said remembering the Holocaust; 69% said leading an ethical and moral life; 56% said working for justice and equality; 49% said being intellectually curious; 43% said caring about Israel; 42% said having a good sense of humor; 28% said being a part of a Jewish community; 19% said observing Jewish law; and 14% said eating traditional Jewish foods.  It is deeply disturbing that so many more Jews view having a sense of humor as more essential to their Jewish identity than either practicing our faith or being part of a Jewish community.

These statistics but scratch the surface of this study.  Yet, as a synagogue, they should give us much to ponder.  Reactions to this study have run the gamut from anxious hand wringing to almost joyous jubilation, depending upon one’s perception of American Jewish life in the first place.

One writer applauds the grim aspects of this report.  He claims that the reason most cultural Jews keep any Jewish traditions or identity is because they feel guilty on account of their parents.  He then goes on to announce that it is time for Jews to get over their guilt and drop these meaningless observances.[2]  While another author recalls how one edition of Look Magazine, back in 1964, had as its cover story “The Vanishing American Jew” and predicted that by the 21st century there would no longer be any Jews left in the United States.  He then joyfully quotes Mark Twain who said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”[3]

There are those who look at the report and offer sage advice.  A rabbi who was formerly a social scientist recalls one of her earliest research lessons; that correlation does not always mean causation; that statistics can only show us the present situation and cannot, by themselves, reveal the reason for that situation.  Indeed, I loved her analogy.  It was that a survey of shoe size and reading ability among Americans would reveal that the larger the shoe size, the higher the reading level.  However, before those statistics mislead us, we must remember to take into account the factor of age, for infants have very small feet.[4]

Then there is our own URJ President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who reminds us that when it comes to denominational breakdown, those Jews without religion are only second in number to Reform Judaism.  That they claim no religion, yet affirm their Jewish identity, indicates that within that group there is a great untapped potential if we can only find the key to attract them to Reform Judaism, Reform Jewish beliefs, and Reform Jewish practices.[5]

Then there is the writer who wrote a response to the article celebrating the imminent demise of Judaism.  She points out that most Jews lack basic Jewish literacy.  One cannot abandon what one never had in the first place.  Therefore, the challenge before us is to transform what the first author considered to be “intrinsically meaningless” into something deeply meaningful.  This, or course, is done through more effective Jewish education.[6]

Of all the statements I read on the subject, the one I really resonated with the most was by an author who said: “I look forward to… well, to most things, because there really isn’t any other direction in which to look.”[7]  That is precisely what the synagogue world needs to do.  We need to look forward to our future.  We need to seriously examine these statistics, come to an understanding of where today’s American Jews are coming from in terms of their Jewish identity, and then do some serious reworking of synagogue life so as to draw them back to an attachment to our religion as well as our culture.  No, we should not resign ourselves to becoming mere Jewish cultural institutions, for Jewish identity cannot long endure as a testimony to bagels and Seinfeld, as one author framed it.  For it is our faith, when properly approached, which gives our Jewish identity, and particularly our Jewish values, their foundation.  Without that faith, the rest is built on shifting sand.  We cannot keep any synagogue building open for long if the primary purpose of our existence is merely to keep our buildings open.  We must mean more than that to our members. We must mean more than that to all those Jews out there who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  We must become the spiritual home they are seeking.  We must become a center of vibrant and meaningful Jewish life.  The statistics of the Pew Study tell us where we are today so that we can better plan where we need to go if we are ever to see tomorrow.


[1] Schick, Marvin, “The Problem With the Pew Study”. Tablet Magazine

[2] Roth, Gabriel, “American Jews are Secular, Intermarried, and Assimilated.  Great News!”, Slate Magazine.

[3] Blech, Rabbi Benjamin, “The Vanishing American Jew?”, Aish.com.

[4] Gurevitz, Rabbi Rachel, “The Pew Study: What the Stats Can and Can’t Teach Us”, Rabbis Without Borders.

[5] Jacobs, Rabbi Rick, “Don’t Give Up on Jews Who Care About Being Jewish”, HaAretz.

[6] Glick, Caroline, “Why Bother Being Jewish?”, the Jerusalem Post.

[7] Ibid, Gurevitz.