Joel Alperson is a highly-respected, prominent person within the Federation world — he was a past national campaign chair for United Jewish Communities, now known as the Jewish Federations of North America. He is not traditionally observant or Orthodox, much less Charedi, but he does seem to know how the winds are blowing in the Jewish world.
His op-ed last week is not the first time he’s pointed out where the world of Federated Judaism has gone astray. His op-ed from two years ago, entitled “Don’t fear ‘G-d,’ ‘Torah’ and ‘Judaism’,” also caught my attention. But this, if anything, is still harder-hitting. While I urge you to read his op-ed, “Judaism is more than ‘tikkun olam’,” in full, essential quotes follow — and they are numerous:
Non-Orthodox Judaism is confronted by rising levels of secularism that almost always lead to assimilation — a trend that within a generation or two could render Reform and Conservative Judaism largely irrelevant in North America (and abroad as well). Non-Orthodox Jews’ general discontent with and resulting departure from Jewish life, left alone, stands to bring Reform and Conservative Judaism to a state of obsolescence… we should know by now that the non-Orthodox way of life is failing by just about every metric we have at our disposal.
This distancing from Jewish religious (i.e., G-d-based) teachings and ritual experiences inevitably leads to a distancing from Jewish purpose… let’s be honest: These “tikkun olam” pursuits might feel good and even do some good, but they do little to build Jewish communities.
We’re losing Jews and the commitment of Jews far too quickly to think that we can afford to continue on as we are. We might insist that tikkun olam and social justice are central to our Jewish way of life, but they are increasingly taking the place of serious Jewish education and Jewish practice. Those are the water pumps and sandbags employed by the Orthodox movement against the rising tides of assimilation.
I watch with sadness as the seminaries of our non-Orthodox movements lay off employees and close programs. National non-Orthodox day school attendance represents only a small percentage of Jewish children in the United States. And it’s not because the economy started spiraling downward — the trends leading to this point were in place long before… In contrast to the haredi Orthodox, the Modern Orthodox largely swim in the same secular waters as other Jews: They own televisions, use the Internet, attend secular universities, and work and vacation in the secular world.
But they also hold to a religious discipline that they believe is life-improving. They observe Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, and they study Jewish texts in far greater numbers than non-Orthodox Jews. They are more likely to have children, and their children are far more likely to marry Jews and make Jewish homes.
Judaism teaches us how to be better friends, businesspeople, husbands, wives and philanthropists. It tells us how to help the weak and when to fight evil. In short, Judaism done right makes us better human beings. It is the discipline of leading a traditional Jewish life that also reminds us how best to engage in repairing the world.
Ironically, by overemphasizing tikkun olam we could ultimately, through lack of Jewish knowledge and experience, lose the very impetus that put us in the tikkun olam business in the first place… as a community, at least for now, we’ll be severely weakened if we don’t acknowledge that we must repair ourselves far more urgently than we must repair the world.
Hat Tips: Dovid Winiarz, Pinchas Avruch