Religious Life

Strengthening America – A Weekly Letter from Rabbi Davis – June 22, 2018

Shalom Chaverim,

I had the privilege this past week of joining a group of men and their spouses for a reunion dinner. The men had grown up together on the North Side and have been friends since their AZA days in the early 1950s. The reunion provided an opportunity to reminisce and tell some stories and jokes that still get a laugh. What’s most remarkable is that it was not just an exercise in nostalgia. Many in the group have ongoing friendships nurtured by new, shared experiences.

To have friendships that go back 60 years is something remarkable and precious in our day and age. Listening to the stories of a close-knit community of second generation Americans stood in stark contrast to the news of the day. The news from our nation’s borders where parents wishing to provide the blessings of America to their children are separated with children going to an Orwellian “summer camp.” Beth El and the Minnesota Rabbinical Association were proud to join dozens of other local Jewish organizations and hundreds of national organizations protesting this so-called zero-tolerance policy.

At the dinner, I was invited to share a few words about the infamous Pew Report and the future of American Jewish life. Rather than rehearsing the well-known statistics that in many ways indicate a decline in Jewish observance and affiliation, I shared an even more depressing study.

In 2017, a major think-tank, the Jewish People Policy Forum, issued a report called, “Raising Jewish Children: Research and Indications for Intervention.” More ominous than Pew, the study reported that among non-Orthodox Jews in the key child-rearing age cohort, 68% said they had no children. The story is stark and simple: Jews are marrying later, if at all, and having few children, if any.

There are, undoubtedly, many reasons for this demographic shift.  But the study doesn’t just identify the problem. It offers policy directions. Not surprisingly, almost every recommendation contained the words “educational” and “social.” For example, “Each Jewish educational program should aim to include a social networking component as part of its Jewish educational strategy…Jewish supplementary schools should sponsor Jewish summer camp experiences or promote youth group attendance.”

Education and socialization. We need both. It is why Beth El called its new initiative, Community Learning @ The Well. It is why, kids who shuttled between the old Talmud Torah and AZA meetings in the Emanuel Cohen Center, remain connected to each other and their Judaism 60 years later. And it is why, in the absence of a North Side Jewish community today, we encourage kids to have an immersive Jewish summer camp experience. Because strengthening, not sundering, bonds of family and friends is critical to building a healthy America and a holy people.

This Shabbat, I will be with Beth El’s 47 campers and staff at Camp Ramah. Later in July, I’ll head to Herzl Camp. Rabbi Olitzky and Cantor Abrams will likewise each spend time at camps this summer. I hope these experiences inspire in our kids life-long friendships, a love of Judaism and maybe a romance or two so that 60 years from now, at their reunion dinner, they’ll tell some old jokes and a few new ones and give thanks to God for the food and the friendships.

Rabbi Alexander Davis