The AIPAC conferences are designed to be powerful calls to action for activism on behalf of the US-Israel relationship, but it was at one of those conferences several years ago that I and a roomful of rabbis benefited from an even more powerful call to action for the religious Jewish future.
Hundreds of rabbis who had brought synagogue delegations to the mega-event were being treated to a special session where two leading political journalists would discuss the Obama administration’s Middle Eastern policies. The first speaker, beginning with the admission that he could not resist the opportunity to sermonize to 600 rabbis, saluted us on engaging our congregants in the important work of AIPAC but proceeded to note that we needed to do much more. “It is great that you have all these people come here to Washington to build the Jewish state, but it is far more crucial that you encourage them to build their own Jewish homes.” He described how on the Jewish lecture circuit, leaders and activists would often introduce him to their adult children whom they had brought to the event, children who were usually quite obviously not Jewishly involved. As he saw it, the parents had made the tragic error of focusing their Jewish engagement on activities in ballrooms and convention centers instead of in their own kitchens and dining rooms around a Shabbat and dinner table.
It was a striking and unexpected call to action, and it met its mark. After the session, I approached the journalist, who was not personally Orthodox, and expressed appreciation for his courage and insight. We spoke for a few moments, and he shared his concern for the Jewish future of his own children, then in university. While he and his wife had raised them around a Shabbat table, he wondered if they had integrated their Judaism enough to make it indispensable to their future lives.
His insight reflects the ultimate Jewish call to action expressed in the twice-daily pledge of allegiance to G-d that we refer to as Keriat Shema:
These words that I am instructing you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them to your children and discuss them when you are at home and when you travel, when you lie down to sleep and when you awaken in the morning. Bind them as a symbol on your arm, place them as an ornament between your eyes, and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.1
For Judaism to stick, it cannot be a hobby relegated to a corner of our lives; it must be a way of life, an all-encompassing experience. Ki heim chayeinu . . .
The power of the immersive religious experience was deployed from the very beginning of Jewish history to establish and maintain our national and religious mission. Our connection to Torah was forged in the surreal environment of the desert where we lived arrayed around the House of G-d with our every physical need miraculously addressed, leaving us free to focus solely on G-d and His Torah. Subsequently, those charged with maintaining and building our connection to G-d and His Torah—the tribe of Levi—lived similarly immersive religious lives, liberated from material engagement by the support of the tithing system.2 Our Sages linked these two phenomena when they said that the Torah was specifically given to those who subsisted on the manna and afterwards to those who were supported by the terumah tithe.3
An annual super-immersion experience also provides the critical touchstone for our year-round religious engagement. Achat sha’alti mei’eit Hashem—“There is one thing I ask of G-d, it is all that I seek: to dwell in the house of G-d all the days of my life.” These words from Psalm 27 become our mantra during Elul and the Yamim Noraim, a time when—as any employer of observant Jews will attest—we basically live in shul. The power of that season spurs our religious growth and refreshes our connection and commitment to G-d, Torah and the Jewish people.
Yet David yearned to dwell in the house of G-d all the days of his life, not only between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Shemini Atzeret. How do we relate to that aspiration? Whether out of a principled desire for engagement and influence or for practical reasons, we become immersed in the world outside of the house of G-d for most of the days of our lives. How can we do that while maintaining and strengthening the centrality of our own connection to G-d, Torah and the Jewish people?
Torah provides us with three strategies to achieve this.
Default Jewish: Surrounded
Immersion defines the participant’s frame of reference from the outside in, positioning the immersed in a conducive or supportive environment. Rambam wrote, “It is the nature of man to be influenced by his peers and friends, conducting himself like the people among whom he lives. It is therefore necessary to choose to live in a community of wise and good people.”4
Our OU-JLIC educators are remarkably successful with the vast majority of their students, but we as a community are unsuccessful with the majority of our students.
While we may idealize personal choice and motivation, we must realistically recognize the level to which we are influenced by those around us. The immersive environment is therefore often the safest choice. The growth of Orthodox Jewish life of every kind is significantly attributable to its immersive Jewish environments. As we do not drive on Shabbat, we locate ourselves in Jewish neighborhoods within walking distance of shuls. We frequent kosher stores, and send our children to Jewish schools, both for their educational curriculum and for the environment rich in Jewish values and friends.
Our environments and social networks should be strategically chosen, crafted and invested in as they build the centrality of Jewishness to our core identity. That core identity—even absent inspiration or personal conviction—plays a significant role in helping maintain our Jewishness and values during the significant parts of our lives that are spent beyond the safety of the Jewish environment.
Nevertheless, a default Jewish identity is profoundly vulnerable. While research on immersive Jewish experiences shows that even relatively brief experiences in total Jewish settings have a lifetime impact,5 where Jewish identity rests on external association alone, it may be undermined by an experience of reverse immersion in an environment hostile or indifferent to Jewish values.
Doing Jewish: Punctuated
A second critical strategy is to maintain a high level of “doing Jewish.” A classic Talmudic debate6 considers whether the instruction G-d gave to Yehoshua that “the Torah not leave his mouth” and that he engage in it “day and night”7 requires literally constant Torah study or whether it is fulfilled by frequent touchpoints with Torah. Jewish identity is strengthened by maximizing those touchpoints through engagement in Torah, tefillah and other Jewish behaviors.
The Sages dramatically affirmed the critical value of punctuating our daily routines with religious activity when they established our current mode of prayer. Until the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah instituted a specific text and schedule for prayers, people prayed whenever and in whatever way they wanted to. The introduction of the siddur was a radical change that arguably rendered prayer one of our great religious challenges. Imagine the delicious beauty of confining prayer to one’s own words during inspired moments! Instead, we now struggle mightily to bring meaning and emotional connection to the regular repetition of someone else’s script.
Evidently the Sages understood the immense value of consistent religious touchpoints. Inspired connection is incredible but also unpredictable. As challenging and dry as regimented prayer may be prone to becoming, there is immense value to beginning, ending and punctuating our days by formally checking in with our G-d, our faith and our values.
Another expression of this can be seen in Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin’s remarkable understanding of Rabban Gamliel’s observation that “yafeh talmud Torah im derech eretz—Torah study is beautiful when it comes together with gainful work.”8 To Rav Chaim, this refers to the person whose mind continues to consider the texts studied early in the morning even while later engaged in his work. Rabban Gamliel understood the danger of sequestering our engagement with Torah study within the religious environment and urged us to bring it into the rest of our lives, punctuating our workdays with it. And while it may have been more realistic and responsible to “think in learning” when work meant plowing a field than it is to do so while engaged in today’s more intellectual economy, taking breaks to “lunch and learn” is a meaningful way to achieve a similar result.
A current initiative called “Toraso b’Umnaso” has the ambitious goal of encouraging Jewish businesses and professional offices to incorporate times and spaces for Torah study and classes within the work setting, providing the dual benefits of uplifting the workplace and punctuating the days of those present with Torah study.
Defined Jewish: Inspired
The ultimate strategy however relies not on external environments or touchpoints but on an engagement with Torah that defines and informs our every other activity in all environments.
This approach may be best illustrated by a classic resolution to a halachic dilemma. We are typically required to make berachot before fulfilling mitzvot, and to repeat the berachah when we return to perform it again after an interruption. Thus, one who made a berachah before having breakfast in the sukkah is required to repeat the berachah when returning to the sukkah for lunch. The exception to this is Birkat HaTorah, the blessing we make before we first study Torah in the morning and do not repeat when we return to its study at any later point during the day. The Tosafists9 raised this question and answered it in the mold of Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, suggesting very idealistically that the imperative of constant Torah study is such that the student’s mind remains preoccupied with it even when not formally studying.
Beit Yosef quotes the Sefer Ha’Agur who suggested a more accessible resolution to this question. The blessing made here is not to study Torah but to engage in its words, la’asok b’divrei Torah. This engagement is fulfilled by taking the words and ideas that we study and using them to inform and define our lives and activities. Our engagement with Torah is continuous and uninterrupted when the Torah we study proceeds to chart our way of life, the way we care for family and community, the integrity we bring to our work, the pleasantness with which we interact with others, and the framework to apply our values to the full array of contemporary issues.
This approach goes beyond the engineering of external environments and support systems and the inclusion of Jewish and religious activity and routines. In this model, our Judaism becomes truly all-encompassing such that we come to “recognize G-d in whatever we do and allow Him to direct our way of life.”10
Ramifications: The Yeshivah Day School Graduate
How can our day school graduates succeed Jewishly and faithfully beyond the immersive Jewish environment of their school and community, when they are not dwelling in the house of G-d all the days of their lives? The same way we do. They must strategically choose and maintain a religiously healthy and supportive environment and social network, punctuate their lives with engagement in Torah, tefillah and other Jewish behaviors, and be both equipped and committed to apply the Torah they learn to the lives they live.
These values and practical strategies lead many to choose to continue their education in a post-high school Jewish institution to both grow their Jewish learning and commitment as well as delay their transition out of an immersive Jewish environment. Many others choose to be educated in a secular university. This is challenging not only due to the change from a Jewish school, but additionally because the non-commuter student on campus lacks a Jewish home and communal environment.
It was for these students that OU-JLIC—the Orthodox Union’s Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus—was created. Presently on twenty-eight university campuses in North America and Israel with significant Orthodox populations, OU-JLIC places rabbinic couples who create a Jewish home on campus—an immersive Jewish environment—within a secular campus environment. These inspiring educators work to help young men and women on campus thrive Jewishly by forming meaningful and lasting personal relationships with them and by facilitating consistent religious touchpoints on campus, including daily minyanim, shiurim and beit midrash learning, and Shabbat and yom tov meals. Most of all, with their dedication to communal service, they serve as role models of an encompassing commitment to Jewish life, ki heim chayeinu.
Our OU-JLIC educators are remarkably successful with the vast majority of their students, but we as a community are unsuccessful with the majority of our students. Unfortunately, the majority of Orthodox day school graduates who choose to continue their education in secular campus environments do not seek out a religious community or mentor on campus and are not punctuating their campus lives with communal Torah study and tefillah. This is hardly a strategy for success, and it is something that all of us—parents, educators, and the community—must move to change. It is vital that the young people entering the secular university environment are the most prepared and committed to deal with its challenges.
Ki heim chayeinu. Torah is not a hobby; it is life itself. When we grant it that place in our lives, both we and the Torah will be strong enough to thrive in any environment.
1. Devarim 6:6-9.
2. See Rambam, Hilchot Shemitah and Yovel (13:12-13).
3. Mechilta Shemot 16:4.
4. Rambam, Hilchot Deiot 6:1.
5. See, for instance, the recent Impact: NPO study of Masa participants, https://www.masaisrael.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Israel-Immersion-Masa-pdf.pdf.
6. Menachot 99b.
7. Yehoshua 1:8.
8. Pirkei Avot 2:2, Ruach Chaim.
9. Berachot 11b, d.h. She’kvar.
10. As expressed in Mishlei 3:6, “Bechol derachecha da’eihu v’hu yeyasher orchotecha.” See Rambam, Deiot 3:3.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.