created at: 2014-03-23The alternate title of this post is: Pieces of Reviving and Continuing Judaism.

In the last weeks and months, a few articles have gotten attention:

The Pew Study of American Jewry and the report on it in the New York Times

Daniel Gordis in The Jewish Review of Books on the end of the Conservative movement

The New York Times article last week on Lau-Levie’s Lab/Shul

And then there’s where I am at, as I collect my Jewish life thoughts: mathematically a bit beyond the mid-point, well into mid-life.  I am almost 55 years old – 54 and three-quarters, as the kids might count it.  A Jewish woman who has done her fair share of changing and thinking about her Judaism, raised in a different era by Jewishly involved parents who are no longer here and whose world has largely disappeared.  Raised in a way that may have been typical of my generation in some ways, and atypical in others – a niche-life, no doubt, that also was of its time.  Like some portion of the Jewish women my age, I occasionally considered the idea of becoming a rabbi or cantor and watched as other women did, who were either more empowered or younger or both.  And, frankly, I continue to think about many facets of gender and Judaism, but that’s for another essay.

This post is about what I see today as some of the pieces we need to consider if we are wondering how Judaism works to keep people involved.  The following fivcreated at: 2014-03-23e points and an overarching framework are what I’ve come up with so far. 

Aleph. We, you, wherever you stand on this, must work with the “congregation” you have.  As much as I believe that applies to a synagogue congregation, it also applies to the entire Jewish community.  We cannot wish for a different kind of congregation or group of Jews.  We cannot talk to others as if they were different from who and what they are.  Quantitative statistics will only get us so far; in the end you need to talk to people and treat their experiences and expressions as real, in their own terms, to learn anything.  Then we must see each other as the one and only partners in a shared endeavor, rather than wishing for the others whom we invite to the dance to be different – by just a little or by a lot – or to be substituted by another kind of partner.  That is asking for something we cannot have and will lead us nowhere.

Bet. Yin-Yang #1. In the shul, like in the school, like in our work-lives, like in our marriages – we need a balance of “edge” and “routine.”  That balance can perhaps come in a variety of ways.  But we need to think about our plans and the Jewish life we’re offering a community: where is the edge and where is the routine.  Where is the openness, the spontaneity or unpredictability, and within or alongside what routine does it live?  We know this from raising our children: to learn and grow, all living things need freedom as well as structure.

Gimel. Yin-Yang #2. We also need to balance individual paths and, the yang to that yin, social networks, including those of geography (neighborhoods), friendships (havurot and small groups), families (parents with children and related constellations that live together and gather to celebrate and mourn).  The individual learns as s/he learns, has personal questions, and ultimately holds the soul that needs nurturing.  The communal nature of Judaism may, at times, leave that individual story by the wayside, to its detriment. 

Daled.  We need to understand that learning to do Judaism is like learning to ride a bike.  Now, I don’t mean only the standard phrase, “It’s like riding a bike – you never forget.”  That, in fact, is true basically.  But go back to the moment when we learned to ride a bike or taught our children.  What happened?  We all know: except for those who watched carefully and rehearsed it in their heads, determined to join the group of bike-riding kids, most of us were introduced to the bike with the classic help of an adult’s hand on the back of the seat while we learned.  Some of us used training wheels for a while.  We may remember how we wondered at that moment when the adult hand left the seat and we realized we were riding on our own.  The key here is that the goal always was for the kid to ride that bike him or herself.  That is how Judaism must be seen.  If anyone is going to “do Jewish” at any level, it must be understood that you will then be riding the bike yourself, rather than something we would consider an abject failure: learning to ride a bike as another person held on to the back of the seat while you pedaled.

Hey. Yin-Yang #3.  Travel between Israel and the United States has become more frequent, more affordable, more ordinary in a sense.  But that’s not the full story.  Behind that, or yet to come, is a deep, profound understanding that the Jewish people and story ever and always has been made up of Israel and Diaspora, in all the ways that are challenging and all the ways that are enriching.  We must embrace that, even when it’s like the old joke asking how two porcupines make love: “Very Carefully.”  It is a deep resource for the Jewish community, and it is more difficult to ride than a bicycle.  If leading a religious life is like riding a bicycle, this is more like working in an acrobatic act of multiple bicycle-riders or even a unicycle stunt.  It will not be easy.  But to work with it, we must accept that it will be the only possibility, for now or forever, and that it can and will be beautiful. 

And now the bottom-line framework that touches on all of these points.

Reviving, keeping, maintaining, growing, living with Judaism as a community requires daily attention to your current situation, to our current shared situation.  How many of us have heard that before.  It’s like life.  It’s like marriages.  It’s like parenting as children grow daily.  It’s like any work any of us does honestly.

The Buddhists have something to teach the Jews in this respect.  It is not all about history and the future.  To ride the Big Bike of Jewish Life, you need to understand where you are at any given moment, and adjust in wise ways, so as not to fall.  Because the bike is bigger than you.  When you fall, as you inevitably will, you will get hurt.  But the bike will go on.  And it would be better to be one with the bike and enjoy the ride.


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