By Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
‘Vayomer Adonai el Avram lech lecha m’artz’cha umimolad’t’cha umibeit avicha el ha’aretz asher ar’echa… veheyeh b’racha’.
And the Eternal said to Avram, go from yourself, from your homeland, the place of your birth, and your father’s house to a land that I will show you… and you shall be a blessing.’
This High Holiday cycle, we are exploring this verse as we try to understand and answer the charge of ‘veheyeh b’rachah’, of how we can be a blessing. Our previous sermonic journeys have forayed into the territory of the soul. ‘Lech lecha’ – we have ventured into ourselves, and reached for our deepest purpose because, as I said during my sermon for Shabbat Shuvah: we cannot live Jewish lives by instinct alone: we are called to make Judaism our own and ascribe to it a higher mission. When we discover how we want to shape our lives and take ownership of our Judaism, we can act with generosity, with confidence and hope, with love, with joy—and be a blessing.
As our quest for blessing continues, our circle of concern expands. At Kol Nidre as we gather here in the fullness of our community, it is time to leave the interests of the self behind and take the next step.
‘M’artz’cha, umimolad’t’cha, umibeit avicha’ – ‘from your land, the place of your birth and your father’s house.’ Through interpretative inference, we can deduce that just as Abraham was called to leave these things behind in Ur Kasdim, we can further deduce that these are the very institutions he needed to create in his new covenant. God’s commandment could have read ‘l’artz’cha, ul’molad’t’cha, l’veit beneicha’ – ‘to your land, to your city, to the house of your sons’. Just as Abraham was called to leave, to tear down, to deconstruct his pagan origins, so too was he called to found, to build up, to reconstruct his Hebrew calling.
What land, city and house – or if we would flip their order to house, city and land – have in common – is place, locality, community. We have left the boundary of the personal, internalized state of ‘lech lecha’ to cross over into an external, communal state. Abraham’s uprootedness now aspires to rootedness. And we, too, are invited to contemplate this triad of localities of our lives that ground us, not just as individuals but as a People.
Judaism is not the religion of the synagogue, but of the home; we are, after all, a People and not just a profession of faith. It was Abraham and Sarah’s yearning to create a home – a Jewish home avant-la-letre – that kick-started their wanderings. In fact, so important has the Jewish home been traditionally that a Torah scroll may be sold in order to establish a mikveh, a ritual bath, an indispensable part of traditional Jewish family life. Jewish home life and Peoplehood is sacrosanct, often subjected to projections of nostalgia for the past and anxiety for the future.
Jewish demographics have inextricably changed over the last few decades and there is an ideological tug-of-war going on in Jewish institutions and media about what it all means. Feverish op-eds in the Forward, one of Jewish America’s premier daily newspapers bear sensationalist titles like ‘Jewish Continuity Isn’t Sexist, It’s Necessary’.
There is no denying our demographics are changing—and not in our favor
There is no denying our demographics are changing—and not in our favor. The 2013 Pew Report delved deeply into contemporary Jewish demographics. Our Jewish population – 0.2% of the total world population – will shrink relative to the global population. The North American Jewish population is expected to shrink from 1.8% to 1.4% of the general population in 2050. We will to drop just under 6 million as the general North American population is expected to grow with 90 million. On average, Jews in North America are older, have lower fertility rates (between 1.8 and 1.4 child per family, below replacement) and intermarry at the rate of 71% for non-Orthodox Jews. When it comes to ‘religious switching’ (a demographer’s term for conversion), people are more likely to convert out of Judaism than into Judaism.
I can imagine that these figures can be anxiety-inducing. Let’s center ourselves and focus not on our rising tribal panic, but on attempting to understand the nature of our community and on the challenges and opportunities that the contemporary Jewish experience brings.
As much as our story is one of anxiety, it is also one of hope. Unique, diverse and vibrant Jewish homes are built at every turn. Despite persistent images that project so-called ‘Ashkenormativity’, or the prevalence of Eastern European Ashkenazi culture, one-in-ten American Jews is a Jew-of-Color and one-in-six Jews is a Jew-by-Choice. Waves of emancipatory movements in our community have impacted, liberated and expanded our understanding of what ‘the Jewish People’ is supposed to look like.
It is 46 years since the ordination of the first female rabbi, Rabbi Sally Priesand, by the Reform Movement. I stand on the shoulders of these feminist giants—brave women who fought to tear down the symbolic mechitzah (divider) so that I too could enjoy the privilege of serving as this congregation’s first female Rabbi. As we speak, there is a gripping and difficult communal conversation taking place about the #MeToo (or #GamAni) Movement and how the dignity of Jewish women has all too often been compromised in Jewish communal spaces.
In the wake of the feminist Movement came the LGBTQ Movement. I remember it well: it was 2006 and I was enjoying a winter study program at the Conservative Yeshiva. It was treacherously cold in Jerusalem and my fellow learners and I sat huddled in our Beit Midrash, our study hall. There was an excited buzz in the air as we awaited the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the halakhic-legislative body of the Conservative Movement, to come out with a very important document: a t’shuvah, (responsum) ruling on the halakhic permissibility of same-sex relationships. It was a moment that many of us progressive, egalitarian, religiously-committed young folk had prayed for. Finally, the strangleholds of Leviticus 18:20 and 20:13 were broken. For us to be able to welcome, as full and equal halakhic citizens, those who experience same-sex attractions and want to sanctify their same-sex relationships ‘k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael’, ‘according to the Law of Moses and Israel’.
I am proud to report that Agudas Achim enjoyed its first same-sex chuppah just before my arrival. LGBTQ advocacy is part of the holy work of our Inclusion Committee as well as one of the missions of my personal rabbinate: to not just accept, but to actively celebrate a healthy, inclusive, life-affirming LGBTQ-inclusive theology.
Likewise, we are witnessing the redemptive march towards greater diversity. Through birth, immigration, adoption and conversion, Jews-of-Color are upending entrenched stereotypes of what a Jew is supposed to be. Jews-of-Color bring their own unique experiences, concerns, wisdom and Torah to the table. They are instrumental in helping us understand our implicit biases. Jews of Color are driving important communal conversations around race. From the days of Miriam’s bigoted protests against Moses’ wife-of-color, the ‘Cushite woman’ from the Book of Numbers, Judaism has both been contending with its own prejudices as well as been blessed with its own diversity. Just as women, LGBTQ individuals and Jews of Color have become self-advocates, we are also seeing the rise of disability advocacy where Jews of different abilities are demanding recognition for being created B’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine Image. Their rising voices rightfully represent their own interests.
The Jewish family has been reshaped by the forces of social integration. Two narratives accompany that reality: that of intermarriage and conversion. As a Jew-by-Choice myself, I had the honor of serving on an Advisory Board on Conversion for the Conservative Movement. My expertise was sought to uncover the oft-underrepresented needs of converts to Judaism as well as explore what happens pre- and post-mikveh. Jewish families thankfully no longer sit Shivah like Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ when a child – to use that odious term – ‘marries out’. Instead, rabbis strive to help diverse families make meaningful Jewish choices.
‘Lech lecha, m’artzecha, umimolad’t’cha, umibeit avicha’ – ‘go from yourself, from your land, the place of your birth, from your father’s house.’
Change, as Abraham knew like no other is destabilizing. Change is unfamiliar. Change is uncomfortable. Change is scary.
At 71%, the odds are stacked against all our kids – including mine – when it comes to the long-held communal ideal of endogamy, Jewish in-marriage. For as passionately as I love Judaism and as committed as my husband and I are to transmit our family’s Judaism with joy and meaning, we are also realists. I sincerely hope my kids will marry Jewishly, yet I also know that I have no reason to exempt myself from being part of that statistic. The likelihood that my son and daughter will intermarry is far greater than them marrying another Jew. And while I try not to dwell on my children’s marriage prospects (such a Yiddishe mama!), I would consider it rabbinic malpractice if I would ignore the data in front of me as well as not offering only love, respect and welcome to their future life partners, irrespective of their backgrounds.
Part of this falls under the wider rubric of American trends. America, despite all its alleged religiosity, is rapidly secularizing. A new category is emerging in American spiritual life called the ‘Nones’: unaffiliated Millennials whose primary values are not grounded in organized religion. The Pew Report states that ‘one-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today.
Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics, as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).’
A third of adults under 30 – that is our Millennial population. Many Millennials tend to be syncretic, open-minded, inclusive and unbounded – values that some perceive to be at odds with Jewish particularism and continuity. We are seeing changes that are affecting synagogue infrastructures; memberships are aging and declining in number, synagogues are closing and merging. The Conservative Movement itself has fallen in precipitous decline, now representing only 18% of American Jewry and 11% of Millennials. What were once issues of profound communal cohesion and solidarity such as the relationship with the State of Israel and her people has now become the most divisive issue in the American Jewish landscape.
Change, friends, is scary and hard. There is no denying that our community faces an uncertain future.
It is too easy to lament our fate and to point the finger at any given factor: intermarriage, secularization, Middle East politics. It is easy to read the headlines rolling off the Jewish press, whipping our fears concerning Jewish continuity and identity into a frenzy. Will the American Jewish community shrink? Will the religiously liberal Jewish world be overpowered by Orthodoxy? Will intermarriage chip away at the cohesion of our community? Will our young people still feel connected to Israel? Will anti-Semitism rise and imperil us, given that 41% of Americans are ignorant on the historical significance of Auschwitz? Will we still be able to financially support our key institutions? As important as these questions are, it is easy to get drawn down into worry, anxiety and pessimism: as the historian Simon Rawidowicz wrote, ‘we are the ever-dying People’. This is not the only question we ought to be asking ourselves.
..do these monumental changes present us with a communal crisis or with a paradigmatic opportunity?
The question we need to ask ourselves as a ‘bayit’, is this: do these monumental changes present us with a communal crisis or with a paradigmatic opportunity? If we are to follow in the footsteps of Abraham, where will we go and what will drive us? Will our response be driven by a fear of scarcity or a sense of abundance? ‘Lech lecha m’artz’cha umimolad’t’cha u’mibeit avicha’ – ‘go from yourself, from your land, the place of your birth, your father’s house…’ During Rosh haShanah we dug deeply into those first two words: these words of purpose and mission, of direction and focus, of meaning and growth. Those two words will impact how we connect to the remaining verse; to our uncertain future. ‘Lulei he’emanti lirot be’tuv Adonai b’eretz chaim’ – ‘Did I not trust that I would see the goodness of the Eternal in the land of the living?’ the Psalmist asks us. The answer comes quickly: ‘Kave el Adonai’, Psalm 27 tells, us ‘have hope in the Eternal’. ‘Chazak ve’ya’ametz livecha v’kaveh el Adonai’ – ‘Let your heart be strong and courageous and hope in the Eternal.’
Friends, Judaism is not a zero-sum game.
Abraham had to trust that his promise would be fulfilled and his mission completed, with the odds ever stacked against him. Abraham and Sarah knew moments of profound crisis in their lives but their vision and calling ‘veheyeh b’rachah’, to be a blessing, remained as an ensign among the nations. Despite the uncertainties we are facing, – of which I will speak tomorrow -, Abraham can teach us to trust in our Jewish future all the same.
‘G’mar Chatimah Tovah’ – a good sealing. ‘L’Shanah Tovah u’Metukah’ – and a good and sweat New Year.