Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Where Are The Jewish Susan Boyles?

On April 11th, a star was born.

On that day, a frumpy looking 47 year old woman named Susan Boyle, (who was single and unemployed), auditioned for the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent”. She took the stage to condescending glances and derisive smirks; however, by the time she finished singing, she got a standing ovation. Within hours Susan was a YouTube sensation, with the video of her performance totaling a hundred million hits in just a few days. This unknown Scottish woman was actually an exceptional singer whose talent had been overlooked for decades.

The Susan Boyle story reminds us how often we let talent get wasted. All too often, jobs and opportunities are awarded to people based on appearances, connections and relationships. A Harvard degree is now valued not for it’s superior education, but rather because it allows students to comfortably network with the corporate and political elite. All too often talented outsiders find it difficult to pursue their dreams, and the Susan Boyle’s of the world are often left in the cold.

The question the Jewish community has to ask itself is this: where are the Jewish Susan Boyles? How many Jews have been frozen out of our community because they have neither the connections nor resources to be welcomed in?

The culture of Torah scholarship was once profoundly anti-elitist; indeed, the Mishnah exhorts Rabbis to “raise up many students”. The Talmud is filled with tales of outsiders who become significant Rabbis. Shemaya and Avtalyon, the teachers of Hillel and Shamai, were converts. Rabbi Akiva was an ignorant shepherd. Most dramatically, Reish Lakish was a common criminal who got invited into the world of Torah study by the greatest Rabbi of his time, Rabbi Yochanan. The rabbis of the Talmud saw enormous potential in every human being, and insisted on opening the door to “non-traditional students”.

In one passage in the Talmud there is a cautionary tale about the dangers of elitism. The great scholar Hillel was a poor woodchopper who would save his last pennies to pay admission into the study hall. One cold winter day, he simply didn’t have the money to pay the admission fee, and Hillel was turned away by the guard at the door. Hillel decided to listen to the lecture though a window, and in the process nearly froze to death. Luckily, the Rabbis inside spied his image through the window, and saved his life.

This passage has a simple message: if you barricade the doors to the study hall, you’ll leave great Rabbis like Hillel out in the cold. Hillel, a poor, unknown woodchopper, ended up being the leader of the Jewish people.

Today unknown Jews without status or connections are often left out in the cold as well. They remain at the periphery, alienated by a country club atmosphere that pervades the Jewish community. Some are excluded because of money, finding it difficult to pay for day school tuitions and synagogue memberships while struggling to pay mortgages. Others feel excluded by Jewish institutions that are insular and unwelcoming. When an outsider wanders in, they are made to feel like an intruder, as both the layman and professionals show little interest in greeting new faces.

Sadly, our community pays dearly. Years ago, a friend (“Donna”) told me of an experience she had in a synagogue. “Donna” had gotten curious about Judaism, and decided one day to enter her local synagogue. There, she was completely ignored by the congregants, as if she were invisible. “Donna” left the synagogue alienated, and refused to go back to synagogue for years.

It’s important that we take Donna’s experience to heart. “Donna” is an outsider, a Jewish Susan Boyle. And as task force after task force ponders how to fix the problems of Jewish continuity, we need to think about the Jewish Susan Boyles. Oftentimes, these task forces issue exotic and expensive recommendations. In actuality, a critical element in solving the problem of Jewish continuity is free: we simply need to make our institutions more welcoming. We need to say hello to visitors, and include them in our community. We need to invite in the Susan Boyles of our community, and make them feel at home. Who know? Maybe we’ll be welcoming in the next generation’s Hillel.

If we want to find the Jewish Susan Boyles, the answer is simple: they are at the entrance of every Jewish institution, waiting for someone to smile and open the door.


Unknown said...

Very interesting and thought-provoking

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz said...

thank you!