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Our Mission

09/11/2019 11:59:24 AM


Our Mission
Rabbi Ed Feinstein
Clergy Corner, September 11, 2019

There is a story that haunts me this time of year. It haunts every rabbi I know.

It is the story of a young Jew who lived in Germany at the beginning of the century -- a brilliant student of philosophy at the university in Berlin. All of his cousins, and all his colleagues and acquaintances had converted to Christianity, as was so common among young Jews at the time. His professors urged him to convert as well to assure himself a position in German academic life. Inasmuch as Judaism meant so very little to him, he agreed to become a Christian. But the young man had a sense of history, and decided that were he to become a Christian, it had to be as the first Christians  -- he had to do so as a Jew. So for one last time, he stepped into a synagogue on Kol Nidre night -- planning to receive baptism the very next morning. 

Something happened to him in that service. He never kept that morning appointment. He wrote to his cousins that he no longer had reason nor need to convert. He turned his attention to the study of Judaism, and in time was recognized as the most gifted teacher of his generation. His name was Franz Rosensweig. In all the many books, monographs, diaries and correspondence he left behind, nowhere does he describe what happened in that synagogue on that Kol Nidre night. 

What happened to him? What did he find there? The mystery haunts me.  We are in the middle of the Hebrew month of Ellul and deep into our preparations for the High Holidays. As I begin my personal and rabbinic preparations, I am haunted because I know that this holiday it will not be just one young man, but a whole generation sitting in the back of our shuls, synagogues, temples, wondering, Why be Jewish? What does all this mean? Why bother with all this? -- a whole generation searching for a persuasive reason to identify as Jews. 

The studies of the Jewish population in North America substantiate statistically what we all know from experience with friends, neighbors, and our own families: The massive disaffiliation, disaffection and alienation of American Jews, particularly the young. More than half of young Jews marry out of our people; only a fraction affiliate with a synagogue or community organizations, and when asked in a recent survey "What is your religion?" twenty percent of American Jews, and thirty percent of younger Jews, responded "none". 

Yet, many will find their way to synagogue on the holidays to see perhaps if we have something to offer.

The story of Franz Rosensweig's conversion provides an uncompromising challenge: If a young person were to walk in to our synagogue, to our homes, to our circles, would they find a compelling reason to choose Judaism? Will they hear compelling moral truth, deep spiritual wisdom? Will they feel the warmth and welcome of a living community? Or, will they be met with our tribal arguments and internecine rivalry. Will they be called to a higher moral mission? Or will they drowned in judgmentalism?  

The question, "Why be Jewish?" is rarely answered in abstract doctrinal formulations. Rather, it is shared in personal witness. The Seder had it right: the answer to our children's question is intensely personal. "Because of what God did for me..." Because here in the Jewish tradition and among the Jewish people I have found God's presence and my sense of life's purpose. Because here I have found a language for my mission and responsibility as a citizen of the world. Because here, I have found my home. If you can say this unequivocally to your children, now is the time. This is our message and our mission for the sake of the next generation and for this new year. Shana Tova.

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784