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Tikkun Olam May Feel Good but It Doesn't Build Community

August 3, 2011 By:
Joel Alperson
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At least a portion of my hometown of Omaha, Neb., may well be under water soon. Pumps are in place at various locations, including at a nuclear power plant not far from town. The Missouri River, which borders our city, has risen to dangerous levels. Some Omaha residents have taken to sandbagging to help reinforce critical locations along the river.

This potential disaster mirrors the serious challenge facing the non-Orthodox Jewish world.

Non-Orthodox Judaism is confronted by rising levels of secularism that almost always lead to assimilation -- a trend that could eventually render Reform and Conservative Judaism irrelevant in North America. Non-Orthodox Jews' discontent with and resulting departure from Jewish life, left alone, stands to bring Reform and Conservative Judaism to a state of obsolescence.

This prediction is not new. From studies about high interfaith rates to growing assimilation, we should know by now that the non-Orthodox way of life is failing by every metric we have at our disposal. (I am not Orthodox, by the way.) Some may not like reading these words and others may be angered by them, but like the flood facing Omaha, it's hard to ignore what one sees.

This distancing from Jewish religious (i.e., God-based) ritual experiences leads to a distancing from Jewish purpose. So Jews try to find their Judaic meaning in social causes (immigration reform, environmentalism, women's rights). Putting aside the merit of these issues, let's be honest: These tikkun olam pursuits might feel good and even do some good, but they do little to build Jewish communities.

We're losing Jews too quickly to think that we can afford to continue as we are. If Jews prioritize these social efforts over religious practices, we'll have to acknowledge that we have substituted all these secular causes for Judaism.

We might insist that tikkun olam and social justice are central to our Jewish way of life, but they are taking the place of serious Jewish education and practice. Those are the tools employed by the Orthodox against the rising tides of assimilation.

I watch with sadness as the seminaries of our non-Orthodox movements lay off employees and close programs. National non-Orthodox day school attendance represents only a small percentage of Jewish children in the United States. And it's not because the economy is bad -- the trends were in place long before.

Orthodox Jews, for whatever disagreements many non-Orthodox Jews have with them, have grown in number, and not only by sheltering themselves in haredi communities. The Modern Orthodox largely swim in the same secular waters as other Jews: They own TVs, use the Internet and attend secular universities.

But they also hold to a religious discipline that they believe is life-improving. They observe Shabbat and the holidays, and they study Jewish texts in far greater numbers than non-Orthodox Jews. They are more likely to have children, and their children are far more likely to marry Jews and make Jewish homes.

Judaism teaches us how to be better friends, husbands, wives and philanthropists. It tells us how to help the weak and when to fight evil. It is the discipline of leading a traditional Jewish life that also reminds us how best to engage in repairing the world.

Ironically, by overemphasizing tikkun olam we could ultimately, through lack of Jewish knowledge and experience, lose the very impetus that put us in the tikkun olam business in the first place.

Must every Jew become Orthodox to live a meaningful life? Clearly not. There are great numbers of committed non-Orthodox Jews. But as a community, at least for now, we'll be severely weakened if we don't acknowledge that we must repair ourselves far more urgently than we must repair the world.

Joel Alperson is past national campaign chair for United Jewish Communities. His views do not necessarily represent those of the Jewish Federations of North America.

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