Aleph’s View: Jewish Apathy and Billy Joel

Aleph’s View: Jewish Apathy and Billy Joel


Rabbi Patrick Aleph
Rabbi Patrick Aleph

According to the last Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta survey, two-thirds of Jewish Atlanta is unaffiliated, and only half of the Jewish community attends Jewish communal events. In fact, being Jewish is “very important” to only 56 percent of the Atlanta Jewish population.

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A lot of people, including myself, look at these alarming statistics and feel a sense of low self-esteem. We spend a tremendous amount of time trying to figure out how to get Jewish people involved in the Jewish community.

We ask ourselves, “Why the apathy? Why doesn’t the Jewish community understand the importance of Jewish institutions?”

This is a topic, I fear, that will never go away.

So…what do I think is Jewish Atlanta’s issue? Well, to borrow a line from Jewish songster Billy Joel, this city is suffering from “a New York state of mind.”

Fully 70 percent of Jewish Atlanta is from somewhere else, and the majority of these new folks come from some pretty Jewish areas: New York and New Jersey. That fact might lead one to think this population would be “super Jewish,” but here’s the catch:

Of that “new-to-Atlanta” Jewish community, 80 percent doesn’t affiliate. To put it bluntly, the Jewish folks who move to Atlanta are not looking for Jewish community. It’s that simple to understand!

Now, I’m not suggesting that this population is running away from the Jewish community, but they are certainly not running toward it. Of course, this is certainly not true of everyone; plenty of people from somewhere else who move here do join our community as active participants and often as Jewish innovators.

But that is a small minority.

So…what do we do about this?

Well, typically, we create programming. If Jewish folks are not going to traditional Shabbat services, the answer is to create a new kind of service.

Are people in their 20s and 30s not being served? Create more events, and make sure they are free. This is being done to some degree, and it does work, but it only engages a fraction of the Jewish community.

Thus, perhaps a better question than “how do we get people to go into a room and be Jewish?” is to ask ourselves, “what are people doing at home, Jewish or not?”

Keep in mind that fundamentally, Judaism is a religion of the home and the family. While we measure our success based on warm bodies in seats at events, a better measure is the long-term impact of home-based Jewish learning – fond memories of Jewish moments and a connection to something transcendent.

Of course, the problem with this model of Jewish communal engagement is that it is almost impossible to measure. We can track ticket sales, we can count donations to Jewish organizations and we can add up synagogue memberships.

What is harder but truly a much better measure of our success as a community is a mother teaching her children how to light Shabbat candles, or a grandfather singing Yiddish folk songs from his youth.

In my experience, people who are actively engaged in Jewish communal life are the people who have deep and fulfilling memories of this kind of Judaism.

Now, I’m not at all sure how we achieve the goal of fostering a Judaism of the home – perhaps at the expense of the community model of Jewish life – but I’m certainly open to suggestions.

Rabbi Patrick Aleph was ordained by Rabbinical Seminary International and is the founder of Punk Torah ( In his next column, he explores whether the future of Judaism rests on fear and what concert promoters can teach us about making Judaism matter.


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