By Rabbi Dov Fischer ~
Not all Jewish kids in America appreciate the depths of the heritage into which they were born. And it is hard to get the word out to all of them. On the one hand, we have the Torah. So we have Truth. But Truth does not always sell, as Madison Avenue hopes and as any vote in the U.N. General Assembly attests. So it also takes money to reach and influence lost Jews. It takes creativity. Wisdom. Kindness. Courage. Greatness. There is no way to reach everyone. Then, even as some sweet Jewish kid finally is reached by a dynamic rabbi — well, even as someone lost is being found and reached, someone else from within our world is disappearing. Maybe because of an intolerant rabbi at a school, an abusive parent, a cold-hearted bullying classmate. Some self-righteous “pillar” who drove away a budding Torah scholar.
We reach so many. We lose so many. Even within our congregations, many gamely concede to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Factory phenomenon because the bar mitzvah celebrations of Charlie and Willy Wonka fund the temple programming. It gets their parents to join and pay dues for two years, while the kids are between ages 11-13. It gets them to fund the Hebrew School. It gets pews to be kept warm as they are vacated by parents of others who have just reached age 13 . . . and a week. If someone were to stand in temple and declare “No more BM Factory at this shul,” would parents respond by saying “OK, I guess I now have to enroll my kid in a yeshiva”? Or would they just move to the next temple down the block and have that bar/bat mitzvah there?
Sure, it would be nice if Mark Zuckerberg were Jewishly inspired to learn Torah and his authentic roots, t’would be fabulously lovely to have him on our side. But guys that rich also know why they suddenly have so many uncles and cousins they never before met. And now here come the rabbis. We would need to stand on a long queue, waiting patiently for our turn to ask him bashfully to “LIKE” Judaism. Or at least send us a Poke. And only then, assuming he has not scotched us on a privacy setting.
And does anyone care about reaching out to Dustin Moskovitz?
This mess all happened because assimilationists institutionalized their Jewish enterprise in America first, when the massive immigration of 250,000 Jews from Germany to America unfolded between 1840-1880, less than half a century before my Bubbies and Zeydes arrived. Then, when my ancestors arrived from Russia and Poland, the landed assimilationist Jews worked at melting them, focused on driving them away from Orthodox Judaism. No stone was left unturned in the effort to tear away Orthodoxy. They were forced to drop Yiddish and attend assimilation classes at the Educational Alliance on the Lower East Side. School District Superintendent Julia Richman, one of them, gave the order to wash mouths with soap if a Jewish immigrant student were heard speaking Yiddish in the public school corridor. They were driven away — to the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York; to chicken farms in Vineland, New Jersey; to vast empty spaces in Galveston, Texas — to anywhere that would remove them from sight.
Yet, miraculously, my four grandparents escaped their devises — probably because they could not afford the streetcar or read the handbill inviting them to assimilate. The landed class of assimilationists ruined our generations artificially — not by superior intelligence, force of argument, or by a unique wisdom inherent in the religion of Isaac Mayer Wise or otherwise — but simply because they got here first, by less than half a century. Just as so many of the Russian Marxists in Labor / Mapai / Mapam did to the Crown of the Sephardic Heritage, whom they sought to assimilate away from Orthodoxy in the 1940s and 1950s when Edut HaMizrach, the Jews of North Africa, arrived in Israel.
Ours is the generation assigned to pick up the pieces. The miracle is not that maybe Zuckerberg still has not “FRIENDED” Torah and Mitzvas (religious duties). Rather, the miracle is that my Bubbie and Zeyde, who could not speak English and lived in tenements, now have grandchildren and great-grandchildren with s’mikhah, rabbinical ordination, and who are building yeshivas and populating Torah institutions. The miracle is that we have lived not only into the era that has seen the miraculous liberation of Judea and Samaria, and the reunification of Jerusalem, but also into the era that has seen the institutionalization and miraculous expansion of Torah and the Orthodox Union and Young Israel and Agudath Israel and Torah Umesorah and 60,000 at an “asifa” gathering in CitiField and is planning for 90,000 at MetLife stadium in the Meadowlands for Daf Yomi, and RIETS and all the Lithuanian yeshivas and seminaries, and the Chassidic ones, all flourishing in this strange Land of Columbus, along with a thousand rabbis in the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest rabbinical body in the world.
Every single kid in our congregations is another Zuckerberg. Every single one — the ones who are assimilated, the ones who are from Quasi-”Orthodox” families that send their kids to Ramah for summer camp and to useless Community Schools, even like the one near me in Irvine, California that does not even teach Chumash (basic Bible) or davening (prayers) from a suitable text. Every single one of those kids counts.
I wish only the best for Zuckerberg and for Annenberg and for Howard of Starbucks and for Neiman and for Marcus and for Bloomingdale and for every Jew who ever made a buck in America. But MySpace disappeared. AOL is the last place “you’ve got mail.” These companies have their day, expand, contract, and —like mighty empires of yore — get swallowed by mightier empires that ultimately will be consumed, too. And, through it all, there is some twelve-year-old kid sitting near each of us in shul on Sabbath morning who probably could benefit from a warm smile, a “Good Shabbes” handshake, and an invitation to a Shabbes meal and an offer to sit with him, one on one, and learn a paragraph in a Gemara once-weekly. Even if the kid never amounts to anything more than a Jewish neshoma (soul).
To me, that is what Zuckerberg inspires. I look at what he created from nothing — just horsing around in the dorm after his girlfriend dumped him — and I imagine what each of us could create from just one neshoma each. A smile, a “Good Shabbes” handshake, and an offer to learn with a kid 20 or 30 minutes once a week. I “LIKE” that.
This article first appeared in Jewish World Review (www.JewishWorldReview.com).