By Steve Freedman
This past Sunday reminded me why the Detroit Jewish community is special. In the morning, my wife, Joan, and I attended an AIPAC breakfast featuring Dennis Ross and James Woolsey. Both speakers were amazing – and so was the turnout. Michigan, led by the Detroit Jewish community, is the leader in the Midwest, and beyond, in raising critical dollars for AIPAC, and the work that it does in supporting U.S. and Israel interests.
In the evening, Joan and I attended the Holocaust Memorial Center’s annual dinner. Keynote speaker Deborah Lipstadt spoke about her experiences battling for historical truth to prove the Holocaust actually occurred when David Irving, a renowned denier, sued her for libel. (Her story is portrayed in the new movie, “Denial.”)
Lipstadt was moved by the overflowing attendance, and commented that while she has spoken all over the country, she had never been at an event so well supported. It is clear that large segments of our community know what it means to be a part of the Jewish people.
However, I can’t stop thinking about what she said near the end of her talk. It makes her uncomfortable, she said, when people, especially Holocaust survivors, thank her for her courage. She said she believed she had no choice, that she was driven by the Jewish value of “Chesed shel Emet,” taking care of the dead, and to give a voice to those who could not speak for themselves. She felt the obligation to honor those who perished at the hands of the Nazis by taking on Irving, a disgusting racist and anti-Semite. She understood the significance of this mitzvah, for it is an act of kindness that can never be returned. She likened it to the impossibility of any one of us giving enough thanks to God for the blessing of life, and for our families – it is just not possible. She expressed these sentiments quite movingly.
In that moment, deeply moved by her words, I was reminded that each and every Jew must understand Judaism itself, our values, and how we are to perceive the world guided by our tradition. Short of that, a Jew is denied the profound wisdom and beauty inherent in Judaism. Lipstadt felt discomfort in being thanked for a disctinctly Jewish reason – she had great understanding of the mitzvah of Chesed Shel Emet, which, like all of our mitzvot, is anchored in a long religious and philosophical tradition that begins with the Torah.
So how knowledgeable and engaged with our tradition will our next generation of Jews be? Even as I felt pride in our Detroit Jewish community, I began to think about an article I recently read by, sociologist, Steven Cohen, that has caused me great concern. Looking at 25 years of data since 1991, intermarriage among the non-Orthodox community has increased to 72 percent. Intermarriage in one generation begets intermarriage in a second generation. Data shows that intermarried families are generally not very interested in Jewish life. The conclusion? The millions of dollars invested in outreach to intermarried families have simply not been effective. Painfully, I have personal experience with this, and it is true with our intermarried family members.
No one is suggesting the Jewish community should give up – we need to continue effective outreach. However, our energies also need to be focused on Jewish adolescents and young adults — before they marry. Many programs already exist and have proven successful, among them Jewish day schools! These programs need to be expanded to ensure that in 20 years, the Detroit Jewish community will be as strong and as committed as it is today, supporting AIPAC, supporting Holocaust education, joyfully engaging in Jewish life, and possessing the understanding of the importance and relevance of our Jewish values like Chesed Shel Emet.
This is a huge undertaking that requires the Jewish community, collectively, to provide opportunities for authentic Jewish learning, and positive Jewish experiences, for Jewish singles out of college, newlywed couples, and young families. To that end, I am advocating that our community find a way to offer free Jewish preschool education to all Jewish families – and in return, these families will commit to participating in meaningful and ongoing Jewish family education, and Jewish adult learning. We must invest aggressively and wisely in our inmarried families and their children.
The entire community, regardless of affiliation, and including Federation, must join forces to build a vibrant community for young Jewish families, and to provide their children with a Jewish early childhood education. This will hopefully lead to a more sustained and meaningful involvement of these parents and their children in the Jewish community, in Jewish education and in Jewish living.
Who will join me in making this a reality for the sake of our community, for the sake of our people and for the sake of our children?
This article is reposted with permission from the Hillel Day School’s Head of School Blog.