My love affair with Jewish learning began at an early age. I was an unusual kid who loved Hebrew school from the start. But my classmates didn’t share my affinity and my passion for yiddishkeit. I recall an early high school reunion where a group of old friends gathered around a table in a suburban Philadelphia catering hall. I noticed that all of us at that table had been members of the same Hebrew school class. Thirty-three of us were confirmed together in 1974.  Reuniting, we gravitated to one another as naturally as old family members would. Most notably to me was the fact that of all of the kids who were confirmed together, I was the only one who was Jewishly engaged at all.

Of course, at that point few of us were yet raising children, the entry point for synagogue affiliation for so many people. But still, the complete disconnection from anything Jewish was sadly striking to me.

Today’s Jewish leaders are wringing their hands about the next generation, fearing that the current model of synagogues is no longer appealing to the next generation. While many in my generation eventually found their way to synagogues, their Jewish connections are more tenuous for them and for their children.

There are several new trends responding to changing needs and interests of younger Jews.  One is the popularity of hands-on service work. Tikkun Olam (a kabbalistic term, meaning, “repair of the world”) is the buzzword and its appeal, as an expression of Jewish values, is transforming the Jewish narrative in our day. It has become a key element of this generation’s Jewish identity.

Looking back on my Jewish upbringing (my family’s life revolved around the synagogue), I can’t recall many experiences of going out into the world to help those in need. One exception was the annual Christmas volunteering at the hospital, when it felt like the staff humored us by giving us busy work because they didn’t really need us. In Hebrew School we collected tzedakah, but we had no personal connection to those who received it. It wasn’t so much about needy people; we gave our money to JNF for trees in Israel. We gave as much support as we could to help Israel and to efforts to free Soviet Jews. Jewish peoplehood was our cause.

Maybe that is why my classmates were so disconnected 15 years after our confirmation. In adulthood we entered an open, increasingly diverse world and embraced the freedoms of American culture. Our Hebrew school education had done little to help apply the values of Judaism to our world.  What we needed was Jewish engagement that informed out lives and infused our secular world with meaning.

That is why social justice work is so important.  It is the complement to the study of the ancient Jewish texts and ideas. Jewish texts teach tikkun olam as our responsibility for the world. The mitzvot/commandments are what make the work uniquely Jewish.  Social action infuses our Jewish communal life with ultimate value.

Recently, our synagogue participated in a Habitat for Humanity build sponsored by our community’s interfaith council. The experience was inspiring. Our volunteers spanned three generations. While adults laid flooring and painted, several teenagers did the back-breaking work of digging a ditch. Everyone gave the work their best effort and worked alongside the Habitat client who will soon have a remarkable opportunity to own their own home.  This wasn’t busy work — we knew we were making something happen that will transform lives.

We have traveled to New Orleans to rebuild after Katrina, and we regularly help to feed hungry people in our community. There is so much more we could do, including advocacy work to address the root causes of poverty and need. But our work is a good start, and it is also a living classroom for our children.

Today’s Jewish leadership is worried about the loss of attachment to Jewish peoplehood. I share that concern. But the “service work” trend can strengthen Jewish identity. This generation will, with our help, come to appreciate the value of the Jewish prophetic message to engage in social justice.  That is a powerful answer to the question, “why be Jewish?”

This is what Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan meant when he talked of the value of living in two civilizations — the Jewish and the American. What a blessing that we are giving our children the opportunity to make Jewish learning come to life in this way!

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