The Fact of the Matter

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Several weeks ago, my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting Detroit (well, Oak Park, a suburb, and a solvent one), where two of our daughters and their husbands and their children live.

Oak Park, and Southfield, which abuts it, are home to a wonderful, vibrant and multifaceted Orthodox Jewish community. The two neighboring cities, within walking distance of each other, boast (figuratively speaking; the residents are a modest bunch) an abundance of shuls and shteiblach, a large and flourishing yeshiva and Bais Yaakov, a yeshiva gedola, a Kollel – and all the requisite kosher shopping and dining amenities to boot.  And housing, to put nice icing on a scrumptious cake, is extremely affordable.

One of the cake’s delectable ingredients is a “Partners in Torah” night of study that takes place each Tuesday night at Beth Yehudah, the local yeshiva, where Jews of all stripes learn Torah for an hour with study-partners from the Orthodox community.  Hundreds of pairs of men, on one side of a large room, and women on the other, delve into Jewish texts together.  It’s an inspiring sight (and sound).

Our recent trip, though, didn’t include a Tuesday, so we missed that weekly event.  But we were there over a Motzoei Shabbos, a Saturday night, when that same Beth Yehudah space hosts a “father-son” (and grandfather-grandson) study hour.  For 45 minutes I got to study with one of my grandsons (smart as a whip, of course), while my son-in-law studied with another of his sons.  Then all the boys – there were hundreds present – moved to one side of the room, where there were tables, and were treated to pizza and a raffle.  This takes place, as in dozens of other cities with Orthodox populations, every Saturday night when Shabbos ends fairly early.  But so large a turnout in the Detroit suburbs impressed me deeply.

On our return home, though, I was saddened.  Not only because I missed our kids and their kids, but also because of an article that had appeared in the interim in the Los Angeles-based Jewish Journal.

It was titled “Open Day Schools To Non-Jewish Students,” and advocated, well, just that.  Written by a Reform Rabbi, Jeffrey K. Salkin, it bemoaned the fact that non-Orthodox “Jewish day schools are… going out of business.”

The Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter schools nationwide, the writer noted, have “lost 25 percent of their students during the last five years,” and “since 2008-2009, four Reform day schools have closed.”

The rabbi’s solution? “Let’s open Jewish day schools to non-Jewish students.”  Not only products of intermarriage, he explains, but “full-blown, not-in-the-least-bit-Jewish kids.”

After all, he argues, “Jewish kids have been attending (nominally and not so nominally) Christian day schools…  Perhaps it’s time for us to learn how to be hosts as well.”

“We might,” he acknowledges, “lose the automatic, unspoken expectation that our kids will meet and perhaps mate with other Jewish kids.”  But it will be worth it, as Jewish schools will achieve solvency and “we get to be a light to the nations – a teaching instrument to the world.”

And then, a bit later, came the report that the Union for Reform Judaism had sold off half of its headquarters in New York, to use $1 million of the proceeds, according to the movement’s president, Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, to supplement major foundation grants to reshape the movement’s “youth engagement strategies.”

An admirable goal, yes; youth engagement is vital to Judaism. We are but links in a chain, and our youth are the next link.

But the chain starts at Sinai.  And the links will only be as strong as their connection to that original one.

That isn’t just theory, of course, or claim; it’s a fact, blazingly evident before open eyes, here and now in the third millennium of the Common Era, more than three thousand years since the Jewish chain’s first link was forged.

It is a fact evident in the sweet cacophony of children’s voices that rang out from that large packed room I was privileged to sit in for a short time on Motzoei Shabbos, and in all the similar ones across the country.

It is evident in Southfield, Michigan’s weekly Partners in Torah study-partner session, and in countless similar one-on-one telephone partnerships.

It is evident in the explosive growth of Orthodox day schools, high schools, yeshivos and kollelim, and in the many building campaigns to add to their number.

It’s just not yet a fact that’s evident, tragically, to Rabbis Salkin and Jacobs.  May they, and their followers, come soon to face it, and to ponder it well.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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