A version of this article originally appeared in the Texas Jewish Post.
It was one of the more uplifting articles I had read this year. The Jewish News Service reported on the inspiring story of Rabbi Ari Sytner, who had donated a kidney to a stranger living in Israel back in 2012 when he was still a pulpit rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina. The recipient of the rabbi’s healthy organ was a secular woman named Ronit Havivi from Petah Tikva who had been suffering from Polycystic Kidney Disease which had sapped her of her strength and increasingly tied her to dialysis machines.
The article chronicled both the process Rabbi Sytner went through in researching and ultimately deciding to donate a kidney as well as the beautiful relationship that these two very different individuals had developed with each other following the surgery. Reading about Havivi’s new lease on life as well as the wedding of her daughter in 2017 that she might not have lived to see if not for her life-saving donation was only sweetened when I read that Rabbi Sytner was right there by her side for this important family occasion. As Rabbi Sytner records, “I told her, ‘I’m a man and you’re a woman. I’m American and you’re Israeli. I identify as Orthodox and you don’t. I’m Ashkenazi and you’re Sephardic. But none of that matters. We’re family.”
Had the column culminated there, I would have remembered the piece strictly for its inspirational content. There was, however, one quotation in this otherwise chicken-soup-for-the-soul-like story that left me with a bittersweet feeling in my gut. Gabriel Kovac, Havivi’s boyfriend, was interviewed for the JNS article as well. He praised Rabbi Sytner with words which rang in my ears long after I had finished the article: “We had dinner with Ari last night and the guy just radiates goodness. I was raised religious and after talking with him a while, it crossed my mind that, had he been a rabbi when I was younger, I would probably still be religious.”
I don’t know Gabriel Kovac personally, but his story is not a unique one. Another child raised in a faithful Jewish home who either had a negative experience in his Jewish upbringing that lead him to leave his old life behind — or perhaps Gabriel, like so many others, simply lacked exposure to the beauty of what a committed Jewish life could offer him on his journey into adulthood. To put it simply, he didn’t have a Rabbi Sytner in his life when it would have mattered the most!
Jewish life is many wonderful things, but it is also expensive, brimming with obligations and responsibilities and often counter-culture. If the religious amongst us are at risk of leaving their heritage behind, how much more so are the more secular amongst us at risk of being lost from our people forever!
Much talk has been made recently about what to do to curb the growing rise in assimilation and intermarriage, ultimately leading some modern Jewish thinkers to suggest that we should lower the barriers between Judaism and the outside world to make Judaism more accessible and accepting. To this end, some leaders in the more traditional Jewish ranks recently suggested that we embrace patrilineal descent, whereas others argued that it’s time that rabbis officiate at intermarriages.
However, as Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton Synagogue most eloquently addressed in his most recent column:
Aside from representing gross distortions of halacha (Jewish law), mesorah (“tradition”) and the will of the Almighty, these suggestions don’t actual [sic] address the core issues. They simply attempt to put a Band-Aid over a deeply infected wound that is gushing blood. Indeed, they are the equivalent of cooking the books or manipulating earnings so that they appear to report profit instead of loss. Recognizing patrilineal descent or accepting intermarriage just gives the illusion of addressing the problem; it doesn’t actually do anything to address the very real threat facing the future of American non-orthodox Jewry.
So, what is the answer to this greatest threat facing modern Jewry? Rabbi Goldberg suggests the following to which I wholeheartedly agree:
A difference will only be made when every Torah shul, institution and individual sees as part of their core identity and personal mission to not only hold on to the sturdy tree of Torah (eitz chaim hi la’machazikim bah) to prevent being swept down the river, but to reach out and extend a hand to those floating by.
In other words, we need more Rabbi Sytners, Rebbetzin Sytners, Mr. Sytners and Mrs. Sytners to reach out to the Gabriel’s of the world. If only the younger generation might know of the soul-refining, life-enhancing dynamism of Judaism at first, perhaps they might not choose to abandon it down the road.
Unfortunately, even those who extol Jewish outreach tend to believe that as long as they financially support the Chabads and DATAs of the world, this great assimilation war will be won. Unfortunately that is hardly the case. Outreach organizations don’t have near the manpower needed to make a significant enough dent in the great assimilation machine (of course, that doesn’t stop them from doing all they can do).
The time has come for all who care deeply in their hearts about Jewish continuity as well as their fellow Jews to take upon themselves the mantle of kiruv rechokim (outreach to the assimilated) and kiruv kerovim (outreach to those within our ranks). You need not be a rabbi or rebbetzin to do the job. You need not know the answers to every question you imagine will be thrown your way. A caring heart and a willing disposition is truly all it takes!
I hope, then, that you feel like I do that we can all have a Rabbi Sytner-like impact on our Jewish brethren. If so, there may still be time for the younger Gabriel’s of the world.