by Beth Cohen, Executive Director, the Center for Jewish Life
On Nov. 5, 2013, the Center for Jewish Life organized a panel to discuss the findings and implications of the Pew Research Center’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Over 225 people attended the program which was held at Temple Israel.
Excerpted quotes from one of the questions are below. The full video of the two-hour program is posted at www.jewishomaha.org, and click on the tab for the Center for Jewish Life.
An anonymous donor leaves a ten million dollar bequest with only one condition – that it be spent to connect more Jews in Omaha with a stronger commitment to Judaism. You have sole control of the funds. How would you spend the money?
Rabbi Aryeh Azriel
Taking young interfaith couples to Israel is the second stage of Birthright. I will invest the money in these young couples. The other thing is, and maybe it is time for us to talk about this seriously, there are 60 million Americans that don’t have any religion. How about becoming a missionary religion? We are in America now. I think we need to figure out what should be our relationship among our neighbors. From my experience, I think there are a lot of people who are Americans, and that’s it. It could be fascinating for us to open the door and invite them in.
Rabbi Steven Abraham
Ten million dollars and I’m a simple guy. It would be pretty easy. I would buy a bus ticket for every kid to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and I would build a Jewish high school in Omaha. Whether it be Sabra or Herzl or Ramah, I say Ramah because it is the Conservative movement camp. What Ramah and day school does is creates an environment where they are in a bubble. What I’ll say even further is I wouldn’t split it 50/50. I’d probably do 70/30 to camp. When you send kids to camp, they are being acculturated, and we cannot replicate that when they are home, no matter how much we ever try.
Rabbi Mendel Katzman
After saying thank you to the anonymous donor, I would say there is a lot that can be done. We are blessed to be in a community where the people who are in the business of doing business realize that the greatest investment is furthering the education and culture, and understanding that Judaism is not in the synagogue. Judaism is in each and every one of us, in our homes, in our families, and that is really where it has to be nurtured.
Rabbi Josh Brown
I don’t think that going back to traditional Shabbat as Rabbi Gross suggests, is what everyone is looking for. But what we learn from Orthodoxy in the study is that Jewish immersion works. Orthodoxy has a great answer. Many of us have gone searching for another answer, and we have to hold up our end of the bargain by immersing ourselves. Every kid should go to camp, every kid should go to Israel. I think we have to answer the reason why. Why should we be Jewish? We have to respond to people with a real answer and the answer has to be that life is better. It can’t be only about history, although that is a big part of it. And it can’t only be about preserving something for someone else’s sake. As a millennial, I’ll say I think our generation is a little arrogant in thinking that we can Google the answer and figure it out on our own. Judaism is wiser than that and has been giving us lessons. We keep talking about intermarriage and about other issues that are uniquely Jewish when we could be solving peoples’ life problems and they would come in droves.
Rabbi Jonathan Gross
I agree with the idea of immersion. Shabbos is meant to create that kind of immersion. It gives us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in Judaism and in Torah. You ask about 10 million dollars? Money is not the answer to this problem. It is people. We have to come back to the Torah, come back to the mitzvot, and that is the answer. It is the simplest answer and now it is scientifically proven from the Pew study.
The organization that oversees all the Federations in the country has a new initiative looking into making Hebrew day school free to anyone who wants to go. I think it is a pretty interesting initiative because there are a lot of statistics out there that say that Hebrew day school and Jewish summer camp will help to sustain us as a people and will keep people Jewishly connected. If we were given this money, I think we need to look at how we can use the money to strengthen our community for each generation to come. I would also be interested in financially supporting to a greater extent the Hebrew schools at the synagogues, and a middle school and high school experience for our Jewish kids as well.