Rabbi John Rosove
Rabbi John Rosove

‘Liberal Rabbi’ tells Jewish millennials why Judaism should matter to them

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When Rabbi John Rosove and his brother moved their mother out of her home four years ago, they came across never-seen letters from their father while he was a Navy physician stationed in Honolulu in 1942 — before his sons were born. The discovery was a revelation.

“My father died when I was 9 years old,” Rosove says. “He was 53 years old. There were no records of his life, his values, his hopes or aspirations. I had a hole in my heart for his wisdom and legacy.”

He wanted to make sure that his sons Daniel, 32, and David, 27, would never feel the same void, so he started writing them a letter. But as he did, Rosove began thinking more broadly about their generation, and he realized he had much more to say. That’s how he ended up writing a book, “Why Judaism Matters: Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to His Children and the Millennial Generation,” a guide for young adults on how to live an emotionally connected Jewish life.

Rosove has been a senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles since 1988 and is a former rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, where he will appear on Feb. 23 to talk about his book.

As Rosove started thinking about the project, two important Pew Research Center studies were on his mind. The first, from 2013, found more than half of Jews younger than 30 identified with the culture but not the religion, also known as “cultural Jews.” The second was a just-released study that found the divide between Democrats and Republicans over Israel was at its widest in 40 years.

9781683367055_CVRoffset.inddRosove’s 132-page book, written in the form of letters to his sons, makes a broad case for a Jewish life for liberal, progressive young adults who can’t relate to tradition. Subjects covered range from love, sex and marriage to creating a Jewish home, Jewish identity and faith, why Jews should care about Israel, intermarriage and forgiveness.

Rosove says baby boomers and seniors seem to find the book compelling, although his target audience — as the title signals — is millennials.

“I’m worried about the drifts,” the author says. “I’m worried that in the past seven or eight years, the identification of Jews under 30 with a religious denomination went from 47 to 53 percent who say they are ‘just Jewish.’ I don’t know what that means. Do they culturally identify as Jewish? Ethnically identify?”

Addressing young adults and taking them seriously, Rosove says, is affirming and helps them to see how they can be Jewish and hold on to liberal values, from both prophetic and rabbinic traditions.

“Jewish tradition is a guide, not a command,” he explains. “However Torah came to us — I believe it was divinely inspired — I take Torah seriously, but not as a commanding presence; rather, as an inspirational one. Liberal Jews need to know what the tradition is, that you can take ancient text and glean from it. There is the Torah of our traditions, and the Torah of our lives.”

Rosove, who serves as national chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, says a relationship with the “triad” of Judaism — God, Torah, the people of Israel — is critical.

Fitting that triad into a millennial culture can be challenging, he admits. The rabbi knows competition for their attention is fierce. He also knows young adults rely on social media for their news and are less likely to read books than his generation. He shares that upon receiving a copy of “Why Judaism Matters,” his son David, a digital media content producer (Daniel is a program director at Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger), remarked favorably on the brevity of each chapter.

“That’s part of what we’re dealing with,” the rabbi says.

Still, “millennials turn into older people. Many are married and have children. They want that old-time religion.”

As he awaits the publication of his next book, “Why Israel and Zionism Matter,” Rosove is pleased about the impact of “Why Judaism Matters” so far.

“Judaism has something say to us today,” he says. “It can be an anchor and a guide.”

Reflecting on his father, Rosove says, “I can’t imagine what life would have been like had he lived. I’m almost positive that I became a rabbi because of his absence. It was an attempt to find wisdom and a legacy. My kids can read their grandfather’s words. Their kids will do the same. If you know where you came from, it’s easier to know where you’re going. Passing the Torah is more than a physical act. It’s about what we leave to the next generation.”

Dinner and talk by Rabbi John Rosove, 7:30- 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 23 at Congregation Sherith Israel, 2266 California St., S.F.

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.