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I’m Done With Outrage – Ḥayyei Sarah 5782

In the opening moments of Parashat Ḥayyei Sarah, Avraham loses his wife Sarah, and he cries for her, mourns for her, eulogizes her, and buries her.

There is no question that Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is still in mourning, three years after the horror that was perpetrated in our neighborhood by a murderer motivated by “the Great Replacement Theory,” the detestable idea held by white nationalists that Jews are engineering the “replacement” of white people by importing dark-skinned immigrants from elsewhere.

Charlottesville, Virginia, August 2017, where marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”

There is no question that the fabric of this community was irreparably torn on that day. You may know that it is customary when in mourning to wear a piece of torn clothing (we usually represent this with those ubiquitous black ribbons, although the real tradition is to actually tear your shirt). If it is a parent whom we have lost, that torn shirt may be sewn up, but may never be entirely repaired. So too will we as a community never be entirely repaired from that Shabbat morning, the 18th of Ḥeshvan*.

Even as we remember those whom we lost, even as we recall the last time we saw Cecil Rosenthal in the Beth Shalom office, patiently waiting for minḥah, or Dan Stein in the JCC locker room, we nonetheless also have to remember that life goes on. That is, of course, why we say the words of the Mourner’s Qaddish, which mentions not death but life, and the God-given framework of life which enables us to go from day to day, from week to week, from year to year. These ancient customs carry us from the depths of shiv’ah to the end of a year of mourning and onward, to the point where we can celebrate with a young couple who will soon be married, as we have done today.

Cecil Rosenthal

It is not coincidental that the American Jewish Committee released its third annual report on the state of anti-Semitism this past week. The survey is based on the perceptions and experiences of 1,433 American Jewish adults, and compares with attitudes about anti-Semitism within the general American public. Now it is worth highlighting that this survey is not based on incidents reported to law enforcement, but rather on the experiences of the respondents. 

And, as you might expect, Jews not only perceive rising rates of anti-Semitism, but also that their perception of anti-Semitism is much higher than that of the general public.

We should all be concerned about anti-Jewish attitudes and perception, particularly in light of what happened here three years ago. But we should also put this in perspective: anti-Semitism is truly an ancient hatred. It has always and will always be around us. While the rate of anti-Jewish acts – from graffiti on Jewish buildings to desecrating Jewish cemeteries all the way up to physical attacks on Jewish people and institutions – may wax and wane, they have never gone away. And they never will. While we might have thought for some time that America is different, we now know that is not reality.

CEO and President of AJC David Harris released a statement regarding the report, in which he said the following:

Now is the time for American society to stand up and say “Enough is enough.” American Jews see antisemitism on the far right and the far left, among extremists acting in the name of Islam, and elsewhere throughout America. It is 2021, and a disturbing number of Jews in America are afraid of identifying openly as Jewish for fear of attack. Where is the outrage? Where is the recognition that antisemitism may begin with Jews but, ultimately, targets the fabric and fiber of any democratic society?

While I agree with Mr. Harris that anti-Semitism, like all forms of hate, is a pernicious phenomenon that eats away at all of us, I must say that I am done with being outraged. Yes, we should make people aware of anti-Semitism in all its forms. Yes, we should chastise public figures of all sorts who dip their toes into anti-Semitic waters. Yes, we should be vigilant in protecting ourselves from physical threats.

But outrage? There is enough outrage in our world. Our society has turned the outrage knob to eleven. Social media platforms, and to some extent more traditional media outlets are in fact outrage machines.

So rather than add to the outrage, I want to us to make sure that our response to rising anti-Semitism is an intentional one.

Consider the words of our neighbor and friend, Reverend Canon Natalie Hall, who is now the Interim Rector of the Church of the Redeemer on Forbes. Reverend Hall spoke at the memorial service hosted by the 10.27 Healing Partnership on Wednesday in Schenley Park, and she invoked the words of Psalm 23 to make a point which really resonated with me.

Rev. Canon Natalie Hall, Oct. 27, 2021. (Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle)

She noted that the tone of the psalm, which speaks of being sheltered and protected by God in the context of threatening evil, takes a surprise turn toward the end. The next to the last verse reads (Tehillim / Psalms 23:5):

תַּעֲרֹ֬ךְ לְפָנַ֨י ׀ שֻׁלְחָ֗ן נֶ֥גֶד צֹרְרָ֑י דִּשַּׁ֥נְתָּ בַשֶּׁ֥מֶן רֹ֝אשִׁ֗י כּוֹסִ֥י רְוָיָֽה׃

You prepare a banquet for me in the presence of my enemies; my head is anointed with oil; my cup runs over.

Said Rev. Hall:

Enemies. What a startling turn. At the end of a walk with the Almighty, we’re invited to a table with those who differ from us. Adversaries. People who don’t know, understand, or even like one another. It’s here that we’re refreshed with overflowing cups. Why? Because God knows it’s hard to hate your neighbors when you share dinner.

In the closing picture painted by the psalm, we are dining “neged tzorerai,” sitting opposite those who despise us. It is a reminder that at the end of the day, we can be outraged about those that hate us; we can twist ourselves up in anguish and lament the state of the world and the hatred therein; we can write impassioned opinion pieces and write checks to AJC and ADL and decry the backward-thinking, knuckle-draggers who are the source of all of our tzuris*.

Or we can sit down to dinner, at the table that God has set, facing our enemies, and seek a different way.

The best response to anti-Semitism is not outrage – it is the same response that our people have had throughout our history. It is to mourn our dead. It is to grieve through the words of our ancient texts. It is of course to protect ourselves through physical and legal means. And it is to lean into the framework of our tradition: prayer, Shabbat, the 613 holy opportunities of Jewish life. 

We remember, we mourn, we are vigilant, and then we go on about our lives, wounded as we are, knowing that there will always be people who hate us for no good reason.

Outrage is not helpful. Although it is a natural human reaction, it only leads to more outrage. And don’t you think there is enough of that going around already? 

Laura Ellsworth, speaking at the recent Eradicate Hate Global Summit in Pittsburgh (about which I spoke last week), pointed out that no politicians were involved with planning the summit, and that was by design. Although a select few politicians addressed the conference, Laura affirmed to us that politicians do not necessarily have an interest in tamping down hate, because they capitalize on hate for their own purposes. And the same is surely true of outrage.

Being outraged at each other accomplishes nothing, and might even make the problem worse. Anger often yields more anger, which yields more hate.

But of course we cannot either slide into indifference, whether by our non-Jewish neighbors who fail to see anti-Semitism in their midst, or the indifference of Jews who would rather crawl under a rock and hope that the monster goes away. It will not.

Our goal, then, in this regard is to be intentional. To use the tools at our disposal to study, to prosecute, to legislate. We have to channel our energies into productive solutions. Those solutions will not be easy, but if we are sitting down at that table in the presence of our enemies, perhaps we can at least begin the conversation.

A final thought by way of Dr. Barry Kerzin, the personal physician to the Dalai Lama and the founder of the Altruism in Medicine Institute, which offers training in mindfulness and resilience for nurses in Pittsburgh and other locales.

Dr. Kerzin with the Dalai Lama

Dr. Kerzin spoke at the Eradicate Hate Summit as well, and he opened with a story about the survivors of the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. For decades, the survivors were extraordinarily angry and filled with hate toward the Americans.

About fifteen years ago, Dr. Kerzin recounted, an extraordinary thing happened. Those survivors were able to turn their hate into love. They began advocating for worldwide denuclearization, and the anger fell away. It brought them new meaning for their lives, and their perspectives changed.

We will never cure the world of anti-Semitism, and I will certainly never excuse the actions of those who attack Jews for being Jewish. But Dr. Kerzin’s message is that it is possible to replace hate with love. And that requires that we do not turn away; rather, that we continue to mourn, that we hold fast as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and that we sit at the table that God has set for us, facing our enemies, and try to to replace outrage with love. It is only then that our metaphorical cups may be refreshed and overflowing.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/30/2021.)

* Jews commemorate a deceased loved one on the anniversary of that person’s death according to the Jewish calendar. This day is referred to as the yortzayt (more commonly spelled yahrzeit), Yiddish for “year-time.” October 27, 2018 was the 18th day of the Hebrew month Ḥeshvan, in the year 5779. Since the Jewish calendar is lunar, the two dates only coincide only about once per decade.

** That’s the Yiddish pronunciation of the Hebrew word tzarot, meaning “troubles.” It is apparently related to the word tzar or tzorer, “enemy” – that is, your tzar is the one who causes you tzuris. It is not related, as far as I know, to the title of the historical Russian king, the source of much tzuris for generations of Jews in Russian lands.

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Hinnenu / Here We Are: Responding to Hate – Vayyera 5782

I spent the first few days of last week attending some of the sessions at the Eradicate Hate Global Summit downtown. In care you did not hear about this conference, it was a stunning array of speakers and panels and sessions on various perspectives regarding hate in our world today: what causes it, what exacerbates it, how it spreads, how it is manifest, how it wounds and damages and kills, and how we might go about trying to stop it. Although the conference was not an explicitly Jewish conference, and presenters were of many ethnicities, nationalities, religions, and colors, it of course was timed to coincide with the third anniversary of the deadly attack aimed at our Squirrel Hill Jewish community, and the remembrance of the victims, the survivors, and the trauma experienced by all of us was front and center throughout the conference.

While it is hard to say that I “enjoyed” listening to hours of discussion surrounding the problem of hate, I must say that attending this summit was truly rewarding because it provided me with a sense of relief. Relief that there are good minds thinking about this challenge: academics, religious leaders, think-tank people, entrepreneurs, Big Data companies, NGOs, victims, journalists, politicians and so forth. This conference brought together many of these folks, and there were just so many speakers, and the program was so jam-packed that there was not even enough time to ask questions. I am fairly certain that the organizers expect this to be an annual conference.

At one point, Beth Shalom member Nancy Zionts, COO and Chief Program Officer of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, tapped me on the shoulder to say, “Rabbi, I can’t wait to hear the sermons you’re going to give that will come out of the material from this conference.” I responded by saying, “There is so much material here that I’m not even sure where to start.”

So I’ll start with this, on this Shabbat on which we read Parashat Vayyera, including the Aqedah, the story of the binding of Yitzhaq: we as a society are in the midst of a test – a test which has been foisted upon us, one of which we are only just beginning to become aware. The test of how to prevent all the forms of hatred which are now conspiring from boiling over and destroying the order of the world.

The Aqedah, says the 13th-century Spanish commentator Ramban, teaches us that, since humans have free will, any time we are asked to do anything can be understood to be a test. But in Avraham’s case, says Ramban,

המנסה יתברך יצוה בו להוציא הדבר מן הכח אל הפועל, להיות לו שכר מעשה טוב, לא שכר לב טוב בלבד

God is commanding Avraham to turn the potential into the actual, so that he can be rewarded for his good deed, and not merely for his good intentions.

The good deed, in Avraham’s case, should be understood as carrying out God’s instruction, not, of course, actually sacrificing his son. But the notable item here is that when we are tested in the way that our society and our world are right now, the test is whether we can, in fact, turn the potential into the actual.

And that is exactly what we need to do: to figure out how to turn the potential into the actual. How do we go about solving the problem of hate? Avraham answers his call to action with one word: “Hinneni.” Here I am.

****

There were many summit presenters who were there to tell their personal stories, powerful stories of hatred and responding to it. 

There was Taylor Dumpson, the first Black person to be elected student body president of American University, who awoke to her first day in that position in 2017 to find nooses containing bananas upon which racist epithets had been scrawled scattered all over campus.

Taylor Dumpson

There was Navdeep Gill, who as an 18-year-old Sikh in suburban Milwaukee, saw members of his community gunned down while engaged in prayer at their gurdwara in 2012. 

Members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin

There was Alice Wairimu Nderitu of Kenya, the United Nations’ Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, who gave a keynote speech which asserted that this initial conference was like throwing a stone into a pool of water, the ripples of which will spread far and wide.

Alice Nderitu

But I want to highlight in particular Tanya Gersh, a Jewish real-estate agent who refers to herself as a “Montana Mom.” Ms. Gersh lives in Whitefish, Montana, also the home of Sherry Spencer, the mother of notorious “white nationalist” Richard Spencer. 

Tanya Gersh

In 2016, Gersh was hired for real estate services by Ms. Spencer. When her son and his posse of thugs discovered this, Andrew Anglin, publisher of the online neo-Nazi rag the Daily Stormer, mounted a campaign of terrorism against her. Anglin published all of Ms. Gersh’s contact info – address, phone numbers, photos, personal family information, social media accounts, including that of their 12-year-old son, and of course explicitly mentioning that she is Jewish, and instructing the hundreds of thousands of readers of the Daily Stormer to launch a so-called “troll storm” against her and her family. He published 30 such articles. 

For months after, Tanya’s family’s life became a living hell. People called at all hours, saying things like, “I hope you die,” “Kill yourself,” and many, many other horrible things that should never be repeated in public, let alone in a synagogue. The family kept luggage packed in their living room for three months, should they have to flee.

But they never did. As traumatic as the experience was, Tanya and her family stood their ground. Eventually, attorneys provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center brought a lawsuit against Anglin, and in 2019 won $14 million in damages. Andrew Anglin is currently on the lam.

Tanya’s message, for those who heard her story at the Lawrence Convention Center and beyond via Zoom, is to stand up. Don’t back down. Face this challenge. I must say that I do not know, if I were in her situation, that I could have been as brave.

And, pulling back the lens to consider the wider challenges of hate and its consequences, we have to stand up as a society. We are being tested; when God calls us, answer, “Hinneni.” Here I am. Rabbi Brad Artson describes this word as an expression of humility: Hinneni – I can only respond with the totality of my presence, my attention, my willingness to be in that presence. I may not know yet how to respond, but I’m here. I have shown up.

I might even be so bold as to amend Avraham’s word slightly: We need to answer in one voice: Hinnenu. Here we are. 

One of the overarching messages of this summit is that, while we may never solve the problem of hate, while it will never entirely go away, we must fight it with all the tools that we have: legal tools, technology tools, academic tools, and of course the tools of leadership. 

Laura Ellsworth, the primary organizer of the summit and Partner-in-Charge of Global Community Service Initiatives at Jones Day, stated quite clearly on the final day of the conference, that we all have the potential to be leaders in this regard. “Think about your role,” she said. “Don’t wait for leaders; be one, each to the other, every day.” Don’t wait for politicians to make this happen, because they will not. Rather, Ms. Ellsworth exhorted the attendees that if they could take one thing away from this conference, it would be that each of us has the potential to be leaders in our community.

We are not powerless against hate: but we do need to show up. We need to use all of those tools; we need to stand up when called. This test can only have one possible outcome; I cannot even allow myself to consider what the results will be if we allow the forces of chaos to win.

And that is why I am grateful to Laura Ellsworth and her team in putting this summit together, to inviting and coordinating the individuals and the organizations who have said, “Hinnenu,” here we are, who are working to face this test. 

As we come around to the 18th of Heshvan as a community day of mourning for the third time, and we remember those who were murdered on that day three years ago, we all have the opportunity to step forward and be the leaders that this world desperately needs right now. 

It’s just the beginning. But we cannot fail this test.

Hinnenu.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/23/2021.)

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The Sinkholes of Grief and the Ponds of Hope – Toledot 5779

If you have been to the area around the Dead Sea in the last few years, you may have noticed a relatively new phenomenon: large sink-holes have appeared close to the current shoreline. Our guide told us that there are as many as 6,000 of them.

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As our Beth Shalom group was on the bus this past Tuesday, headed from Jerusalem to Masada, we saw many such sink-holes. They are the result of the Dead Sea’s rate of evaporation, abetted by the rate of consumption of water by both Israel and Jordan. Areas from which the water has receded have underground pockets of salts, and when it rains, fresh water dissolves those salts, leaving empty holes under the exposed area, and then the ground above collapses. There is an area near Ein Gedi where the road actually collapsed into a sink-hole. Israeli transportation engineers anticipated it and built a bypass before it collapsed, and are apparently monitoring the rest of the road for similar problems.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are celebrating today that a young woman has come into direct relationship with the mitzvot of Jewish life. As she stood here today and demonstrated her entry into Jewish adulthood by being called to the Torah in the presence of her family, friends, and community, we are all filled with joy and pride. The cycle of life continues.

But we are also still in sheloshim, the 30-day mourning period following burial, and our community is still grieving today, and we must acknowledge that. Even though sheloshim is a less-intense time than shiv’ah, many of us are nonetheless still wrought with emotion.

Something has become quite clear to me in the past two weeks, and that is that we all respond to grief differently.

Some respond by wailing.

Some respond in anger.

Some respond in panic.

Some respond by clamming up.

Some respond by calling out.

Some respond by pointing fingers.

Some respond with a call to action, and some retreat.

Some of us fell into sink-holes two weeks ago, and have not yet emerged. And some of us are still waiting on the loose ground on top, not knowing when it will collapse. Some of us have already crawled out onto safe, stable land.

Our responses vary with our personalities, of course. Parashat Toledot, which Elana taught us something about earlier, details ways in which Ya’aqov and Esav are quite different: Ya’aqov is mild-mannered; he likes to cook, to hang around in the tent. He’s something of a homebody, his mother’s son. He is reasoned and strategic, and willing to deceive to get his way.

His brother Esav, meanwhile, is described in almost brutish terms; he is a hunter who likes meat, he’s covered with hair, he is impulsive. Esav is favored by their father Yitzhaq. With Esav, what you see is what you get. Elsewhere, the Torah reveals to us traits of other main characters: Moshe is a strong leader who has anger management issues; Abraham is a gracious and faithful host who argues with God; Sarah is brave and tenacious, but laughs at the wrong time; Aaron is holy and speaks well, yet he acquiesces when he should stand up strong.

These characters are templates for humanity; we see in ourselves, and in the palette of human expression, many of these personality features. And many of them are present in how we have responded to the attack of two weeks ago.

The Jewish mourning customs are the best around for managing grief, however it is expressed, because they acknowledge that our responses to grief reflect our personalities. One of the customs of shiv’ah is that, when visiting avelim, mourners, in their homes, we do not address them directly; we wait for the bereaved person to speak first. That way, we give space for the avelim to do what’s best for them. If they want to talk, they talk. If they want to sit there in silence, then we let them do that, and sit by patiently. If they want to cry, they cry. If they want comfort, we hold them tight. If they want to be alone, we leave them alone. It is within that framework of allowing the avel to fashion his or her own response to grief that we acknowledge their humanity.

I want to share with you a piece of wisdom that Rabbi Yolkut at Congregation Poale Zedeck brought to his community last Shabbat. It’s from the Shulhan Arukh, the authoritative 16th-century codification of Jewish law.

Last week, we visited the synagogue and beit midrash / study hall of Rabbi Yosef Karo, the primary author of the Shulhan Arukh, in the northern city of Tzfat. In his portion of the book, Rabbi Karo documents the Sephardic practice of his time. Rabbi Moshe Isserles, living contemporaneously in Poland, inserted into Rabbi Karo’s text clarifications when the Ashkenazic practice differed with Karo’s. Rabbi Isserles, known by his acronym, the Rama, had been working on a similar codification, but Rabbi Karo beat him to publication.

In the context of laws about mourning, the Shulhan Arukh addresses the question about whether or not one may cry on Shabbat. Shabbat is, of course, a day on which we are happy; we gather with friends and family to celebrate, to eat festive meals, to sing joyful songs. Those who are in shiv’ah generally do not mourn publicly on Shabbat by wearing torn clothing or sitting on a low seat or receiving guests in their homes. But is it permissible to cry? The Rama says the following: (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim רפח:ב)

If it brings one pleasure to cry on Shabbat, such that the sorrow may be lifted from his heart, then one may cry.

Crying in pain may bring you pleasure, and we give space to the avel to cry as necessary on Shabbat. I’m thinking here of Rosey Grier singing on the classic children’s album from 1972, Free to Be You and Me:

It’s alright to cry
Crying gets the sad out of you
It’s alright to cry
It might make you feel better

Raindrops from your eyes
Washing all the mad out of you
Raindrops from your eyes
It’s gonna make you feel better

How many of us have felt really wounded, and found that a good cry made at least some of the pain go away? That has certainly happened to me, and perhaps the Rama as well.

There is a hopeful note about the sink-holes: some of them have trapped water that has run off the mountains, and are now little ponds surrounded by new growth, new trees and bushes and reeds. As you drive by, these look like little oases in the otherwise barren landscape. These ponds, unlike the water of the Dead Sea itself, have a salinity content that is apparently low enough for things to grow around them.

And you know what that looks like? It looks to me like hope. The rings of greenery in the desert around these new ponds are sort of like the proverbial cloud with the silver lining. if you’ll allow me to mix metaphors.

On our final day in Israel, we visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, what is effectively the Louvre of Israel. It’s a fantastic museum, ranging from antiquities to modern art; I can get my Kandinsky fix not far from the 10th-century Aleppo Codex, which is one of the two oldest existing Masoretic* manuscripts in the world; the volume was consulted by Maimonides himself in 12th-century Cairo. Among the items we saw together included synagogues and Judaica from all over the Jewish world, from China to Poland to Suriname. And I remembered that the cataclysm of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE did not bring Judaism and Jewish life to an end. Rather, it fundamentally changed it, and strengthened our tradition for the millennia of dispersion that lay ahead. And the Jews responded by carving ornate arks and covering with gold leaf in the 16th century in Italy, and crafting spice boxes in the shape of windmills in 18th-century Holland; by producing polished-silver Torah tikkim (that the Sephardic cabinet that houses a Torah) in India and illuminated Esther scrolls in Iran and bowls made of crystalline sugar for wedding celebrations in Afghanistan.

The richness of Jewish life continues even after tragic events. Just as our people responded to destruction and dispersion with artistic creativity and continuing to embrace the richness of Jewish life, so too will we. While there will always and forever be a before and after in the Pittsburgh Jewish community, I am certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that the after will be even more vibrant.

But there is still grieving to be done, and we will continue to do so, each in our own way, even as we celebrate all the other joyous moments: benei mitzvah, weddings, births, holidays, and so forth. So please continue to give yourself space for that, even as we seek joy and pleasure. And if you can’t get out of your sink-hole, or you were on stable ground and you suddenly find yourself falling, please come see me or one of the other rabbis in the neighborhood. We are here to help, to listen, to give you the space to cry if necessary.

We will continue to grieve in all the ways that we do, and we will never forget those whom we lost. But we will emerge stronger together.

stronger together

Shabbat shalom.
* The Tiberian Masoretes were Jewish scholars living in the north of Israel in the 6th-9th centuries; they were responsible for, among other things, creating an authoritative, vocalized text of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. The Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex are the two existing texts that are closest to the original Masoretic manuscript.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/11/2018.)

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The Challenge Before Us – Shabbat HaHodesh 5778

I hope that, by now, you have heard about the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s 2017 Community Study. (Beth Shalom members Evan Indianer and Bruce and Jane Rollman served on the committee that brought it to fruition, and most likely some of you were contacted in the survey.)

Financial Institutions Using AI and Data Analytics ...

There are some very important numbers in this study. Some of them might make some of us anxious. But I am actually inclined to read this study optimistically. There is a lot here to try to absorb. First, the challenges:

  1. There is a “hole” in our community.

The percentage of Jews in the 35-49 range, to some extent what would be the most active core of synagogue membership, is smaller than other age brackets. Only 17% of all Jews in the area fall into that category, which is less than the national average for age distribution. This may have something to do with people who moved away when the economy was weak, and never returned. (By comparison, 24% are in the 18-34 bracket, 31% are 50-64, and 28% are 65+.)

  1. A smaller percentage of Jews are living in Squirrel Hill.

Only 30% of Jewish individuals in the area live in Squirrel Hill and Shadyside combined. Almost as many live within the city limits of Pittsburgh (26%) but outside of these two neighborhoods. The challenge here is that most of the Jewish institutions and services are here. The overall population has grown, and Squirrel Hill’s Jewish population has grown as well. But while a plurality of Jews surely live in or near Squirrel Hill, fewer of the newcomers are moving into the traditionally Jewish neighborhoods.

  1. Only 19% of respondents pay dues to a “brick-and-mortar” institution like this one.

In 2002, about half (53%) of respondents said they belonged to a synagogue. In 2017, 35% said they did, although only 19% said they paid dues to synagogues like Beth Shalom. The others are affiliated with Chabad or other independent congregations, or claim membership in a synagogue but do not pay dues. In 2002 they did not subdivide that 53% number, so it’s impossible to know how many were dues-paying members of brick-and-mortar synagogues 15 years ago. But regardless, the number has to be significantly lower. This is certainly a challenge to our membership model.

So here is the good news:

  1. When asked about movement affiliation, more 18-34-year-olds (27%) identify as Conservative than any other group. That’s higher than Reform (24%), higher than Orthodox (12%). Higher even (and this is important) than “Just Jewish” or “Secular.” Based on the numbers, the Conservative movement seems to be doing better than everybody else among younger Jews.

    Pop study data

  2. In terms of involvement in Jewish life (participation in Jewish life: rituals, services, cultural activities, belonging to, donating to or volunteering for Jewish organizations), those who identify as Conservative have a fairly high rate of participation and commitment. About one-third of those in the “Immersed” category (that is, they are immersed in Jewish life on a daily/weekly basis) identify as Conservative (cf. 46% Orthodox, 15%  Reform). That is, I think, a relatively healthy statement regarding what we stand for.
  3. And here’s my favorite number, because it sings with opportunity. While 80% of “Immersed” Jews are studying Jewish text on a regular basis, very few outside of that category are learning anything from the Jewish bookshelf. (OK, so you might not consider that “good news.” It is, however, an indicator that the vast majority of Jews are alienated from the benefits that come from studying Jewish text. So all we have to do is somehow get their attention. This is an opportunity.)
  4. On a related note, only 44% of Conservative Jews have attended a Shabbat meal over the last year. For those of us who know and savor the Shabbat dining experience, this number too speaks of opportunity.

Now that I have assaulted you with data, the question that emerges is, “How does this information help us move forward?”

Well, I have some very good news.

First, this study comes at precisely the right time for Beth Shalom, because we are about to begin the process of strategic planning to come up with a vision for the next 3-5 years. The last time that we pursued such a process was ten years ago, and so now that we are on a healthy trajectory and with the centennial celebration behind us, it is time to consider how we move forward from this point. The process will be guided by the United Synagogue’s Sulam for Strategic Planners program, which is a systematic approach that includes data gathering, analysis, communicating various things to the community and producing a report, followed by an implementation phase. We will receive regular guidance from a United Synagogue Transformation Specialist, Aimee Close.

These data points will be extraordinarily helpful in the initial phase of the process, and will help us with getting a sense of the situation on the ground in preparation for making strategic decisions.

The other way that these numbers help us is that it looks like (א) the Conservative movement’s star may be on the rise, particularly among younger people, and (ב) there is plenty of room for growth in the Jewish learning department. Yes, regular tefillot / prayer services will continue to be an essential part of what we do. But we have to continue to expand our range of offerings beyond tefillah, to continue to re-envision what it means to be a synagogue. Aimee Close was positively impressed with the work we have already done with Derekh. Now we need to continue that work by trying to penetrate more deeply into those who think that synagogues are ONLY for services and benei mitzvah. These numbers are in some sense a validation of the direction in which we are moving, that is, to re-frame the Jewish conversation such that we focus on meaning, on connecting what we learn with how we live today, on fostering spiritual growth.

One final observation about the data.

A recent New York Times article on nutrition cited a study that seems to reveal that weight loss is dependent not on the quantity of calories consumed, but rather on the quality of those calories. The study found that

“…people who cut back on added sugar, refined grains and highly processed foods while concentrating on eating plenty of vegetables and whole foods — without worrying about counting calories or limiting portion sizes — lost significant amounts of weight over the course of a year.”

That is, what you eat matters more than how much.

While this study is in itself quite interesting, it also has, I think, an interesting parallel in Jewish life. We all know that our tradition has 613 mitzvot. It’s a big number, and hard for many of us to wrap our brains around, let alone our lives.

We all know that there is a continuum among people in our community about what we practice – some of us are hitting a lot of those mitzvot, some fewer. Nonetheless, I hope that we should all be able to understand and appreciate that it is the quality of engagement with Jewish life that matters, not the quantity. Today, personal meaning matters more than merely doing for the sake of doing.

Less than a quarter (22%) of Conservative Jews feel that their “spiritual needs are met.” (That’s lower than Reform, BTW, and dramatically lower than Orthodox.) Getting more members of the community to a Friday night dinner or to a good, relevant study session may not lead more people to keep kosher or not use their smartphones on Shabbat. But it may help meet the spiritual needs of more of us by reinforcing:

  • The value of community
  • The value of a framework rooted in Jewish traditional practice and learning
  • The meaning that one can glean from that framework

If we can bring more of us to the Shabbat table, and more of us to the beit midrash, and do a better job of connecting those experiences to real Jewish learning, then I think we may have a better shot at meeting the spiritual needs of everybody. Quality over quantity.

In reading these data, I am not frustrated, but hopeful. Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/17/2018.)

* The Jewish obsession with counting ourselves dates back to the late 19th century. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations published a study of American Jews in 1880 (thanks to historian and Beth Shalom member Tammy Hepps for bringing this to my attention). A group of Russian-Jewish scholars created the Jewish Society for History and Ethnography, under the leadership of historian Simon Dubnow in 1908. This group pioneered the documentation of the Jews of Russia, their history and cultural contributions, and even sent the writer S. Ansky on an expedition throughout the Ukraine to collect information on the Jews of all the little towns therein. Since Dubnow and Ansky, and in particularly after the Shoah, we have been captivated by information about ourselves: how many of us there are, of course, but also what we are doing: our Jewish practices, our salaries, our ages, our membership in Jewish institutions, how many kids we’re having, etc.*