In Search of Religious Growth

by | in President's Message

By Mark (Moishe) Bane

It recently occurred to me that I may actually have the talent to be a brilliant sculptor. Then I figured that I likely do not. In any event, I will probably never find out.

When I was a child, my parents, a”h, had me take music lessons and after-school Talmud tutorials. I was enrolled in the shul choir and in the school’s drama club. But sculpturing was never on the agenda. I discovered that I was neither a musical prodigy nor a Talmudic genius, and my vocal and acting skills never amounted to much. Even my many years of endless hockey playing left me with little, other than a broken arm, plenty of bruises and tons of fun.

Both as children and as adults, we must make choices among the overload of activities, interests and responsibilities competing for our time and attention. When we are younger, the choices are often between alternative academic interests, between school and sports or between sports and hanging out. When we are really young, our parents determine which skills and talents we develop simply by choosing the schools and camps we attend and selecting our after-school activities.

As adults, the competition for our time and attention becomes even fiercer. We endlessly struggle to juggle our myriad responsibilities. Finding the time we need, and want, to spend with our children, spouse and parents is a losing battle. The time and psychic energy spent at work seems to be ever increasing, and the likelihood of earning enough ever decreasing. When adding time for davening, commuting, eating and sleeping, twenty-four hours are way too few for a single day. Certainly, there is little time for unwinding, and even less time for socializing.

With these, and many other, unavoidable responsibilities and demands, I often wonder how there can possibly be time for one to focus on religious growth. And when making choices for our children, are we preparing them for lifelong spiritual growth—or just casual observance? Is spirituality even on my radar screen, or do I satisfy my time allocation to Judaism by davening, even if it is often way too fast and with far too little focus? Can I buy my way into religious adequacy by writing a bigger check to the local day school or chessed organization? And what about learning Torah? Can I check that box, even if I so often merely scan the words and watch the time, waiting for the shiur to conclude or the page of Talmud to be completed? All too often, while learning Talmud, I do not feel connected to the concepts or to the text on the page and frequently, I am unable to perceive the religious experience that is supposedly taking place.

I know life is all about my soul, its nurturing and growth. I know Judaism is all about developing a relationship with God. But where is the time? And even when I find some time, how do I make the time meaningful and actually develop this relationship? If I have difficulties getting into the groove of religious growth, is it any wonder that, when teaching Judaism to my children, I am not placing lifelong spiritual growth on their radar screens?

I never got the impression that my parents had this dilemma, despite their work and other obligations being more demanding and stressful than mine. Our parents’ generation, however, had much reason for their Judaism to be real. They were not merely observant, even if they grew up in Orthodox homes. They chose to be observant, often going against the tide. Some of my parents’ closest friends, and most of their peers, were not shomer Shabbos. Many of my friends’ parents were Holocaust survivors, having spent their formative years in ghettos and Nazi death camps. Their religious experience was real because their choices were real. They witnessed both the devastation of European Jewry and the subsequent birth of the State of Israel. To them, the creation of a Jewish state was neither a romantic vision nor a historical recollection. It was a living miracle. Though many of that generation understandably lost their faith, for those who retained their belief in the divinity of Torah, God was immensely relevant, and their relationship with Him was real and intense.

We, on the other hand, never had to confront such choices. Aside from the community’s baalei teshuvah, we have always been observant; almost all of our friends through high school, and for some of us, even beyond high school, have been observant. It is, therefore, no surprise that we have always viewed ourselves as comfortably ensconced in the Orthodox community. Our Orthodox identity is the almost inevitable result of having attended Orthodox Jewish schools and camps, and having spent Shabbos afternoons in religious youth groups among similarly minded peers. Not being theologians, and some of us not being all that thoughtful to begin with, we rarely engage in profound philosophical or deeply religious struggles. That is not to say that we do not find observing certain details of halachah very difficult, but these struggles are challenges of discipline and never threaten the essence of our commitment to be observant. In fact, personally, I cannot imagine being more content living otherwise. Both socially and culturally, I am simply most comfortable living as an Orthodox Jew. It is my identity; it is who I am. But is simply living as an Orthodox Jew itself religious growth? If it is, why doesn’t it feel that way?

In January of this year I assumed the office of president of the Orthodox Union. Through the OU’s role in kashrus, advocacy, and myriad other spheres, it has enhanced the experience of being an observant Jew in North America. I propose that the OU now also encourage and assist us, American Orthodox Jews, in pursuing more vigorous growth in our religious lives.

For decades, the OU’s Yachad/NJCD has been a leader in providing opportunities and avenues for developmentally disabled members of the Jewish community to grow in their religious commitment and passion. Similar work is being done by NCSY for both affiliated and unaffiliated Jewish teens and by the Heshe & Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) for Orthodox university students on secular campuses.

Fifteen years ago, I was privileged to serve as national chairman of NCSY’s lay oversight board. In that role, I was dazzled by both the creativity and inspiration evidenced by NCSY leaders and advisors. Casual Orthodoxy has no place in the NCSY experience, and for decades NCSY has had an unimaginable impact on the religious growth of its participants. In the years since, I have often wondered why the OU is not providing the general American Orthodox community, of all ages, with the same level of excitement, creativity and dynamic Torah-oriented programming. Somehow, I have the feeling that if Judaism were as inspiring to us as it is to those NCSY students, we would find the time to focus on religious growth.

What am I hoping the OU can address? First, many of us are neither trained nor inclined to focus on classical Talmud studies, and so we need guidance on how to study Torah, the most essential tool in pursuing religious growth, in a manner that is meaningful and engaging. We need tools to convert our daily prayers from a meaningless mouthing of words into an actual, genuine conversation with God. We need guidance on how to channel our love of the Jewish people and of the land of Israel into spiritual opportunities. And, though many of us already cherish Shabbos as a spectacular opportunity to enjoy freedom from work and technology, as well as to relish quality time with the family, couldn’t Shabbos—as well as yom tov—also become a deeply and intensely religious experience? Finally, we need guidance on how to mine the deep and magnificent beauty of Torah and our mesorah, to help those of us who perceive halachah as a restrictive array of rules and dictates appreciate it as a personal treasure of empowerment and elevation.

And so, as president of the Orthodox Union, I am hoping that the OU will add these efforts to its already incomparable breadth of multi-faceted programs and services, and assist us together in pursuing ongoing religious growth. I invite you to join me in this endeavor.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2017.