Spring has sprung – even in Canada. Birds are chirping and Grade 12 students are finishing exams while tackling that excruciating question: “what’s next?”
Most will attend university – Canada has the highest percentage of university grads in the OECD, 53 per cent, and an even higher percentage of Jews have a post-secondary education. But while weighing their options, fewer and fewer Canadian Jews are taking the quality of the university’s Jewish community into account. In fact, many young people prefer to use that moment to “free” themselves from Jewish communal life.
It’s a shame, because in a world filled with so many young people feeling so lost, Judaism offers all of us, including students, essential anchors – from a community that can support them, to causes that can galvanize them. I always say that I am not arrogant enough to claim that Judaism is the best way of life, but it’s my way and, for me, tribalism breeds familiarity and commitment. Moreover, as a Jew, the fact that my ancestors have been at this for 3,500 years gives Judaism added power and meaning for me.
In North America today, liberal Jews face the prospect of voluntary extinction. We also face a crisis of meaning. How can North American Judaism avoid degenerating into a random collection of ethnic tics and Yiddish-spiced gripes, with splashes of Holocaust remembrances and odes to our immigrant ancestors thrown in? How do we make Judaism meaningful enough to be worth preserving, to be worth fighting for and to be worth taking into consideration when choosing where to live, or where to go to school?
This silent killer worries me more than our better-armed enemies. I fear that Judaism is shrivelling. This, of course, is not a new problem. Back in 1981, novelist Anne Roiphe lamented her own “assimilated” family’s “thin” traditions, which lacked “the tensions of the ancient ways, the closeness of primitive magic, the patina of the ages.” Viewing Israel as a counter, she warned: “A Judaism that does not involve new commitments, work for others, will melt away in the heat of the barbecue on the patio, the light of the TV, the warmth of the variety of comforts now available.”
Judaism was never just about the Word. It was never just about the Book. It was never just about being Jewish. It was about belonging to a people who were committed to becoming better and bettering the world around them. Although not a missionizing people, Jews have always been a mission-driven people. And like birds that can only fly by propelling themselves forward, with no mission, without forward movement, Jews risk plunging from the sky. Our challenge is to decide what we are fighting for and what we stand for, so we don’t stand still and nosedive.
Although not a missionizing people, Jews have always been a mission-driven people.
Community is the start, but it’s the launchpad, not the endpoint. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that in Theodor Herzl’s utopian Zionist novel, Altneuland, Dr. Friedrich Lowenburg “rediscovers his identity,” and in so doing, realizes “that to have moral commitments, even an identity, we must first belong.”
Decades ago, Sir Isaiah Berlin warned against being Ostrich Jews and Oyster Jews. Ostrich Jews bury their heads in the sand, not taking their Judaism into account and assuming it’s not meaningful. Oyster Jews, knowing that grit produces pearls, build an identity by fighting anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Our challenge is to be Owl Jews – wise, judicious, taking Judaism into account, being motivated by the positive and soaring high as a result.