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The Rescue Mission

04/06/2015 08:11:00 AM

Apr6

The Rescue Mission
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

There is a story that haunts me this time of year.

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 of 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 academe. And inasmuch as Judaism meant so very little to him, he agreed to become a Lutheran. But the young man had a sense of history, and he decided that, were he to become a Christian, it had to be as the first Christians did -- he had to do so as a Jew. So for one last time, he stepped into a synagogue on Kol Nidre night -- planning to become baptized the 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. And 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. Because this holiday it isn't one young man, but a whole generation that sits in the back of the shul wondering, Why be Jewish? -- a whole generation searching for a persuasive reason to identify as Jews.

In 1991, the Council of Jewish Federations published a study of the American Jewish community. This National Jewish Population Study substantiates statistically what we already knew from experience with friends and neighbors, and with 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; fewer than half join synagogues or community organizations, and when asked "What is your religion?" 1.8 million Jews responded, "none".

We have, it seems to me, 20 years, one generation, to reverse the erosion of our community. We have 20 years to win back our children and our grandchildren. Twenty years to provide a Judaism so compelling, so inviting, so stirring, that young Jews would think of going nowhere else for a vision of life's meaning and purpose. Twenty years to rescue America's Jews.

The story of Franz Rosensweig's (un)conversion provides an uncompromising challenge: If a young person were to walk in to this synagogue, would he or she find a compelling reason to choose Judaism? That's the challenge. And there is so little time. To win back our children, we must be certain that every service, every program, every class, every meeting, every personal encounter provides a compelling reason to choose Judaism. Everything we do must reflect our conviction that Judaism offers life meaning, purpose, and beauty. That is our mission for the next twenty years. And that is my mission at Valley Beth Shalom


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