I’ve been alarmed by three recent events that I’d like to share with you.
First, on Erev Yom Kippur, I met an elderly gentleman visiting Vancouver from Australia. At the breakfast table after Shacharit, this man of Persian background spoke nostalgically about his past. He shared some moments of his childhood, remembering how an Iraqi blind man whom he accompanied to the synagogue every day in Mumbai taught him Sephardi prayers and tradition. When asked about the current Sephardi congregation in Australia, he responded sadly that it was a dying community. With a beautiful voice, he led us in the Birkat Hamazon, and I couldn’t help but imagine being in the desert of my ancestors. His voice had an authenticity that connected all of us to our rich past.
Second, a few weeks later, I read staggering news from a recently published Pew Research Center study of U.S. Jews. Let me share with you a few of the key findings:
• The intermarriage rate has reached a high of 58 per cent for all Jews marrying between 2000 and 2013, and 71 per cent for non-Orthodox Jews – a huge change from before 1970, when only 17 per cent of Jews married outside the faith.
• Two-thirds of Jews don’t belong to a synagogue, one-fourth don’t believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.
• The study identifies a growing number, defined loosely as of Jewish ancestry, who now consider themselves people of no religion. This group currently constitutes nearly a quarter of the adult Jewish population.
Third, a few days after the Pew study appeared, all of us were shocked to hear of the passing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. His departure is a great loss for all of Am Yisrael. Among the many, many contributions this man made to Am Yisrael were his innovative halachic rulings, his role in restoring the pride of the Sephardi world, his reasoned, halachic permission for thousands of agunot to marry, and his decision that Jewish Ethiopians are, indeed, full-fledged Jews.
The imminent disappearance of a synagogue in Australia, the unhappy demographics in America (a soon-to-be published study will show roughly the same trends in Canada), and the painful loss of one of our generation’s gedolim – what connects these three unfortunate events?
At once, we should understand that throughout the millennia, we have been confronted by numerous challenges that have required Jewish creativity and perseverance. Why should our generation be any different?
Education, as always, is the key to Jewish continuity. There’s simply no substitute for study and the ensuing excitement of learning about our history and truly living our heritage – parents and children alike. It begins at home and carries on through formal education at our synagogues and schools. Yet, nothing can take the place of living our Judaism – through ritual, and unending questions and responses – at home. Historically, this provides fertile ground for the effective transmission of Judaism.
Put another way, my mother learned to salt meat, thus making it kosher, at home from her mother, and her mother learned this from her grandmother. This, in effect, is how we have endured – and shall endure – baruch HaShem – from generation to generation.