Skip Navigation
October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776
Remarks 04-03-08

URJ Executive Committee Meeting, NYC
March 8, 2004

Michael Steinhardt and I recently had an exchange in the New York Jewish Week. Steinhardt is, arguably, the most important Jewish philanthropist in North America today. Mr. Steinhardt had given an interview, I responded to the interview, and he then responded to me. Some of you may have seen one or more of these articles.

Many issues were raised in this exchange but the heart of the matter was our very different views of the synagogue. As you might imagine, I argued that the synagogue is the central institution of Jewish life, that synagogues are being revived and transformed, and that the synagogue must be an integral part of any broader plan of Jewish renewal. I also stated that synagogue affiliation is the best predictor of Jewish commitment and involvement. Here I was relying on my own experience, and on data in the recently published National Jewish Population Survey. What I see as the most important chart in that entire survey was the one that correlated synagogue membership with religious and communal involvement. The results were unequivocal: synagogue members were far more involved than non-synagogue members in every area of religious and communal life.

The heart of Mr. Steinhardt’s response was to be found in the following quotation from his article, and I ask you to listen very carefully to these words: “Rabbi Yoffie insists that…synagogue affiliation ‘is the best predictor of Jewish commitment and involvement.’ Unfortunately, he has it backwards. Jews with loyalty and existing commitments feel a duty to join synagogues (as my wife, Judy, and I did when we were a newly married couple). But too often the vacuous social scene, or empty preaching, or lack of intellectually demanding and emotionally compelling programs, turn the synagogue experience into a squandering of loyalty.”

This is an extraordinary statement. We believe that the synagogue is the dynamic heart of Jewish existence. As we have said so often, it is the one institution in the Jewish world that doesn’t just use Jews; it makes Jews. It the one place where the various building blocks of Jewish life—prayer and study, hesed and social justice—converge. It is the living embodiment of the Jewish concept of community, the place that joins the people of Israel to the God of Israel. It is our sacred space, our fragment of Jerusalem, our spiritual home.

But Mr. Steinhardt sees it differently. For him, Jews start off with commitment and loyalty, and feel an obligation to join the synagogue when they are young, mostly for their children no doubt; but then the synagogue, a vacuous and empty place, turns them off, and squanders their loyalty. He later acknowledges that there are a few exceptions to this pattern; a handful of superstar rabbis are able to do more. But the message is clear and unequivocal: the synagogue—and particularly the non-Orthodox synagogue—is a failure. Far from strengthening Jewish identity, it does exactly the opposite: it destroys Jewish identity.

It is difficult not to be astonished and angry at these words. I think of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who do the nitty-gritty, day-to-day work of maintaining our congregations in communities large and small throughout North America. Much of this work can be depressingly routine, but the synagogues they have created keep alive the flame of faith, connect them to Torah, and provide a context of Jewish belonging to the least and most observant alike. One wonders at the chutzpah of a Jewish billionaire who has such utter contempt for the institutions, beliefs, and practices of average Jews.

Some people have asked me if there is a history of personal animosity between me and Mr. Steinhardt. Not at all. We have met a number of times; we kid each other, argue with each other, and attempt, always unsuccessfully, to convince each other of the correctness of our respective views. Since the appearance of these articles, we appeared together at a program at the 92nd Street Y, and he urged me to continue our public debate—which, I must admit, I have no real interest in doing.

But the important question for us is: Are Mr. Steinhardt’s thoughts on the synagogue the views of a rather idiosyncratic philanthropist, or, is there some greater significance to this exchange?

And the answer, I’m afraid, is that there may be greater significance to what has transpired here. In light of Mr. Steinhardt’s prominence, anything that he says draws the immediate attention of the broader community. Furthermore, given his wealth and influence, even of those who disagree with him are rarely prepared to voice these disagreements in public. But most important, what he is saying, I suggest, reflects a particular strand of thinking in the Jewish philanthropic and communal world.

After the publication of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which showed a dramatic growth in the rate of intermarriage, philanthropists and communal leaders started turning their attention to issues of Jewish education, continuity, and religious life—all areas that they had paid little attention to before. Essentially two schools of thinking emerged. The first suggested that if these communal and philanthropic leaders were to be effective in strengthening Jewish commitment, this work would have to be done in conjunction with the synagogue, which is the grassroots institution of Jewish life. People who were not necessarily religious themselves understood that there could be no continuity in the absence of Torah, and that without the synagogue, the Jewish community would slowly and inevitably lose its content and character. Building bridges between philanthropic bodies and the synagogue has been slow and difficult work, but it is work to which this Movement has been committed and to which I and some of you have devoted a good deal of time and energy. And the results have been encouraging. Nationally and locally, we can point to many examples of collaborative projects between synagogues and foundations or synagogues and communal institutions

But another school of thought also emerged, with a very different point of view. It consists of communal and philanthropic leaders who looked at the Jewish population surveys and other evidence of Jewish decline and concluded that since this area had been the synagogue’s responsibility, then clearly the reason for our problems was that the synagogue had failed. There was no recognition that the synagogue had long been underfunded and understaffed, and even as its range of activities grew, it was expected to do the impossible with limited resources. What the synagogue was being offered, in short, was paternalism and not partnership. It was suggested that the synagogue leadership did not have the answers, and that the same communal leadership that had so long neglected issues of Jewish life would now come forward to solve them—offering new programs and new thinking that rabbis and temple boards had clearly been unable to provide. The synagogues would not be forgotten in all of this, but given their past failures, they would certainly not be central, and in return for any communal support that might be forthcoming, they would be subject to strict communal constraints and a degree of external control and accountability to which they were unaccustomed.

This is the heart of Mr. Steinhardt’s thinking, and he is not shy about expressing it. And having done so, he has given legitimacy to this point of view, and has encouraged others who share his beliefs but until now have perhaps been reluctant to articulate them.

And how do we respond? As to accountability, synagogues are accountable to their members, of course, and whenever a synagogue or an organization of synagogues accepts money from anyone, it is bound by the terms of the gift and the conditions of the donor. That is the way the world works and we all understand that. But accountability is not the real question here. The question is: what is the vision of Jewish life that is offered by those who are so contemptuous of what we stand for and what we do?

Our vision, as you know and as I have said, is a religious vision. It is rooted in the covenant at Sinai between God and the Jewish people, and it rests on the premise of a Torah-based Judaism. It recognizes that some Jews will be believers and some will not; that some will be observant and that some will not; but it affirms that God is in the midst of our community, as well as in the secret places of the soul.

And what is the opposing vision? Well, actually, there is no opposing vision. Mr. Steinhardt is a proud, self-proclaimed atheist. He has no religious beliefs, and does not pretend to be religiously observant, however defined. What we hear from him, and from others who share his views, is a listing of programs and projects that he supports. The unifying factors in their thinking, if they exist at all, are a vague sense of ethnic solidarity, a deep disdain for the synagogue, and a belief that surveys, social scientists, and tough-minded management will solve the problems of the Jewish world.

I want to emphasize that many of the programs that these philanthropists support are worthwhile and praiseworthy, and we support them too. And at a time when many of the wealthiest Jews are giving their money to operas and museums, we are grateful that these men and women are committed to Jewish life. But that does not mean that they are thinking clearly or correctly about the problems that we confront.

Let us take the example of the Birthright Israel program. The idea of sending college students and young adults on free trips to Israel, originally conceived by former Knesset member Yossi Beilin, has been supported in recent years by philanthropists, federations, and the government of the State of Israel. Our Movement has been an enthusiastic participant in this program. And first indications are that it has been wildly successful, generating among its participants renewed Jewish interest. There is no reason for surprise here. As we know, only in Israel does Judaism belong to the public domain, and our young people respond instinctively to the drama of Jewish life there, and to the energy, courage, and dynamism of the Israeli people.

But then what? The social scientists hired by our communal establishment have been publishing analyses of the program, praising it in extravagant terms and concluding that it represents a true turning point in the lives of the participants. But does it? The renewed spark of Jewish interest that Israel provides for these young people must be lovingly tended until it grows into a flame of Jewish commitment, and in the great majority of cases, if that happens at all, it will only happen in the synagogue. And what is true for Birthright is also true for the day school, another favorite child of Mr. Steinhardt and so many other philanthropists. We treasure our day schools, and we hope and pray that they will grow in number, but the education that they impart is ultimately successful only if it finds expression in religious life and observance. To promote day schools while disparaging synagogues is an absurdity and an exercise in ignorance; only in the synagogue will the dry bones of learning and abstract ideas take on concrete form, and became a living, breathing Jewish community.

But all of this is missing from the communal model that is described by Mr. Steinhardt and others. There is irony in the fact that what they are really offering us is a somewhat updated version of the Jewish ethnicity that was so prominent a few decades, even though it was the purely ethnic model of Judaism that go us into trouble in the first place. Jewish religion is not discarded in their thinking, but it is distinctly secondary, and above all it is a means to an end, useful only to the extent that it promotes the ethnic and cultural idea of Jewish peoplehood to which they adhere. But let it be plainly said: the problem with all of this is that it is wrong and it will not work. If we know anything at all after 3,000 years, it is that Judaism without God, Torah, and mitzvah has no ability to sustain itself. Yes, we are a people, but our people is a living community of faith. So to all those well-meaning Jewish philanthropists out there: listen carefully. The Jewish people is not and cannot be a secular entity. It is a circle at whose center is God. And the synagogue is the center of our collective existence and the home of the Jewish heart. And if you do not understand this, your understanding of the Jewish world is shockingly incomplete.

So what is our role? It is to continue our work of strengthening the synagogue, and of reaching out to those who are now beyond its reach but who yearn for the inspiration that it provides. And it is to remain committed to a collaborative model of Jewish life, and to a partnership of community and synagogue, of philanthropist and religious leader—a partnership with all of those who comprehend the sacred nature of Jewish existence. Only in this way will we preserve the unique Jewish heritage of which we are all guardians.

Thank you for joining us this weekend. I look forward to being with you in Denver.


URJ logo

Donate Now



Multimedia Icon Multimedia:  Photos  |  Videos  |  Podcasts  |  Webinars
Bookmark and Share About Us  |  Careers  |  Privacy Policy
Copyright Union for Reform Judaism 2015.  All Rights Reserved