Losing Mark Zuckerberg

Why Did Facebook King Move Away From Reform Judaism?

Lessons of Zuckerberg: Jews could learn from the Facebook chief’s spiritual journey away from the Judaism in which he was raised.
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Lessons of Zuckerberg: Jews could learn from the Facebook chief’s spiritual journey away from the Judaism in which he was raised.

By Dana Evan Kaplan

Published June 01, 2012, issue of June 08, 2012.
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The disastrous recent Facebook IPO may have deepened investor distrust of stocks. Hilary Kramer, a stock analyst, told me, “The investors thought they’d be able to make a quick round-trip like in the Internet days, when stocks would rise 100% within seconds of commencing trading.” While I sympathize with their plight, my concern lies elsewhere.

As a Reform rabbi, I think very little about these financial questions. But Facebook’s presence in the news — and Mark Zuckerberg’s skyrocketing prominence — has got me pondering the Reform synagogue and the long-term impact of the Reform Jewish religious experience on children growing up in these types of Jewish congregations. From what we know about Zuckerberg’s religious beliefs and current orientation, it would seem that he is another alienated graduate of the Union for Reform Judaism alumni club.

Let me be clear: I am not personally criticizing Zuckerberg. Individuals can do whatever they want, and Zuckerberg is no exception. Plus, there is absolutely no indication that if he is rejecting the Reform Judaism of his youth, it is because of any malice or vindictiveness. Rather, if — and I stress, if — he has lost interest in Judaism, it is much more a reflection on us than it is on him. For those in the Reform movement and for those who are committed to non-Orthodox American Judaism generally, we need to take the sudden interest in Zuckerberg’s personal life as an opportunity to perform cheshbon hanefesh, to take an accounting of our accomplishments and, as in this case, our failings.

While I could not find any direct quotes in which Zuckerberg disavows the God of Israel, either the omnipotent, omnipresent version or even the “still small voice within us” humanistic variant, he reportedly labeled his religious beliefs on his Facebook profile as atheist. Here, too, I could not confirm this myself, because the current version of his profile does not include any information on religious views. Maybe he made that category private, as he has every right to do.

This is not a criticism of Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, N.Y., where the Zuckerbergs were members. Coincidentally, I had been scholar in residence at this congregation a few years ago, and I found them to be sincere and devoted. Their rabbi, David Holtz, was exemplary. The Zuckerberg family joined that Tarrytown congregation and sent their son to the synagogue’s religious school.

So how does a devoted Jewish family attending an exemplary Reform synagogue have a young man come out of that experience with no discernible interest — not even to speak of commitment — to the Judaism with which he had supposedly been raised. As Holtz wrote me, “His parents have been members for a very long time and are lovely people.” After his bar mitzvah, “Mark continued through confirmation, and I took his family to Israel for one sister’s bat mitzvah on Masada.”

But as we are learning — and we had better learn this more quickly, before all the Mark Zuckerbergs in all our synagogues are chased away — concern and involvement are not enough. We need to have a clear religious faith that we can convey to our young people in a way that is compelling and convincing. I have always believed that a liberal theology that overemphasizes personal autonomy is a recipe for disaster. So, too, is an exclusive focus on Jewish ethnic identity at the expense of Jewish religious belief.


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