California Dreaming

The Lost Jew is real, and I have met him. He telephoned my synagogue a few years ago asking for an appointment, explaining that he is married to a Catholic woman and needs to talk with me about their expected baby. A week later, he and his wife sit in my study as he tells me that he is a committed Jew and his wife a committed Catholic. Neither is willing to compromise on their own faiths and neither is willing to convert. Now that she is pregnant, they must face the stormy issue of the child’s identity, and they have decided that if the child is a boy, he will be raised Jewish, and if the child is a girl, she will become a Catholic.

I am stunned. There is hardly any traditional rabbinic text that prepares a rabbi for such a situation, and I fumble for something to say. I raise issues for their consideration: what if they end up having another child? Would there be multiple religions in the same home? Would their child feel more connected to one parent than to another? What does this spiritual lottery say about the value of either faith? Or the truth? To these and other questions, my caller is indifferent and resolute. He and his wife had arranged this compromise, and they are merely informing me so that I would be prepared if the child is a boy.

A few months later, a little girl enters their lives, and they schedule one last appointment with me to tell me that, according to their commitment to each other, the girl would be baptized in the faith of her mother, as a Catholic. As they rise to leave my study, the father turns to face me and shake my hand. I will never forget the look on his face. Is it resignation? Guilt? Sorrow?

All I know is that it is farewell, stepping across a precipice. The girl and her mother are active in the local Catholic Church, and I see the father precisely once each year, on Yom Kippur, when he stands at the back, machzor in hand, listening to the ancient and awesome prayers of our holiest day. The chasm that separates him from his people is deep and profound. And it is one that he chose independently. When I consider him and his life, I know, that I am peering from the valley of faith into a post-Jewish world, one in which Judaism is little more than a fading memory, an occasional tug at the heart, a record of family history.


This story is not unique. Every month, on every continent, some Jews are cut off from their people. Some by choice, rejecting the faith and traditions of their heritage. Some by circumstance, falling in love with someone whose convictions outweigh or preclude their own lukewarm connection. And some fall away because their experience of the Jewish community is one of superficiality, formalism, and complacency. Doubtless there are as many reasons for cutting the cord as there are distanced Jews. Because of that complex diversity, no single explanation will interpret them all, and no single response will persuade them all to return. But we must start somewhere; we must try. As the Torah relates God’s command, we ‘must not remain indifferent.’


Understanding instead of Blame

The most tempting, and erroneous, response to the lost Jew is one of blame:

Those people simply don’t realize how precious is our heritage. Just as Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of porridge, so these ingrates have abandoned Judaism’s timeless wisdom and profound spirituality for the tinsel of greed, materialisms and hedonism. Living in a culture that glorifies might, wealth, and power, these misguided Jews have exchanged the eternal for the ephemeral. Their weakness and their blindness leave them doomed to disappear. One thinks of Rabbi Akiva’s ancient story of the fox and the fish: the fox tries to coax the fish onto the shore, telling them that they are in danger in the water but that he will protect them on dry land. The fish respond by saying, ‘If we are in danger in the water, which is our natural home, how much greater would be our peril in an alien environment.’ For Rabbi Akiva, the story constitutes a warning; Jews must remain in the world of Torah and Mitzvot. To abandon that world would only heighten our danger and our fragility. It is foolish for a fish to live like a fox. It is fatal for a fish to place its trust and its future in the foxes’ goodwill.

As tempting as such a view may be, it is misguided at best, futile at worst. Today’s alienated Jews don’t know enough about their heritage to realize what they are missing. Their alienation is rarely the result of an educated choice.

Instead, they confuse the chaotic boredom of their cheder experiences with that of attachment to the Jewish religion, they see their parents’ ambivalence about Jewish living (sending their children to Jewish camps while discouraging their children from observing Kashrut, telling their children to marry Jews while the parents rarely attend synagogue services) and assume that this equivocation is all that Jewish spirituality offers. Small wonder, then, that so many assume that religion is trivial and insignificant. Small wonder that some of them look elsewhere (to the East, to New Age, to Christianity) for spirituality with content.

For others, that inherited ambivalence is coupled with a basic reality: the content of their lives is no different than that of their Gentile friends and neighbors. Increasingly, Jewish children in the Western democracies attend the same schools as their neighbors, socialize in the same ways, and participate in the same afternoon or weekend sports and activities. Their career goals and life aspirations are no different from those of their neighbors. Add to that, the combustible mix that anti-Semitism, while still real, is receding as a social force, and it is perfectly reasonable that these Jews should fall in love with their Gentile friends. They are no different, so why shouldn’t they marry?

Finally, this blend of inherited ambivalence, congruent life-styles and shared ambitions, fuses with a very Western assertion of the primacy of the individual. Our highest concern is, properly, our own happiness. Rather than subsuming our personal good to that of community state or religion, these three derive their value from their ability to service – and to satisfy – each one of us. If our highest value is our own contentment, then why should religious differences be allowed to interfere? Surely that would mistake what is secondary (religion, conviction, identity) for what is primary (happiness, pleasure, satisfaction)! If these differences are no more than labels, and if we are all fundamentally the same (not only equal, but identical), then it would be foolish not to mingle and to marry.

These three factors are not insignificant. Our ambivalence toward our faith is well-earned: fundamentalist rigidity has claimed the right to speak on behalf of our faith, and we too often accede to that ill advised  – and historically unjustified – monopoly. The openness of Western democracies and society to Jews has inaugurated a golden age of safety, contribution, and participation that none of us would readily abandon. And the primacy of the individual – a necessary corrective to the seductive inducements of fascism, communism, and tyranny – does find some roots in Jewish tradition. It seems that the Lost Jew is not entirely without justification.

Rather than blaming these decent people, we need to recognize their motives as worthy of discussion, dialogue and debate. We need to aggressively embody the wisdom, profundity, and holiness that make Judaism worth sacrifice, discomfort, and a compromise of our radical autonomy. In short, we must show them Judaism worth perpetuating. And we must open many portals through which these Jews can return.


What is to be Done?

California may well be the world epicenter of the Lost Jew. We struggle with the highest proportion of non-affiliation in the United States and the highest level of intermarriage too. The Jews who move to California are precisely those who are attracted by novelty, syncretism, and surfing. The call of tradition and stability falls on deaf ears here, or these Jews would have stayed somewhere else in the first place. So it is here, in the sunny sitra achra, that I do my work, trying to understand and to love these lost Jews, struggling to create pathways for their return.

The key to turning a community around, the single most important factor of return, requires focusing on the adults. Judaism has been infantilised – the received wisdom is predicated on the importance of what we do for the children and what we impose on the children. The clear message, from clergy and laity, is that adults don't take Judaism seriously unless they are fanatics or salaried. Teenagers move away from Jewish involvement, and only return when married with children. Such a pediatric faith is doomed to failure, and can only be corrected by showing adults how to reclaim Judaism as a serious, sophisticated, and mature way of life. At my congregation, we strive to offer many ways for seeking Jews to begin their exploration of Jewish living. Our concentration on adults is based on the conviction that it is the parents who provide the fulcrum to move the entire family, that engaging the adults is the only way to move past ambivalence and secularism, that these adults, if nurtured, can act as ambassadors to other Jews, bringing them into the synagogue as well.


The cornerstone of this effort is our ‘Introduction to Judaism’ course, an 18 week program designed to teach the fundamentals of Jewish living: the calendar, the life cycle, Jewish history and literature, theology and values. It also teaches Hebrew phonetics, on the assumption that a person who can’t read from the Siddur can’t feel a part of any synagogue community. I teach the course myself, convinced that fostering a personal connection with the rabbi is an essential tool for building Jewish passion. During the first session, I explain that there is only one rule governing the class: the students need not agree with anything I say, but they must agree that everything I say is worth an argument. It takes them a few weeks to see that I mean what I say: that I will provoke a discussion if none is forthcoming. Only if they are pushed to learn as adults – which are to say, they must bring their experiences, their doubts and their desires to the table – can they realize that Judaism has something powerful and rich to offer adults. While the class was initiated to help non-Jews convert (and we have converted almost 200 people in the past seven years), by now half of its enrolment are born Jews desiring to study their heritage as adults.

As important as an introductory level class is, by itself, it is insufficient. It is crucial that graduates of the introductory classes have a place to go to continue learning, that they have direct exposure to the sacred writings of Jewish tradition. Toward that end, we offer an hour and a half weekly Talmud Shiur – just prior to morning Minyan, a Shabbat morning Hevra Shas that discusses the weekly Torah portion, as well as other adult education classes during a weeknight. Talmud torah k’neged kulam, the study of Jewish holy writings is fundamental to any Jewish living.

The service itself is an important opportunity for learning as well: during the Torah reading, I offer brief comments between each aliyah. The comments generally raise some issue, relevant to the passage, which we are about to read, offer some traditional insight, and invite the congregants to ponder the issue and its application to their own lives. I find that these comments focus the congregation on actually reading the Chumash as the Torah is chanted. The sermon, both Friday night and Saturday morning, is always based on the weekly Torah portion. My congregants can read the newspapers as well as I, and if I don’t speak about Torah they can’t get that anywhere else. So I rigorously stick to discussing the Torah and its relevance to contemporary life.

Finally, my perspective on adult education is explicitly religious and passionate. I do not teach as though I were a university professor. My goal is not merely the neutral transmission of fact or skill, but the empowerment of my students to serve our God with passion and piety. Knowledge and skill are essential tools toward that end, but they are not, themselves, the goal. The goal is nothing short of fashioning Jews capable, and desirous, of fidelity to our age-old brit (covenant) with God.


A Unique Opportunity for Masorti Judaism

Thus far, what I have advised is true for synagogues of all denominations and, indeed, I believe that there is a need for synagogues of all denominations to appeal to the broadest possible range of seeking Jews. But I also hold that Masorti Judaism has a special potential for speaking to the heart, mind and soul of contemporary Jewry. Our distinct blend of traditional practice and intellectual openness, our insistence on an intimate relationship with a personal God coupled with a recognition of Judaism as a civilization combine to suggest Masorti Judaism as a particularly fitting Jewish answer to the questions of our age.

Today's Jews are hungry for meaning. They thirst for spirituality and holiness. Tired of a world of competition and loneliness, many seek belonging and connection. Judaism offers all of this in rich abundance. But our Jews cannot accept a literalist notion that God dictated and printed every word of the King James Bible. They cannot assume the posture of the slave, meekly accepting the subordination of women and an indifference to nature, the infallibility of rabbis, the passive replication of pre-scientific assumptions. If our Jews are to embrace Judaism as the vehicle for their spirituality and their elevation, then the Judaism they turn to will have to accept their integrity and their learning. If they are to apprentice themselves as students in adulthood, they must see in advance that this Judaism will not demand of them a renunciation of their sophistication, of a broader humanity, of involvement in what is exciting and wonderful about Western life. Yet, paradoxically, if this Judaism is to be worth the time and trouble, it must be one, which makes real demands, which requires discipline and diligence. It must, in short, have something to teach.

There is great value and wisdom in each of the modern denominations of Judaism, but for many of us, raised in non-traditional homes, attending the very best of secular universities, fully involved in the larger society around us, Masorti/Conservative Judaism offers a special appeal: one which insists that Judaism has a contribution to make to the world, that its insight and profundity offer a holiness and a healing found nowhere else, that this pathway to God is nowhere surpassed. This form of Judaism asks no blinding of the mind, no hardening of the heart. Instead it asks merely that the seeking Jew take the first step. And it rewards that step with the wholeness and holiness of a traditional Jewish life.

Learn a little, grow a little, one step at a time – the Lost Jew can return, retaining the accumulated insights and lessons of the years of wandering. The integrity that kept so many away can become a source of strength for a Judaism that is simultaneously traditional yet renewing, and the assimilation that allowed others to drift can be the greenhouse nurturing talent and diversity to enrich our people in the service of our God. Our calling as Jews – now as in the past – is to construe difficulties as challenges, and to transform those challenges into blessings. The lost Jews provide such a challenge. Our response, with God's help, can permit them to blossom again as Jews. And then their former alienation will become the cornerstone of our redemption.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson ( is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).