We can re-ignite the fire of Jewish spirit and learning

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

In barely five years, every organizing principle of American Jewish life has been shattered. Our community finds itself in extraordinary disarray, with neither road map nor guide. We agree neither on our destination nor on the principles that guide our way.

Why this upheaval? For the last century, two themes have dominated the agenda of American Jewry: Jewish integration and survival. But, while they remain on our agenda, the urgency surrounding them has evaporated.

The state of Israel is secure, although the status of the peace talks is uncertain.

The Holocaust fast recedes from memory.

Anti-Semitism is not a significant factor in our lives.

And our acculturation process is essentially complete — we need only note the four Jews who sit on the president's Cabinet, and the two most recent Supreme Court appointees.

The story of the American Jewish community is a story not of failure but of triumph. We are a community that has defended Jews against their enemies, supported Israel, enhanced its political power and provided help to Jews in need. We are activist, pragmatic and superbly organized.

However, having accomplished all this, our communal talents may not be appropriate to confronting the very different challenges facing us in the new century. Having provided compelling answers to questions of the past, we now must deal with an entirely new set of questions, the most dramatic of which is: How do we deal with an intermarriage rate that in the last 30 years has increased by a factor of 10?

But there is good news. At the grass roots, tremendous religious energy has begun to emerge — an openness to religious experience, to study, to religious commitment. We see it in the revival of text study, the thirst for heartfelt worship, and the desire to celebrate community and mark sacred time. We see it in the apparent readiness of Jews to seek God and to create a life of holiness appropriate to such striving.

How do we explain this phenomenon?

Perhaps the explanation is simply that there is a unique Jewish destiny. In times of religious crisis Jews always respond with renewal; historically, we have chosen just such moments to look within ourselves and to discover new modes of spirituality.

Perhaps what we are seeing is a generational phenomenon: Aging baby boomers can no longer postpone the inevitable. Confronting their own mortality, they turn to Judaism, looking for purpose, historical depth and a sense of the sacred.

Perhaps we are seeing results from displaced energy. Without a pressing community agenda, the question can no longer be, "What must I do for the community?" As Leonard Fein has reminded us, the question now becomes, "What will my religious tradition do for me? How will it meet my needs?"

And perhaps what we are seeing is a byproduct of the technological revolution. The fax, modem and Internet create new opportunities, but they are also alienating: They create a pseudo-community rather than real community. Part of what is happening is that Jews are looking for alternatives to Judaism-on-a-screen.

This religious resurgence has elicited a variety of responses, but the Reform movement, the most optimistic of the religious movements, responds with hope and faith in the future.

We look at American Jewry today and we see a community that is physically and financially secure, exercising unprecedented political influence, free from systematic discrimination and anti-Semitism, opening itself to Torah and mitzvah, and beginning to experience a deepening religious consciousness — that senses, in numerous ways, the touch of shechinah. We look at this and say: There are enormous opportunities here.

But congregations cannot just add a program here or there to their arsenal of activities. What is required is a transformational mentality — a new way of looking at ourselves and the Jewish world.

Education is key. If we do not give Jewish children the gift of Jewish competence, there is precious little that we can expect of them. Providing our young with a lively, thorough, and truthful education is the most important Jewish issue today. Virtually everything else that we do is pointless if 50 percent of our children have no Jewish education at all and if most of those who do attend our schools have no Jewish skills to speak of.

How can we expect these children to inherit our Jewish world?

But none of this will work unless we think about education differently. If Jewish education is religious school for children and a few adult education classes, we are lost. Our only hope is to revive the ideal of lifelong learning, creating expectations and opportunities for study for every Jew.

Our only hope is a new kind of congregation, with Torah at the center. Our only hope is a Judaism directed at adults no less than at children — at the very people in their 30s and 40s who are experiencing this resurgence of religious feeling.

All of this is possible. I am encouraged by the results of a pilot project with our seminary, the Hebrew Union College, to help synagogues rethink their relationship with Torah. We are convinced that synagogues are open to thinking of Jewish education in radically new ways. And we are committed to restoring the universal Jewish literacy which was a commitment of every Jewish community since Second Temple times, but which evaporated in the last century.

The renewal of Torah in the life of the Jew is the only route to the renewal of the Jewish people. And the Reform movement is committed to just such a renewal.

While the Reform approach is in some ways unique — we are committed to tikkun olam, the absolute equality of men and women and to an inclusive definition of Jewish boundaries — we recognize that the greatest challenges we face are common to all religious streams: to teach the values of Torah and Jewish peoplehood, to concern ourselves with the spiritual fate of every Jew, and to fortify our shared religious heritage.

There is much wisdom in the words of Daniel Elazar, who suggests that the most important divisions in Jewish life will not be those between the movements, but those within the movements — between the Jews who are committed and those who are not; between those who experience, learn, and do, and those who excuse themselves from the active conversation and the collective argument of the Jewish people.

So religious Jews have much to do — all of us. We are a covenantal people. It was the covenant at Sinai that brought us into being — that married a people to God and God to a people. Judaism is the fruit of that covenant, the precious instrument that will enable us to re-ignite the flame of Sinai and give Jewish life ultimate significance.

We need not surrender to cynicism or despair. We can save our children and preserve our people if we sustain our hope, develop our religious lives, and carry out the work of touching Jewish souls. With new ideas and creative initiatives, we can cultivate the religious energy that is everywhere apparent; we can deepen the faith of our people and re-ignite in Jewish hearts a long-term flame of Jewish commitment.

The writer is president-elect of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.