September 24, 2023 |

Out of Touch

When I was working at Hillel in the late 90's, my boss, Richard Joel (now the president of Yeshiva University) was struggling with a difficult problem. He had been so successful at revitalizing the image and experience of Jewish campus life at Hillels that his major donors - among them Michael Steinhardt and Edgar Bronfman - were pressuring him to expand his focus. They wanted him to also work on the immediate post-college years, which they thought of as a black hole into which college graduates dropped into, even after having had engaging and empowering Jewish experiences during their college years. They were too old for Hillels and youth groups, but not ready for leadership positions in the "adult" Jewish institutions, even 'young leadership'. Richard did not want to engage in "mission creep" (which can distract from one's core mission), but his success stories were -- at least in theory -- falling off the cliff into the badlands of Jewish life, which suffered from a distinct lack of institutions and community. Ironically, the Manhattan Jewish Experience was a twinkle in Rabbi Mark Wildes's eye at this time and his "mission" was to engage young Jewish professionals in their 20's and 30's, exactly the demographic under discussion[1].

Neither job is complete. There is still much to be done to inspire the hundreds of thousands of Jewish undergraduates out there and much to be done for the Jewish young professional singles and young couples out there. Shira and I have seen both demographics up close, as former members of the OU's Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at BU Hillel and now working hard to inspire and educate YPs at MJE in NYC. We are not likely to run out of work (there are over 100,000 young Jewish professionals within shouting distance), and hopefully not out of support and partners in the community.

There is another important point here. In the stewardship of young American Jews through their lives, there is a constant need to pass the baton from one niche demographic to another. If high school youth groups and day schools are working their magic, but Hillels are not; or if Hillels and MJE's are envisioning and inspiring, but the synagogues and Federations are not, etc. etc. the whole thing unravels. The Jewish community needs "continuity" of a different kind, a constant tending of the young cedars of our people so that they grow tall and strong and grow deep roots. It's not enough if we water them in some years and let them wither and die in others. It is due to the prescience of our leadership that we have as many success stories as we have and their shortcomings and failures (and sometimes, rachmana litzlan[2], negligence) that we still need so many more.

Even Moshe rabbeinu, our greatest teacher, suffered from this daunting reality. With the help of God, he took a downtrodden bunch of lowly slaves, redeemed them, rehabilitated them, took them out of Egypt and miraculously through the sea and desert and brought them to the foot of Mount Sinai. He taught them, counseled them, set up courts, tolerated their constant discontent, and went up to get the entire Torah, where he sat for 40 days and 40 nights, without, food, water or sleep. But when he leaves them alone, all hell breaks loose. You know, golden calf, broken tablets, civil war, imminent Divine retribution, possible end of the Jewish people etc.

The Torah does not clearly explain what happened after Moshe left to go up the mountain that caused the Israelites to think it was a good idea to build the Golden Calf. Moreover, it is baffling to imagine that a people that had been through so much with God and Moshe could so quickly do a 180 and start worshipping idols again. Two subtle hints in the text suggest that (at least part of) what they were missing was the reassuring presence and touch of Moshe himself. First, the text says that the people saw that Moshe was "bosheish" (Sh'mot 32:1) to come down. Rashi and Onkelos translate this as he "delayed" his descent[3]. In other words, he stayed away a little too long, leaving the Jewish people untended and unattended[4]. The other hint is that they built the egel (the calf) "that he should go before us" (ibid.), i.e. they were looking for someone to lead them, to show them what came next, where to go from here.

Even though they had seen many miracles, they still needed to be tended to at every moment if they were to stay on the path of Hashem. Mutatis mutandis, the Exodus was like their high school youth group and traveling through the desert was their Hillel experience and coming to Mount Sinai and getting the Torah was like joining a community after college. But without the NEXT step and the reassurance that they were being led into it, they were all too ready to jump ship and embrace the first competing contemporary ideology that came along. This presents Jewish educators, leaders and participants with a very tall order. We do not have the luxury of being there for our community some of the time. If we leave potholes in the road, too many Jews will fall into them and never come out the other side.

In Jewish law, there is a concept known as hesech ha-da'at, which means "a lapse in attention". In short, this concept says that - depending on the specifics -- if you are saying a blessing or doing a mitzva and you stop concentrating or turn your attention elsewhere, your blessing and mitzva are not good[5]. The action has to be uninterrupted to be complete. When Moshe went up the mountain, he had, on some level, hesech ha-da'at from his people and they certainly interrupted their concentration on him. We cannot afford to allow the Jewish people to pass out of our sight and concentration at any point in their lives. It invites disaster ala the Golden Calf.

In truth, this applies also to each individual Jew. Jewish law is very constant. The obligation to pray, to recite the Sh'ma, to remember the exodus, recur each day without fail. Shabbat comes every seven days and there is no week that we just "take off" from Shabbat (isn't that an ironic idea?) There are even mitzvot t'midiyot, "constant mitzvot", like believing in Hashem, that are incumbent upon us at every moment.

At the front of every synagogue hangs a light that recalls the menora in the times of the Temple. It is called the ner tamid, the eternal, or perpetual, light. Just like the menora was lit every single day without fail, the perpetual light is left on in our synagogues, suggesting permanence and constancy in the Jewish people. This was one reason why the Maccabees were so determined to re-light the menora right away, not as a grand one-time gesture, but to begin a process that would last. The Jewish people have never taken a 50-yard dash mentality to our existence. We are more the ultra-marathoning types and so we are devoted to consistency, repetition, constant care, attention and diligence. If we had hesech ha-da'at for one generation, that would be enough to invalidate our entire past and future.

It is a difficult task, to always be on, to never let any part of our lives or our people fall through the cracks, to never stop paying attention. May we rise up to its challenge and merit the ultimate reward to redemption. Shabbat shalom!


[1] People also tend to pressure MJE to "mission creep", transferring success at helping singles in their 20's and 30's to older age groups as well.
[2] Trans. may God have mercy
[3] Based on the word, Rashi's interpretation (based on gemara Shabbat) that he was supposed to "ba b'sheish", return within six hours of the 40th day. They thought (incorrectly; they had miscalculated) that he was late.
[4] It's true that Aharon was still there, but literally led every institution they had: prophet, king and priest. Yitro had to convince him to even set up appellate courts, though Moshe remained as the Supreme judge.
[5] e.g. if you interrupt while saying "shema yisrael" to say Shabbat shalom to a friend, you would be required to go back and repeat Shema again. See Mishna Berura Orach Chaim 63:13.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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