I often argue that if the Jewish educational question of the last generation was “How to be Jewish?” then the Jewish educational question of this generation is “Why be Jewish?” Moreover, Jewish communal organizations and institutions, particularly synagogues, have to drill down even further. They have to ask, “Why be Jewish in the context of this community?” In other words, what benefit is there to participating in this community? How will your life—the life of your family and children—be made more meaningful as a result of participating in this community? These are some of the questions I asked of communal leaders with whom I met recently in Dayton, OH.
These questions are also critical to the issues relevant to engagement. For me, engagement may lead to affiliation; but affiliation does not necessarily lead to engagement. This is another of the myth-shattering statements that I often share with communities and institutions as I work with them to reach those less-engaged Jews, as well as unaffiliated interfaith families, both of which are segments of the largest movement of the North American Jewish community—the unaffiliated, the unengaged.
I invite you to enter the dialogue about “why be Jewish?” Here is where I would like to start the conversation about engagement (and you can quote me, or quote us at JOI): “We want to increase participation in the community because there is value to individuals when we help them find meaning in tradition, comfort in community, and wisdom through Jewish education.” So, how do you answer the question “why be Jewish?”