Saturday, Jul 20, 2024

Let My People Know

June was perhaps President Barack Obama's worst month to date. Numerous gaffes and atrocious economic numbers have left the president more vulnerable than ever before. All of the old excuses, such as blaming President George W. Bush for the economic ills facing the country, seem to be falling on deaf ears. After almost four years, it is clear that the majority of the American people feel that Obama owns the economy. As unemployment numbers rise, people are realizing that not only has the Obama administration failed to turn around the economy, but the economy has gotten even worse under the present administration.

Columnist Peggy Noonan put it well when she echoed the thoughts and apprehension of many Republicans.


“You know what Republicans on the ground think when they look at Mitt Romney?” she asked.


“Please don’t blow it.”


They think President Obama can’t win but Mr. Romney can still lose.


The point is that just because Obama is failing, many of his policies are a disaster, and hard facts and hard numbers have proven that his policies are not working, that still does not guarantee a win for Romney.




Yes, Romney has the numbers on his side, but if he does not make his case to the American people in a convincing way, he might still lose.


Clearly, to have the statistics going your way is not everything. You also have to win the hearts and minds of the people.


This came to mind when contemplating the latest bombshell in the Jewish world that has the New York Times and The Forward wringing their hands, trying to figure out what went wrong.


The bombshell, at least to them, was the latest survey of the UJA Federation that revealed that, for the first time in a long time, the Jewish population in the Greater New York area is growing. The hand-wringing is taking place because the survey shows that the growth is due to the chareidi community. Both the Chassidishe community and the yeshivishe community have grown by leaps and bounds. The Modern Orthodox community is also holding its own. It is only due to the growth of the religious community that the terrible numbers and trends of previous surveys have been turned around.


The bad news is that among Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated Jews, the numbers are looking worse than ever. Whole chunks of those communities are slowly being lost to assimilation, intermarriage and religious indifference.


Just looking at the figures and at the numbers of religious children in Jewish schools as compared to the non-religious tells the entire story in a nutshell. That story is that only those who invest heavily in education and take their Judaism seriously are here to stay.




Judaism, as a culture, is insufficient. Bagels and lox and corn beef on Jewish rye are not enough. Perhaps they can preserve some warm Jewish feeling for a generation or two. But as appetizing as they may be, they certainly don’t cut the mustard for preventing assimilation.


Identification with the state of Israel was a huge source of Jewish identity and Jewish pride for previous generations of American Jews, but it is not what it used to be. Progressively non-religious American Jews, especially the younger ones, identify less and less with the Jewish state. It has become abundantly apparent that only Jewish education and religious observance have any long-term chance of ensuring the future viability of the Jewish community in America and indeed the entire world. That is the true message of the UJA Federation survey. If you want your children and grandchildren to be Jewish, you must transmit their religious heritage to them. Without that, nature will run its course and assimilation and eventual intermarriage are almost guaranteed, r”l.




Although there have been some religious Jews conveying a kind of “I told you so” attitude, most religious Jews with whom I have spoken don’t feel any sense of happiness with the results of the survey. In fact, they feel deeply saddened that so many of our brethren, our flesh and blood, atzmeinu ubesareinu, are being torn away from us.


Certainly, however, the survey results were not greeted with any degree of surprise. We knew this all along. Without Jewish education and observance, there can be no guarantee of Jewish continuity, especially in open societies where Jews are accepted by the surrounding host culture.


What we might consider doing, however, is taking the time to contemplate what these troubling numbers with regard to our non-religious brethren mean for us. Yes, we are winning. The numbers clearly show that, within a few decades, religious Jews and especially chareidim will be a dominant force in New York Jewry and in every community where they reside. There is no doubt about that.


At the same time, perhaps it is also a clarion call, demanding that we change our own attitude and widen the scope of our public advocacy.




Since the Holocaust, the Chareidi community has displayed what, in many ways, could be considered a “siege” mentality. We lost so much in the Holocaust. The yeshivos and Chassidic centers went up in smoke and had to be rebuilt. Our primary focus, both klapei p’nim and klapei chutz, both in our interactions with our own and in our interactions with the irreligious world and non-Jewish world, was that we must rebuild Torah. Our leading gedolim during the post-war period and beyond saw with their far-reaching vision that without the Torah centers, without Torah education at the highest levels, it would be impossible to propagate Yiddishkeit in a meaningful way.


Although there were a few yeshivos in America during the immediate post-Holocaust period, the Torah infrastructure was still weak and so much more had to be done. Against all odds, they succeeded.




Boruch Hashem, they succeeded. We succeeded.


We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams and certainly beyond the wildest dreams – or nightmares – of the secular establishment, which was so powerful in this country at the time.


Indeed, Dr. Joseph Tennenbaum, a major Zionist leader, called the roshei yeshiva who helped transplant Torah to these shores “a sickly weed transplanted on these liberal shores.” That “sickly weed,” however, succeeded in actually flourishing and blossoming into the burgeoning Torah community that we have today.


Perhaps, now that the post-war revolution has become the mainstream and our numbers are increasing to the extent that in a few decades we may be the majority of Jews in the area, we must think about using our numbers and influence not just to ensure the viability of our own community, but to focus more on bringing our values to those of our brethren who are falling by the wayside.


The Torah tells us that we cannot stand by while our brother’s blood is being spilled. Our brothers and sisters are being ripped away in a spiritual inferno of ignorance.




Another important point is that while we have expended so much time and effort trying to ensure the continuity of the Torah community, in many ways we never properly worried about the image that we are projecting to our fellow Jews. We must use our increasing numbers and political clout not only to ensure the continuity of our own community, but also to try and utilize every avenue possible to show our fellow Jews who are moving further and further away from their Source, and the non-Jews among whom we reside, that Yiddishkeit is alive and well. It is vibrant, full of life, full of meaning, full of love, and full of kiddush Hashem and ahavas Yisroel. We must be more cognizant of how our actions are perceived by those around us.


Yes, we must certainly build a fence around ourselves and our families to protect us from the immorality and other negative aspects of the host culture. We must simultaneously also leave an opening in that fence, at least a one-way opening, through which we can reach out and embrace our brothers and sisters and share with them the beauty and meaning that we find in our lives.




My uncle, Dr. Yaakov Birnbaum, the founding pioneer of the movement to free Soviet Jewry, spearheaded the campaign to try to free Soviet Jews from the clutches of the Communist Soviet Union. Perhaps his most successful slogan that inspired an entire generation of activists was, “Let My People Go!”


He and those who joined him were so successful that untold masses of Soviet Jews eventually managed to immigrate to America. The problem was that decades of Communist indoctrination had robbed them of even the most basic knowledge of Judaism. Reb Yaakov realized that we must reach out and give them a chance to experience the beauty of their heritage. He thus coined a new slogan: “Let My People Know.”


As our numbers and influence grow, it is clear that we also need to increase the focus on “Let My People Know.” We must look for opportunities to reach out to our fellow Jews and also to ensure that the slanderous, one-sided, negative image of our community that so many mistakenly absorb from publications such as The Forward, The Jewish Week and The New York Times are put in proper context. Certainly, there are things that we can improve, but in the larger picture, there is so much that we have to offer in our focus on “Let My People Know!”


Indeed, it would be a pity and a tragedy if we embody the worst fears of those Republican Party members by winning the numbers, winning the statistics, but losing the ultimate campaign to positively influence and impact the hearts and souls of our brethren.




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