The first time I heard about priests molesting alter boys, I was angry and deeply distressed. These so-called “men of the cloth” – “men of God” – broke every rule in The Book. They violated ethical, moral, and legal laws. They took advantage of mere, unsuspecting mortals. And worse, they abused the power of their “anointed” positions and destroyed communities’ sacred trusts. I secretly was relieved that “this” didn’t happen in the Jewish community.
Yeah. Right. The first time I heard about a rabbi embezzling from his congregation, I was furious. Then, when I heard about a rabbi getting caught with child pornography on his office computer, I was aghast. And when a rabbi was entrapped by NBC’s Dateline on “To Catch a Predator,” I was embarrassed. But, by the time I recently heard about the two rabbis – teachers – at Yeshiva University who sexually abused students, I simply sighed and shook my head. I no longer was surprised by the all too familiar news of members of the clergy – Jewish and non-Jewish – committing crimes against fellow human beings…and God.
I grew up in a generation that, like those before mine, had tremendous respect for its religious leaders. While we often didn’t agree with their viewpoints, opinions, or tactics, we deferred to their level of knowledge and understanding. They had “access” to information that we didn’t have. We trusted them to serve God and selflessly tend to us – their flock. Today’s generations, however, are not so trusting. They know better. They are openly critical, skeptical and cynical. They want and expect more. Can we blame them?
It’s obvious to everyone that rabbis, pastors, priests, preachers, etc. are just people. They are not super-human or somehow better than the rest of us. They are not necessarily “holier than thou.” We reluctantly accept their myriad of human weaknesses, shortcomings, and faults because we assume they voluntarily entered their fields with honest and honorable intentions to make a difference in our lives. And, let’s face it…they have tough jobs. In Judaism, by way of illustration, synagogue rabbis are often expected to wear the hats of: educator, sermonizer, author, pastor, counselor, social activist, emcee, head schmoozer, Torah reader, service leader, singer, CEO, youth advisor, mashgiach (overseer of the Kosher kitchen), programmer, community leader, fundraiser and chief legal advisor. I know that doing one or a few of these jobs exceedingly well is possible, but all of them? No way!
We can appreciate the notion that clerical jobs are demanding and stressful. We even can understand that dealing with challenges presented by congregants, members of the larger community, and other realities of life can stretch a religious leader’s coping skills to a breaking point. But, while most members of the clergy do not commit heinous crimes, many resort to behaving badly in other ways. For example, I have personal knowledge of rabbis who lie, gossip, steal sermons from the Internet, openly berate staff, have affairs, publicly malign colleagues, have temper tantrums, and act in numerous self-promoting and self-serving ways. Amazingly, they either don’t care or naively think their behaviors go by unnoticed. We have a right to expect and demand more of our religious leaders.
As a result of all of this, and due to the times in which we live, the world is changing. The age of global consumerism, immediate access to information, “pay as you go” capability, personal possession of technology, increased secularism, and the rise of individualism have changed our society. Combined, these realities offer gateways to knowledge and ways of living that are dynamic and ever-evolving. They give us – the customers – flexibility and control over the choices we make. In turn, they are forcing organized religious organizations – and the people who lead them – to change the way they do business; especially the methods they use to attract, engage, and retain members.
Here’s an interesting tidbit. The population of the metropolitan Atlanta area is 5,457,831. There are about 3,480,480 Facebook users in Atlanta (we are the second most “wired” city in the nation). According to simple math, this means that almost sixty-four percent of people who live in Atlanta have a Facebook account. Comparatively, the same geographic area boasts a population of over 120,000 Jews. Less than thirty percent belongs to a synagogue. Why? Because memberships are expensive; services are boring; few rabbis motivate; and synagogue ritual practices are not dynamic or exciting ways of being part of a community or expressing one’s Judaism.
So, today’s younger Jews are creating and/or looking for new ways to identify and connect Jewishly. They expect their experiences to be affordable, easily accessible, and “on demand.” They want them to emulate their social networks and be in sync with their personal interests. They need to “see it” to “believe it.” They demand value. They will pay for what they use. They refuse to be preached at. They want to be included in the discussion.
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One of my favorite authors, Naomi Ragen, writes fictional novels about fact-based injustices committed against Orthodox women. (She herself is an Orthodox Jewish American who’s been living in Israel for the past twenty-five years.) I heard her speak at an event a few years ago. During the Q&A session, she was asked by a member of the audience, “Given the horrible treatment of the Orthodox women you write about, why haven’t you abandoned Orthodoxy?”
Naomi responded, “I refuse to give up on the good, the beautiful, and the valuable aspects of my faith just because others choose to twist, abuse, and distort it.”
I hope I never lose my appreciation of all that is wonderful and meaningful in my religion. I am grateful that my brother is a rabbi whom I trust, respect, and call upon when I’m in need; and I know that my family and I are always welcome in his synagogue. But, I call upon him and all other religious leaders to live up to the values and standards that they’ve committed to espouse. Only with leadership that, while human and flawed, is pure in its intent, dedication, and focus will our religion attract new generations and thrive in the future.