• Being Jewish – Opting In or Opting Out

Rabbi Yitzchak Newman | Rabbinic Contributor


Two chance meetings got me thinking.  As I was visiting a good friend in a home overlooking the ocean, his Jewish acquaintance happened to be there. My almost weekly visits with my friend always generated lively conversation including a session of study and prayer. I enjoyed a warm conversation about his acquaintance’s life story.


He had traveled the world living in opulent areas in Europe, had major real estate holdings and was in the middle of producing two movies. It was quite apparent that he felt very successful in life. As I was holding a pair of tefillin in my hand I asked him if he knew what they were. After he told me that he had no idea, I asked him if he ever had a bar mitzvah to which he replied to the negative.


I came to find out that he was a child of holocaust survivors who gave him no background in his heritage and in his 60 something years had little connection to the Jewish community.


Just a little while later, in the office of a prominent broadcast personality a similar experience occured. By his invitation I joined a meeting he was having with another individual. In the middle of our talking about a Jewish related subject he quipped to his friend that he wouldn’t understand these matters to which his friend quickly replied “Why I am Jewish!”


This certainly sparked an animated conversation. What I discovered was that he grew up just a few miles from my home in Dorchester Massachusetts – a lantsman at that. Although he was Bar Mitzvahed he had no involvement in the Jewish community since his arrival to California 40 years earlier. In both cases their children were not encouraged to connect to their Jewish roots.


It has become quite clear through these and numerous other firsthand encounters that, increasingly, our members are disappearing from our Jewish community. If this holds true with the older folks it is even a greater reality with our young generations. It is no surprise that our members are opting out of being involved in the community in larger numbers. The engagement of the past was not sufficient to keep our members active.


In stark contrast to my chance encounters are planned visits with alum of the Hebrew Academy Jewish Day School who graduated almost 40 years ago. One for instance is a prominent lawyer in the entertainment industry for one of the major studios. In addition to giving his children a Jewish day school education he has taken leadership in the Jewish community including serving as president of a Jewish day school in Los Angeles.


Another visit brought me to a leading cardiologist who has also made the smart choice to send his children to a Jewish day school and is very active in his temple.


With thousands of alum of the Hebrew Academy over a 50-year period, I have visited hundreds of our students and the involvement and leadership I find are not chance happenings but intentional choices. In fact statistics reported by the Jewish Population Study find that Jewish day school education is the strongest determinant, by far, of involvement in the Jewish community. Students who, in their early years, learn in a Jewish day school environment that teaches Judaism and models Jewish values grow up to be proud well-educated Jews who remain in our community for a lifetime.


As for the two fine gentleman who I met by chance recently, they accepted my offer to put on tefillin and say a prayer. After a rather lengthy conversation urging them to engage Jewishly I am hopeful that they will connect to the Jewish community. If they were younger I would have enrolled them at Hebrew Academy.