In her recent piece “The ‘Unaffiliated’ Danger Within,” the Forward’s editor, Jane Eisner, cites the growing numbers of Jews who do not engage personally with Jewish communal life. Eisner raises the troubling question of how these numbers will affect the future of American Jewry, implying that the answer is intra-Jewish outreach. Eisner says, “Many non-Orthodox Jews find it difficult and uncomfortable to persuade other Jews… to care deeply about their faith and culture.” I agree with her that this kind of outreach is often the most difficult and uncomfortable, but I suspect that this has less to do with the task at hand, and more to do with our lack of preparation for the job. In my personal and professional Jewish life, my belief is that we must educate ourselves before we can reach out to others.
There is no doubt that reaching out to fellow Jews is difficult for most of us. This job may be anxiety inducing, because it demands that we try and teach our own friends and family about topics we may not have mastered ourselves. How can we expect to be comfortable reaching out when we are not equipped with the tools necessary to do so? With Jewish values that are universally appealing, such as openness, inclusion and love of family, it should not be too hard to convince other Jews of the relevance of our religion. But until we engage personally with the texts and traditions, we cannot spread these values to others. Rabbi Harold Schulweis once taught me that to carry on Judaism, we need to begin learning for ourselves, doing what he calls “inreach.” Outreach cannot happen without inreach.
In my own life, I took to learning about Judaism for myself. I began by asking questions. Then I opened up the texts and delved into the Torah, starting with the very first word of Genesis. I have continued to do this same learning with Jewish celebrations, as well. Years ago I began hosting my family’s Passover Seder, not fully understanding what many of the traditions surrounding the Seder actually meant. Over the years, I began to study the text of the Haggadah. Finally I came to a point in my learning where I was ready to teach others about the meaning of Passover. It was only after years of learning and reflecting on the texts and traditions surrounding this holiday that I was able to create my own Haggadah, in the hopes of reaching out to Jews who feel they exist on the margins of Jewish life.
The key is to see this kind of inreach as a great opportunity for American Jewry. When we educate ourselves and search for personal meaning, we give ourselves the opportunity to create a Jewish practice based on hope that is relevant to our times. We have the opportunity to create something more meaningful to us than what we were given, but this can happen only through serious education and reflection.
Reaching out to the many unengaged Jews means first challenging yourself to explore what Judaism means to you. I have done this on a personal level, engaging in continued Jewish education so that I am better equipped to teach others. By arming myself with a strong Jewish education, I have taken responsibility for conveying my love of Judaism. The greatest challenge for us as a community may not be the unengaged Jews at all, but instead the first step of educating ourselves. Challenge yourself to learn, reflect and draw your own conclusions, and then outreach may not seem all too difficult.
Edgar M. Bronfman is the former CEO of the Seagram Company, president of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and the author of “The Bronfman Haggadah” (Rizzoli).