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.
getty images
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.

Zuckerberg joined a Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, at Harvard University. According to The New Yorker, it was there that he met his wife, Priscilla Chen, at a Friday night party at his fraternity house, and the two began talking while waiting in line for the bathroom. This scenario presents a number of dilemmas. It would be hard for me, as a Reform rabbi, to tell a congregant that he or she should not attend a party on a Friday night, especially when that party is being held at a Jewish fraternity house. I would urge the person to attend Kabbalat Shabbat services first, but I would have to recognize that for Reform Jews, the 25 hours of the Sabbath are not going to be devoted entirely to sacred concerns.

Also, as a Reform rabbi, it would be hard for me to tell a congregant not to date anyone who was not already Jewish. I would urge congregants to talk about their commitment to Judaism with any potential romantic interest and make it clear from the beginning that Judaism is an important and hopefully central part of their life. But it is simply impractical to tell single people to restrict their dating gaze to those who are of the Jewish faith. Even if we wanted to say such a thing, the reality in our congregations would make such exhortations antiquated and irrelevant. As we all know, many of the most devoted Reform Jews are non-Jews who married Jews and embraced Judaism later, sometimes years or even decades later.

We do not know very much about how Zuckerberg feels regarding his Judaism. We can hope that Mark and Priscilla Zuckerberg will find a friendly Reform synagogue and become involved in its activities. We can hope that his declaration of atheism was or is a part of youthful rebellion that will fade with time. (Some may argue that his atheism is not a barrier to Jewish communal involvement, but I do not share that view.) We just have to wait and see.

Unfortunately, even if the Zuckerbergs become super Jews over the next couple of decades, as his background suggests might be possible, it still will not change the fact that we are losing huge numbers of young people who have gone through all the educational and religious requirements set down by their Reform synagogues. Maybe the expectations we have had of these young people were not enough.

We failed Zuckerberg and will continue to fail young people like him because the pluralistic theologies of Reform Judaism articulated since the 1960s make it difficult to grasp what we Reform Jews believe on any given issue. Our faith is too amorphous. Math and science nerds, in particular, may be the type most likely to bolt. This is ironic because one of the raisons d’être of Reform Judaism was to create an approach to Judaism that would be scholarly and scientific. But we have lost our way, ignoring scholarship in favor of any type of “spirituality,” no matter how vacuous.

We need to urgently re-evaluate the worldview we are inculcating and whether it is in the best interest of keeping our form of practice and belief alive. A bright young man like Mark Zuckerberg, raised in a serious Reform synagogue, should be a devoted Jew today. We need to ask ourselves why he is apparently not committed to the God of his ancestors, and to take drastic steps to rebuild our religious ecosystem.

Dana Evan Kaplan is the author of “Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal” (Columbia University Press, 2009).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.