“The Promise of Total Return”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parashiot, Nitzavim and Vayeilech, are among the final parashiot of the book of Deuteronomy and contain the last messages that Moses delivers to the people of Israel before his departure from this world. The theme of the apostasy of the Jewish people is reiterated, as well as the punishments that G-d will mete out to the people as a result of their abandonment of G-d.

It’s been said regarding the Jewish community in the United States that our grandparents prayed for a melting pot, but what we’ve gotten instead is a meltdown! The staggering losses to assimilation is not surprising since most Jews today are descendants of Jews who have abandoned the observance of mitzvot and Jewish ritual for 4 or 5 generations.

Although the new Council of Jewish Federation Jewish Population statistics have not yet been published, the outlook appears frighteningly bleak. In 1990 the Jewish Population Study indicated that there were about 5.6-5.7 million Jews in America. Approximately 2 million of these Jews no longer identify as Jewish. However, when asked if their mothers or fathers were Jewish, they acknowledged having a Jewish parent. Yet, they have nothing at all to do with Jewish life.

Another 2 million of the respondents replied that they were Jewish, but they too had absolutely nothing to do with Jewish life–they didn’t belong to a synagogue or Temple, didn’t give to the United Jewish Appeal, or belong to a Jewish Community Center or Jewish club.

Finally, of the 2 million Jews who do identify as Jews and are affiliated, 85% of the 1.5 million non-Orthodox Jews attend synagogue only 3 days a year or less! Additionally, 1 million Jewish children under the age of 18 are being raised as non-Jews, or with no religion whatsoever.

The one new statistic that has emerged from the year 2000 study is that 1.4 million American Jews have converted to other faiths. Unfortunately, these devastating statistics only confirm the notion that Jews who abandon religious practices for 3 or 4 generations cannot survive as Jews. And yet, despite all this doom and gloom (which, of course, is just history repeating itself), the Torah predicts, in Chapter 30 of Deuteronomy, that the Jews will return.

Verse 1: “V’hay’yah kee ya’voh’oo ah’leh’chah kol ha’d’varim hah’ay’leh, ha’bracha v’hak’lalah…vah’hah’shay’vo’tah el l’vah’veh’chah b’chol ha’goyim asher hee’dee’cha’chah Hashem eh’loh’kech’chah shah’mah.” It will be that when all these things come upon you, the blessing, the curse…then you will take it to your heart among all the nations where the Lord, your G-d, has dispersed you. Verse 2: “V’shav’tah ad Hashem eh’loh’keh’chah, v’shah’mah’tah b’ko’lo, k’chol asher ah’no’chee m’tzav’chah ha’yom, ah’tah ooh’vah’neh’cha, b’chol l’vov’cha oov’chol naf’sheh’cha.” And you will return unto the Lord, your G-d, and listen to his voice according to everything that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and will all your soul. Verse 3: “V’shav Hashem eh’loh’keh’chah et sh’voot’cha, v’ree’chah’meh’cha, v’shav v’kee’betz’chah mee’kol hah’ah’mim asher heh’feetz’chah Hashem eh’loh’keh’chah sha’mah.” Then the Lord, your G-d will bring back your captivity and have mercy upon you. And He will gather you in from all the peoples to which the Lord, your G-d, has scattered you.

It’s hard to believe that in the midst of this seemingly unremitting despair, the Torah gives us hope for return. Ladies and gentleman, I have good news: There may very well be a rather simple way to reach many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Jews and bring them back.

I have often said, only half in jest, that for the price of a chicken you can make a Ba’al Teshuva–you can bring a Jew home! This little aphorism became eminently clear to me when I met Marc Weiner, the Ba’al Teshuva comedian and heard the story of his first encounter with Shabbat.

Weiner says that it was a hot summer evening in New York City. Humidity was a dreadful 95%. Walking down Amsterdam Avenue, he saw a modern looking building in front of him, and realized that it was a Temple or synagogue. Since it was Friday, he was quite certain that there must be evening services. Although he was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, he figured that he would go in briefly just to cool off. Well, Wiener enters the building, and opens the sanctuary doors just at the moment that the congregation was about to conclude the L’chah Do’dee prayer. The congregation had turned to the door, and was in the process of bowing to welcome the “Sabbath Bride,” singing “Come my beloved, come my bride.”

As Wiener walks in and sees everyone bowing to him, he says to himself, “Boy this is some friendly place.” Wiener takes a seat, and the person next to him says, “You must be new!” Weiner responds, “How did you know?” The congregant says, “Well, you’re holding the prayer book upside down!”

At the end of the service, the young man asks Weiner if he would like to join him for a Sabbath meal. Wiener, a little nervous, thinks that he is being propositioned, so he declines. “Don’t worry,” says the young man, “There’ll be other men and women at the dinner. We’ll have a great time.” Weiner agrees to go.

They exit the synagogue, and Wiener asks the young man where he lives. “20 blocks north,” he replies. Weiner sticks out his hand to hail a taxi. The young man tells Weiner, regretfully, that since it is Shabbat he can’t take a taxi. Says Weiner, “Well I just went inside to cool off! I’m not going to walk 20 blocks and get overheated again.” The young man persuades Weiner by saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll walk slowly.”

They walk 20 blocks north, and, to Weiner’s great chagrin, the young man lives on the 19th floor of a high rise tower! Weiner enters the elevator, but the young man says to him, “I’m sorry, we don’t take elevators on Shabbat.” Weiner says, “You Jews have some perverted sense of what a day of rest is! You just got me to walk 20 blocks. There’s no way I’m going to climb 19 floors!”

In desperation, the young man says to Weiner, “Ok, I got an idea. We’ll stand here in the elevator, but you must promise to keep your hands at your sides. Promise me that you won’t touch any buttons! If someone comes in and lives above the 19th floor, we’ll walk down a few flights. If the elevator stops below the 19th floor, we’ll walk up a few flights.

Both men stand in the elevator, waiting for someone to enter. One potential passenger peeks in and says, “Oh! Must be broken,” and walks away. Then a little old lady enters the elevator, sees the two men just standing there, and asks, “Where are you guys going?” They say, “Wherever you’re going, lady.” She starts to scream, “Help, police!”

Then a man comes in with a shopping cart full of laundry and presses “basement.” They sit through two wash cycles and a dry cycle. He returns and says, “How nice of you guys to wait for me,” then presses “Lobby.” He didn’t even live in the building!

Finally they traipse up 19 floors, and Weiner is really angry. When they enter the apartment, Weiner notices that everyone is holding a glass of wine. In order to feel more part of the party, Weiner quickly picks up a glass of wine and says, “I’d like to make a toast to the host.” They ssshhh him and explain that he’s interrupting the Kiddush–the sanctification over the wine. Then someone announces something that he’s never heard before. “It’s time to wash,” they say. Weiner smells his underarms and says, “I’ve showered today. What do you want from me?” Amused, they say, “No, it means that it is time for the ritual washing of the hands before eating the bread, the challah.”

Weiner enters the kitchen and waits on line. He notices that everyone in front of him waiting to wash has a ring in their mouth. So Weiner turns to the woman behind him and says, “Excuse me, ma’am. May I borrow your bracelet to put in my mouth, so I can do this ritual correctly?”

The story goes on and on, but the truth of the matter is that this is what we call in Yiddish “a bittere gelechter.” This tale of Marc Weiner’s first Shabbat experience is really a bittersweet tale. Frankly, we can change the lives and destinies of many Jews by inviting them to our Shabbat tables. We can change the course of Jewish life in America. In order to accomplish this, we must begin to see ourselves as ambassadors for Judaism. And unless much of the committed community sees itself in that role, then we are lost.

With G-d’s help, may we soon behold the complete redemption of our people and the fulfillment of the prophecy of this week’s parashiot, the promise of the total return of the people to G-d, and the restoration of the Jewish people to the land of Israel.

May you be blessed.