What’s the Single Most Burning Issue of the Day?

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13 Dec 2012

Reprinted with permission from Mishpacha.

Centuries from now, when others look back on our generation, I believe we will be judged in two significant ways. On the one hand, we will be lauded and admired for restoring serious Torah education and halachic (Jewish law) observance after the Holocaust. Giants like Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l had the foresight to establish yeshivos (Talmudic seminaries) and batei midrash (study halls) and develop communities around them that would ensure a future of commitment and dedication in a new society so foreign to our values. Who in their wildest dreams could have predicted that out of the smoldering ashes of six million, hundreds of thousands of all ages would be involved in Torah learning in myriad institutions all across North America? Successfully rebuilding the infrastructure of our mesorah (tradition) on new shores is an accomplishment of our generation that is nothing short of miraculous.

On the other hand, our generation will be held accountable for the staggering rate of assimilation over the past sixty years. From 1952 through 2012 the rate of intermarriage has risen from 3% to a whopping 56%. Here in the United States, where religious freedom is a constitutional right, where members of the Jewish community are not held back from educational or professional opportunities because of their beliefs or practices, where it simply isn’t a sacrifice to live as a Jew, the largest bloc of Jews aged forty and under are choosing not to live as Jews. They are “unaffiliated”. Unaffiliated means that they don’t belong to any shul or Jewish communal institution. Most don’t light Chanukah candles, eat matzo on Pesach, or attend a service for Yom Kippur. Most don’t even know an alef from a beis. As catastrophic as the loss of six million lives was to our people, the loss of many more than six million neshamos, souls, is an even greater tragedy – one that defines the most significant issue facing our people today because it is an existential threat. None of the other challenges we face as a community will need to be addressed if we stand by and do nothing as we slowly, steadily and silently cease to exist. The very eternity of the Jewish people is at stake, and we have already lost too much time and too many souls.

The same study that identified the unaffiliated as the largest bloc of Jews under the age of forty also identified the Orthodox as the second largest bloc – upwards of 37% amongst Jews younger than forty. These days, Orthodox Jews are a very real presence in the highest levels of government, in the highest levels of the financial industry, and in the arts and sciences. Baruch Hashem, thank G-d, we live in unprecedented times where we can live a passionate, devoted religious life and simultaneously achieve success in the secular world. If we are truly passionate about the satisfaction of a committed life, about the moral perfection we strive for, than how is it that we are not having an impact on our fellow Jews who know nothing about the beauty of their heritage? How can we possibly excuse or defend ourselves for allowing our brothers and sisters to abandon their precious legacy when we have the numbers and the influence to step up and make a difference?

The answer is that we can’t, and unless we want to be judged as the generation that allowed the silent holocaust to annihilate eighty percent of Klal Yisrael, of our nation, we must look outside the comfortable, thriving communities we have built for ourselves and start to share the truth of a G-dly life with our fellow unaffiliated Jews.

What’s your million-dollar grand plan?

The task is enormous. The very survival of our people is at stake. When the issue is pikuach nefesh (saving a life) or pidyon shivuyim (redeeming captives) our community mobilizes like no other to save one of our own. We need to mobilize now to save millions of our own. If we had unlimited funds, we could invest in programs like the OU’s Jerusalem Journey that sends hundreds of unaffiliated teens to Israel every summer for a life-changing experience.

What can the individual do to improve the landscape?

While these types of programs yield significant results, they are costly. Fortunately, the grassroots efforts do not cost much – a roasted chicken, potato latkes (pancakes), an open home and heart and a desire to make an immeasurable difference in someone’s life. An existential threat cannot be ignored. Yeshivish, chassidish, modern orthodox; no matter how we affiliate or where we live, we each have to take responsibility for our fellow Jews. Only twenty percent of our people who were slaves in Mitzrayim (Egypt) actually left with Moshe at the time of the geula, the redemption. As unfathomable as it sounds, 80 percent were lost – 80 percent. These are the frightening statistics we are looking at today, when we are free people enjoying the peace and prosperity that this country has provided.

Reaching out is not only the job of the rabbanim (rabbis). All of us have relatives, co-workers, or neighbors whom we can engage and include in so many aspects of our lives. Like Avraham and Sarah, we can open our homes and share a genuine warmth and camaraderie that will inevitably help our guests associate religious life with sweetness and pleasantness. We can host fellow Jews for Friday night dinners, Chanuka parties, a Purim seuda (meal). We can give them festive mishloach manot (Purim basket), Jewish books or Judaica for gifts or share an interesting article or idea we came across. The purpose is not to preach with an “I know better” attitude and the goal may not necessarily be to make everyone we have over a shomer Shabbos Jew, a Shabbos-observant Jew, but at the very least we can extend a sincere feeling of friendship and expose people we care about to the magic and truth of a Torah life. Hopefully, we can inspire our fellow Jews to learn more, to grow, and to appreciate the blessing of being part of the am hanivchar.

Becoming an ambassador for yiddishkeit (Judaism) is a win/win. Not only do we enlighten a fellow Jew’s perspective, but by having to explain why we do what we do and how it enriches our lives, we sharpen our own perspective as well. And more importantly, we give a gift to our children. In this day and age, when we see such apathy and many kids going off the derech in the frum community, when our kids join us in creating an ambience of warmth, joy, and openness to our assimilated brethren, when they are asked to help us explain the nuances of our customs and they see and hear us reaffirming the value of our lifestyle, they are less likely to take mitzvos (commandments) and their own Torah education for granted. Let’s not be the generation that turns a blind eye; let’s work together to bring enlightenment and inspiration to the people we profess to love and who deserve to bask in the richness of their heritage.

Rabbi Steven Weil is the Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.