It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” (Chinese proverb…and Eleanor Roosevelt)
In the past few years, I have been impressed by the amazing array of Jewish events and activities that take place in our area around Hanukka. This year continues the trend with more events than ever. You can see a listing at jewishmonmouth.org/chanukah (or see related article), and I encourage you to partake.
This is in sharp contrast to all the warnings we have heard from the Pew Study and other statistics about the waning of the Jews and the decline of Jewish community. From reduced affiliation rates; to declining membership in synagogues and other organizations; to the closing of JCCs, day schools, and Hebrew schools — the organized Jewish community seems to be in serious trouble.
A pretty big disconnect, no? Are things really as bad as these studies say? Or are they as vibrant and full of possibility as this listing of events might indicate?
The answer is: Yes. And yes.
I don’t mean to be contradictory or equivocal by saying, “On the one hand, but on the other….” But both descriptions are accurate and provide cause for concern and some hope.
The Jewish community is in trouble. Serious trouble. While I tend to be an optimist, I am also a realist — and the trends are not looking good. The studies are sound. Numbers are down, especially when it comes to Jewish memberships and affiliations. Even if this can be explained by, or be seen in line with, broader societal trends, the simple reality is that Jews are not doing or defining their Jewishness in the same way today as they did just a few decades ago — and many Jewish organizations and synagogues are slow to adapt.
This reality is particularly acute among younger Jews. In the crush of myriad opportunities and competing priorities — from sports to academics to video games — Jewish activity and involvement is losing out in this competition. And when Jews grow up without quality Jewish education or meaningful Jewish experiences, what motivates them to do anything Jewish is at best nostalgia — and at worst guilt. Add in ambivalence toward Israel and lack of appreciation for Jewish peoplehood and family and for a community concerned about its future, this is not a good place to be.
But that’s not the whole story. The other part of the story is this array of events we see this Hanukka, which will attract thousands of people who don’t normally turn out for Jewish events or activities. While part of this interest may stem from a desire not to be subsumed in the ever-growing tidal wave of Christmas promotions and celebrations that also take place at this time, the bottom line is that there are lots and lots of Jews who are still interested and open to fun, exciting, and meaningful opportunities.
This is an important point that can get lost when we focus on these doom-and-gloom statistics. Even though most Jews are not currently involved or affiliated, it isn’t that they have made a decision to opt out; they just haven’t been given a compelling reason or opportunity to opt in. While that may mean that many current Jewish community offerings are not speaking to people in the right way, that also means there is hope that if we build it, or rebuild it right, they will come.
That is why the growing focus on “community engagement” by the Jewish federations of Monmouth and Middlesex is so important. As the leading organization addressing the key challenges facing our Jewish communities, we consider issues of identity and engagement as absolutely critical. That’s why we aim to work actively with our partners to promote cool opportunities to the broader community and help them ensure a welcoming environment, as well as to help catalyze an array of compelling entry points to Jewish life for those not currently plugged into Jewish life. We are proud to support our partners organizing many of these community Hanukka events, as well as ongoing programs with PJ Library, Hillel, Birthright Israel, synagogues, Chabad, and others with the goal of engaging as many in our community as possible.
The story of Hanukka is the story of a fundamental challenge to the identity and integrity of the Jewish people during Greek rule. Yet we persevered. Today, the challenges to our identity and peoplehood are just as great — but there is also hope as well. The key is to recognize the moment and meet the challenge head on.
I encourage you to turn up at one — or more — of these Hanukka celebrations and to become partners with us in spreading the light. Best wishes for a Happy Hanukka.