The Challenge of Introducing Young American Jews to Torah

Ben Moshe’s comment on ‘The ABCD of Young American Jews’.

There are no shortcuts to solving this problem. No matter how one tries to position it, Judaism is prescriptive. It teaches that there are things that one must do, and things that one cannot do; things that are permitted, and things that are off-limits. These constraints do not sit well with a generation that grew up in a multicultural environment, free of social pressures that kept previous generations of Jews in the fold.

As I once heard a Rav say, “In America, every Jew is a Jew by choice.” The only way to get excited about Judaism is to have positive role models who instill love and enthusiasm for mitzvot from an early age, or, like many members of this blog, to acquire the taste later in life.

In previous generations (including my own), American Jews who looked for an alternative to the yoke of the mitzvot tried to find it in political and social movements such as support for Israel, Holocaust commeration, rescue of Soviet Jewry, etc. (see reply #2 above).

These binding ties were “Jewish” because they addressed the plight of fellow Jews and could be presented in the context of Jewishly-rooted concepts such as “tikkun olam” or “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” or “kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh”.

Today, Israel is somewhat more secure, the Holocaust is for many found only in movies and in the Diary of Anne Frank (that some read only because it was a school assignment), and the Soviet Union is history.

Although there are still many fellow Jews who need help, today’s generation tries to define Judaism in the context of causes that are remotely connected to Jewish ideas and to Jewish communities, if at all: Darfur, the environment, homosexual rights, immigrant labor, etc. When there is so little difference between Temple Beth (fill in the blank) and any other “social justice” organization, it is no wonder that young American Jews feel little affinity davka to Judaism.

8 comments on “The Challenge of Introducing Young American Jews to Torah

  1. I would argue that it’s Evolutionism that is the best example of “ex cathedra” style thinking, at least the way it was taught when I was in public school in the sixties and seventies.

    Evolutionism is an “all or nothing” doctrine. It’s all about memorizing dates, not science. If you know the starting and ending times of the Ordovician, Silurian and Cambrian periods of the Paleozoic Era, you get a 100 percent on the final exam.

    If you don’t agree that the Devonian period took place from 440 to 400 million years ago, well you my friend are failing the course.

    Compared to that kind of thinking, Evolutionism taught not as science but as a religious dogma, it’s Judaism that sounds rational and geared to the modern world.

  2. Ms. Resnick:

    I respectfully disagree with your overall assessment of the situation.

    Kiruv organizations preach a pretty black and white view of our mesorah. At the very least, individual outreach rabbis are trained to give over a rather fundamentalist approach.

    And maybe I am wrong to find fault with it. Because the essence of emunah seems to dictate a radical rethinking of secular ideas – the ideas many of us were brought up with.

    But I see a problem – there are Jews who find it too hard to swallow the kiruv proposition regarding science, natural history. Some were born frum and may leave it over these issues, others are exploring Yiddishkeit for the first time in their lives, and a portion of them will embrace frumkeit strongly.

    Blogs are a good place to see this terrific battle. Not BeyondBT really. You have all pulled this one into a space insulated from some of the arguments in the Jblogosphere.

    But I imagine many readers of this blog have happened on other blogs, where pitched battles are being fought over questions of TMS, evolution, the Mabul, four animal proofs, Chazal and science, religion in general, atheism versus monotheism, halacha, freedom, the gedolim, R’ Slifkin, and the list goes on.

    Lot of tears out there. Lot of tough mesorah defenders, lots of people being threatened with virtual cherem. And endless confusion for the seeking Jew!

    It’s really quite something to delve into — our own little Vietnam.


  3. To Tuvia #4: I think one of the best things about Judaism is that we DON’T require “ex cathedra” thinking and we DON’T shove a complete belief system down people’s throats. Even right-wing strictly Orthodox Jews don’t necessary accept every single last mayseh and medrash as the absolute emes. Our religion has always welcomed critical thinking and questioning from our adherents. As you may have noted from the postings of Dr. Charles Hall, biostatistician, he is a frum Jew and a scientist who does not find it contradictory to wholeheartedly believe in G-d and the Torah while also embracing scientific concepts like evolution and the “Big Bang” and a 13-billion-year-old Earth.

  4. There are profound areas of Torah that go beyond our rational understanding. Does our possible concern about what people will think justify our downplaying these?

  5. I think the problem is not with Judaism itself, but with proofs and other tactics that threaten to turn off secular Jews.

    I think when I hear that the world is young, Adam and Eve is a literal happening, the flood occurred as written – it creates a serious problem for some of us.

    There is a term called “ex cathedra” style thinking (please excuse its papal origins) that describes concepts that are foisted on the people in toto.

    These are tough for rationalists to accept. Or those who feel uncomfortable having dogma dictated to them.

    It is present in all religions – and it is the one part of religion that is closest to cult thinking.

    I was not raised observant, but I was kind of dumbstruck by this one aspect of Judaism as I was exposed to Orthodox thinking.

    I find it misery making to have an argument with an adult over the literalness of the Flood. It is more depressing when the adult is Jewish! I would rather leave that chatter to Fundamentalist X-tians.

    I take some comfort in the idea that before Judaism is a religion, it is a nation. I cling to that.

    Now for many who have a love of yiddishkeit that somehow really transcends these subjects, I think they are in a way lucky.

    But I truly feel I don’t want to join them by ignoring my rational side. If I find out literal Torah is the emmes when I “shuffle off this mortal coil,” I will, of course, accept it then.

    The off the derech problem – I see it a lot as these folks often turn up at Chabad shabbats – is due to many different factors.

    But one factor that is causing trouble for sure is the problem of ex cathedra thinking. It drives a lot of Americans away from their Jewish roots.


  6. 1. Jewish preschool and nursery school.

    Get ’em when they’re young…and they’re yours for life. Create a safe, fun, healthy environment where tots can learn important lessons about playing nicely together while finding out about Brochos, Shabbos and Jewish holidays.

    2. Jewish summer camping: both day camps and sleepaway camps.

    For over 100 years the best way to reach Jewish kids and teens. From Saturday night Havdalah followed by a campfire Kumsitz, to serious Tisha B’Av programming, from Ivrit lessons to Israeli dancing, young Jews from public school have had a memorable experience in living Jewishly by going to Jewish summer camps.

    3. Hillel and college programs.

    Revitalized by Richard Joel (now president of YU), this organization has helped young men and women at various college campuses to feel pride in their Jewishness, meet other Jews in a social setting, obtain kosher food and spend Shabbos and Jewish holidays together.

    4. Drop-in centers for troubled teens.

    For teens at risk and “off-the-derech,” organizations have created drop-in centers as a better alternative to the local pool hall, showing them that Judaism can also be enjoyable, non-threatening and non-judgmental.

  7. I invite Jews of all backgrounds to my web site for quick easy Torah quotes in English:

    Quotes include: Babylonian Talmud, Jerusalem Talmud, Midrash Tanchuma, Midrash Rabah, Tanna DeBei Eliyahu, Rashi, Rambam, Ramban, Shulchan Aruch, Mishnah Berurah, Pele Yoetz, Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, Kav HaYashar, Shaarei Teshuvah, Sefer Chasidim, Sefer Charedim, Midrash Mishlei.

    More than 650 Jews from: USA, Canada, Israel, England, Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Japan have joined in the 17 months since we started.

    My web site includes both beginners and Orthodox Rabbis.

    For Jews ONLY! Thank you!

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