Friday, January 31, 2014

The Way Forward

from the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:

From the desk of …                    
 Rabbi Barry Schwartz




What is the way forward for those of us who care about the future of the American Jewish community?

I’ll admit that in my last column (The Jew and the Pew) I was quite negative. Recall that I was reacting to the major new study of the American Jewish community by the Pew Research Center showed an alarming abandonment of Judaism and the Jewish people. I wrote that we should “be brave enough to admit that this portrait is devastating. We are in free fall….”

But you would never know it in San Diego last month (mid-December) at the biannual convention of the Reform movement. I was with some 5000 Reform Jews, and the spirit was something to behold. The theme of the gathering was “”Meet-Pray-Learn” and that is exactly what we did, with gusto.

I promised to write about some positive lessons in subsequent columns, so let me reflect on the Biennial experience to talk about what is right with our community rather than what is wrong.

Let’s start with engaging our youth, and talk about one small step that can be a difference maker. A modest proposal, not a panacea… but one within that is realistic and attainable for the majority of American Jewish families.

One of the most moving aspects of the convention was the enthusiastic participation of hundreds of high school age youth. How is it that these young people are so connected? I asked… and the common denominator seems to be, interestingly enough… a great Jewish summer camp experience. Specifically, these youth pointed to the Reform movement camps like Camp Eisner in Great Barrington and Camp Harlam in the Poconos. It seems that a memorable summer camp experience is the gateway to involvement in Jewish youth group (NFTY). NFTY leads to Hillel. Hillel leads to study abroad in Israel. Israel leads to young leadership roles and a lasting connection to the Jewish community. For so many of the young adults I talked to, it all starts with an exceptional Jewish experience as a teen. Jewish summer camp seems to be the ticket. Dollar for dollar it may be the best investment in the Jewish future you can make for your children or grandchildren. And to compete with all the summer alternatives, the Reform movement recently opened an elite Jewish sports camp and just announced the opening of a select Jewish science camp.

So how about an unforgettable Jewish summer for our children? Why not a community-wide “Junior Birthright” program that offers a month at camp as a prelude to a week in Israel? We need to invest in experiences that are memorable and transformational. It’s one small step for a Jewish family; one giant leap for the Jewish people.

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