Irwin Kula, president of the National
Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, says three big issues that Jewish
institutions worry about—intermarriage, assimilation, and anti-Semitism—make
little difference to most American Jews.
doesn’t blame the “just Jews.”
He blames the people who run the institutions.
To a large degree, he said, these three issues are ways that
institutional Jews avoid their own real problems.
is not doing anything for most people,” the Conservative rabbi declared.
agrees that the high rate of intermarriage will change the Jewish community, but
“rather than addressing what kind of difference that will make, they
(institutional Jews) simply say, ‘intermarriage is the end of the Jewish
people.’ For the first 1,000 years, we had intermarriage!”
said the low rate of affiliation “is the same problem, but a problem in
different clothes. We have something new happening in America—you no longer
have to officially affiliate to have an identity… American Jewish Committee
statistics say that 93 percent of American Jews are proud to be Jewish.
It might have been 30 percent in the 1950s.
issue of anti-Semitism, at least in America, “is the most pathological
deflection of all,” Kula said.
“When Auschwitz, or (being called) ‘kike!’ create more connection
than Torah and reflection, you have a pathological problem.
By the way, France is different than America. If I am in France, I have a
different Torah to teach. In America, there is a lot of ‘anti-other people’
before there is anti-Semitism.
doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have an ADL;
we should be haredi about anti-Semitism, but it won’t attract most
just another way of being Jewish—there’s Conservative Judaism, philanthropic
Judaism, fighting anti-Semitism Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, Film Festival
said when he visits congregations he often is asked by board members how they
can attract more people to Shabbat services.
“I ask people on the board, how many of them are coming to Shabbat
10 percent. So I say the board and the synagogue match up.
If for one year straight, 20 percent of the board would come, 20 percent
of the synagogue membership will.”
fact of the matter is, “most Jews who make programs don’t come to the
programs that they create, and that is the dirty little secret,” Kula said.
“The programs that they are creating are boring to them…
you really get down and dirty, for the people who really are at the inside of
Jewish life—‘Jewish’ is not actually doing anything for them.
We have this odd thing—their psychic reward of Jewishness is to worry
about other people’s Jewishness.”
Kula contends, “is the radical challenge to be constantly evolving ethically
If you are satisfied and have decided the real issue is not yourself, but
someone else, than YOU have lost the connection.”
the other hand, he said, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a Conservative
congregation on New York City’s Upper West Side, packs in 3,000 people every
Friday night. “It
doesn’t worry about outreach.
It believes in constantly challenging its own members to be more
spiritual, more loving.
Here is who we are.
It is so engaging, people want to come.”
other communities, he said, the answer “might be the Jewish film festivals.
They are attracting thousands of people.
the people who organize them love Jewish film—it is their passion.
That’s true with book fairs too.
The people who push them love books!”
not a question of building a better mousetrap, Kula says.
It’s a question of building something that you yourself love.
Then people will come!