A Light Unto the Jews
by Rabbi Jerome Epstein
Virtually all Jewish population studies note the large number of Conservative Jews who do not live the life or values that we teach. Because our open ideology welcomes Jews without placing guilt upon them for non-observance, we have attracted and embraced a growing membership. Yet growth alone does not reflect our vision or our mission. For we are dedicated to the conservation of Jewish living through Jewish transformation. However, we have not given this mission the attention it deserves. And so large numbers of Conservative Jews are not yet living Conservative Judaism. As the Prophet Isaiah challenged our ancestors to become an Or Lagoyim, a "light unto the nations," I want to urge Conservative Jews to become an Or LaYehudim - a light unto the Jews. Today, we must become the beacon to inspire Conservative Jews to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life. Our vision of inspiring commitment to Jewish living must become the centerpiece of a new Conservative Congregation Agenda.
Conservative Judaism is filled with promise - promise that has never been realized. We properly focus our financial and human resources on our youth. Yet, without the simultaneous creation of a living and dynamic Conservative Jewish community in which they will comfortably associate, there can be no real substance to Conservative Jewish life. For when the youth who take what we teach seriously mature, they often enter congregations void of the Jewish values or practices that we taught them. They abandon what they learned and emulate the apathy of veteran members or they choose to practice what they have been taught - usually not in a Conservative synagogue.
Although we are sometimes intimidated by segments of the Jewish community accusing us of cheapening Judaism when we do not expect total adherence to all of the commandments, we can learn from our ancestors 2,400 years ago. Their pledge was not a total commitment to Jewish living. Instead, while acknowledging that living the entirety of Halacha was the ideal, they began their re-education by pledging to observe a limited number of core mitzvoth in a compact of commitment. This became the foundation on which that society re-built Jewish life. Today, I call upon Conservative Jews to join with me in creating a 21st Century foundation for Jewish living through our own Conservative Compact of Jewish Commitment so that each of us can be an Or LaYehudim.
First, we must pledge to act as Jews to improve the world and enrich the lives of God's Children. Giving Tzedakah through our synagogues and Federation is important. But, we must also train our members to give personal Tzedakah directly to the hungry and the homeless. Our personal acts of Gemilut Hesed: visiting the sick, consoling the mourner, tutoring the illiterate, feeding the hungry can make a difference in the world. Let us pledge to take on the commitment of personal Tikkun Olam by - as a minimum - giving Tzedakah to one person or doing one act of Gemilut Hesed each day.
Second, let us pledge to live the Jewish calendar. For most Jews, Saturday is just a day off and not Shabbat. Sukkot is merely another day in the year. To create a Jewish religious renaissance, let us begin to focus on a limited number of positive commandments to put these special days on each Jew's agenda. Let us pledge to light candles, make Kiddush and have a special meal as we usher in Shabbat each week and for each of the major Festivals.
Third, let us make a pledge to eat as a Jew. Although the totality of the mitzvoth regarding Jewish eating is important, we must begin by avoiding those foods that the Torah forbids us to eat. By avoiding shellfish and pork products, we begin to make a statement that we are Jews. But, eating as a Jew means more than observing the rules of Kashrut. Let us commit ourselves to begin each meal with the motzi.
Fourth, let us pledge to learn as a Jew. Conservative Judaism is steeped in the ideology that Jewish learning is vital but the texts are impotent unless we learn them. As a minimum, however, let us commit ourselves to read a chapter of the Tanakh each day through Perek Yomi which will begin its second cycle in April. Or, beginning this spring, let us, as Conservative Jews, participate in Mishnah Yomit and - study Mishnah each day.
Fifth, let us pledge to perpetuate Jewish life. Make a commitment to raise a Jewish family. As the number of Jews who choose to intermarry increases, there are those who - in despair - say that the battle is lost. The rising level of intermarriage requires new outreach strategies to inspire those who have chosen to love and commit their lives to non-Jews to raise Jewish families. And, we must create those strategies because only in our success will we motivate those who intermarry to create a rich Jewish home life. But, at the same time, we must never become 'neutral' or 'accepting' of intermarriage as the norm. We must continue the struggle to create a communal expectation of in-marriage or meaningful conversion in order to perpetuate Jewish living.
Sixth, make a pledge to build a bridge to Israel. The Mitzvah of Aliyah is important. Make a visit to Israel a priority. But, even if you're not going to Israel, set aside some money each week to help someone else visit or live there.
The articulation of this new Compact is easy. The challenge is in harnessing energy for its implementation.
Our society is different than Isaiah's and a different challenge is called for. We must become the beacon to inspire Conservative Jews to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life. The goal must not be to lower expectations; but to create the 'bandwagon effect' of commitment to Jewish living - in which we are all involved and growing.
Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein is the Executive Vice President of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
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