Sometime between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the typical rabbi slips one or more not-so-subtle messages into the High Holy Day services.
Perhaps the rabbi will remind the throng that the doors are open year round or note that it's usually easier to find spaces in pews. Everyone laughs, because they've heard this before. But once the 10-day holy season has ended, as it did Wednesday, many of the worshippers vanish -- until next year.
The problem is that so many Jews center their faith on a few rites and seasons in synagogues and temples, said Ron Wolfson, director of the Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life, in Los Angeles. Instead, more need to embrace rituals and symbols that they can use week after week in their homes.
"What we are dealing with here is a supermarket mentality," he said. "People say, `If I want exercise, I can go to the health club. If I want to buy something, I can go to the mall.' ... Then it's natural to say, `If I want some religion, then I know where to go -- I can go to the synagogue.' "
Obviously, Jews are not the only people who recite this American credo. Catholic priests face this issue every Christmas Eve at midnight mass. Preachers everywhere struggle to smile at vaguely familiar faces on Easter. However, Jews face a dizzying list of bleak statistics and puzzles of their own -- especially those linked to intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews and their "assimilation" into the fragmented patterns of urban life.
Wolfson is convinced the key breakdown occurred at home. As more families shed Jewish traditions, the emphasis shifted to Jewish groups and spiritual "professionals." The result, beginning in the 1950s, was an explosion of growth in big institutions. Millions began to commute to Jewish life.
"Pessimists will say that if things keep going the way they're going, Jewish life will all but disappear," he said. "Optimists will say that we'll struggle along somehow. ... But here's the big question: What are we going to do?"
This question is especially relevant following Rosh Hashanah, when Jews begin a new year, and Yom Kippur, when they face the reality of sin and pledge to renew their faith. Yet millions soon find themselves back at home, facing a familiar maze of careers, pocket calendars and school events, amid the drone of mass media.
Truth is, said Wolfson, many have "no clue how to be Jewish parents." He suggests they start by learning a weekly rite -- the blessing of their children before each Shabbat, or Sabbath.
The simple blessing for daughters includes familiar biblical names: "May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah." But there is a poignant, and very contemporary, message in the blessing for sons: "May God make you like Ephraim and Menasseh." These boys were raised as nobles in Egypt after their father, Joseph, overcame slavery to become a counselor to the Pharaoh. Yet Ephraim and Menassah were given a special blessing by Jacob, their grandfather.
"It's natural to ask, `Who are these guys?'," said Wolfson. "The key is that they had a Jewish father, who married an Egyptian, and they grew up under tremendous pressure to assimilate into another culture -- yet they kept their Jewish identity," said Wolfson. "When you say that to Jewish parents, it rings all kinds of bells. This is precisely the challenge so many face today."
This rite may be embarrassing for some parents. Others may question their right to lay hands on their children's heads and to recite holy words. After all, the prayers end with a "priestly" benediction: "May the Lord bless you and watch over you. May the Lord cause His face to shine upon you ..."
But these words must be spoken many times -- in the home -- if children are going to have strong "Jewish memories," said Wolfson. "Parents must realize that they can get back on a Jewish road map," he said. "You can resume your Jewish journey and take your children with you. But that road has to go through the home."