Dear Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan,
Thank you for your article in the Forward titled “Losing Zuckerberg - Why Did Facebook King Move Away From Reform Judaism?” In the article you lament the intermarriage of Mark Zuckerberg and ask why a young man who comes from an affiliated Reform background would call himself an atheist and choose to marry out of our nation.
Poignantly you write: “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.”
As one who taught Reform Hebrew school for many years at the flagship Temple Emanuel in Manhattan, I agree with your concerns that Reform Judaism is too lax, too undefined, as you write: “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... we have lost our way, ignoring scholarship in favor of any type of “spirituality,” no matter how vacuous.”
Indeed. Even in your own article you admit that as a Reform Rabbi you would not be comfortable asking a congregant to observe some form of the Sabbath or even refrain from marrying a non-Jew. These are two Jewish fundamentals, one dealing with the culture of Judaism, the other with the perpetuation of our nation, yet you feel powerless to call for adherence. And as a result, a young Jew whom you train grows up to be less of a Jew and more of a secular humanist and is it a surprise when you raise a secular humanist that he or she looks to marry a co-religionist of that faith and not the Jewish one?
But my critique is not about Reform’s rejection of classical Judaism, because that polemic has been hashed out time and again. My argument is that in our times there are two separate tracks of Jewish continuity: Traditional Judaism and Zionism. The real failing of Reform Judaism is that it rejected both of them. You can reject one and still survive, but you can’t reject both and make it.
To remain Jewish in America, without the external aid of anti-Semitism, there needs to be a glue which keeps ideology and peoplehood at the forefront of a young Jewish mind. The traditional Torah world has strong ritual, ideology and a social matrix within the community, making intermarriage almost impossible. But an American Jew who lacks tradition does not have much to separate him or her from a philo-Semitic American gentile and he or she is likely to end up marrying one.
So the question stands: barring the super-success of Chabad and other such religious movements on campus, what can deliver powerful Jewish identity to millions of young American Reform Jews?
Your conclusion, Rabbi Dana, is that Reform Judaism needs a new infusion of Judaism: “We need to ask ourselves why he (Zuckerberg) is apparently not committed to the God of his ancestors, and to take drastic steps to rebuild our religious ecosystem.”
A future in Israel
I applaud your sentiment, but I am skeptical. Do you really think the Reform movement will abide a “Kosher-style” surge? And even if that infusion comes, do you think that it will be attractive to young people? Conservative Jewry, ostensibly more traditional, has not fared much better than Reform.
Permit me to suggest that there is a more natural and faster track to keeping young Reform Jews Jewish. Instead of trying to rebuild a “religious ecosystem,” how about steering our youth to take part in the rebuilding of the physical and social ecosystem of our people in our ancestral homeland? In other words, instead of pushing more Judaism in the Reform world, why not push more Zionism?
There is a future for Reform youth in Israel. In Israel, you can be a secular humanist and still remain Jewish because you will marry Jewish. Moreover, secular Israelis do not remain Jewish only by virtue of living in a Jewish society that is rejected by the neighboring gentiles. Being a secular Israeli is very much a Jewish cultural identity. Most secular Israelis connect to the beautiful narrative of being Israeli, fighting in the Israeli army, getting married under a Chuppah, having a family Seder, and building a home in the land of Israel.
Furthermore, Reform youth can buy into Israel because Zionism is a short leap away from the Reform conception of Tikkun Olam - what is more Tikkun Olam then building a model country in the Middle East? Reform youth can be galvanized to take part in building a Jewish country, especially if we show them that their input and fresh ideas are needed and respected. Israel has all they are looking for: From Yad Vashem to lively beaches, from great hospitals to great theater, from a great history to a great future. Send them over here and let them fall in love with the land, with the language, with the culture, and with each other.
Finally, this direction is not new or alien to the Reform movement – in the ‘40s Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver was one of the most important American Jewish leaders and his work assured the support of the American Jewish community, and President Truman’s, for the establishment of the Jewish state. There are many streets in Israel named after him. Today, Rabbi Richard Jacobs, the newly elected President of the Union of the Reform Judaism of the United States, with his fluent Hebrew, strong ties, and vocal support for Israel, appears to be a leader capable of implementing this directional change.
With Reform rabbis making inroads in Israel, and successful Reform Kibbutzim settling the land, the path is opening up for Reform youth to buy into Israel on a larger scale.
Had Mark Zuckerberg been told that the Jewish people have a mission to rebuild a Jewish state, and that his creative talents are needed, he may have harnessed his mind in that direction. He could have been a cyber-warrior in the IDF, or may have started a start-up in the start-up nation. Had he been offered an opportunity to take part in the most exciting project of the Jewish people in 2,000 years, he probably would have taken it. (Notice, by the way, how involved Mark was in the launching of President Shimon Peres’ Facebook page. It seemed to me that he was proud to be helping Israel and thereby expressed his pride in being Jewish.)
Rabbi Dana, with great respect to your admirable mission of bringing in more concrete Judaism back to the Reform, I think that Israel holds a lot more Jewish sex-appeal for the average teenager and college student, and it is an easier fit with their current non-observant mindset. If we care about keeping the next Zuckerberg in the fold, we must help the next generation choose life by plugging them into the exciting story of the Jewish State.