Photo courtesy of Rabbi Wolpe
Entering Rabbi David Wolpe’s office in Sinai Temple was a surreal experience for me. The last time I came to his office, I was 13 years old and with my parents; we all discussed the significance of my first Jewish milestone — my bat mitzvah. We spoke about my interests, my passions, and my future, but most importantly, we talked about the meaning Judaism has in my life and how I would embody Jewish values through various aspects of my life.
Now, eight years later as a third-year UCLA student, I was granted the privilege of interviewing my rabbi of more than 15 years. This experience brought our relationship full circle: it was now my turn to ask the questions.
Rabbi Wolpe is not simply my own personal role model; he is an influential leader in Conservative Judaism both in Los Angeles and nationally. Newsweek named him the “Most Influential Rabbi in America” in 2012 for his incorporation of both traditional and progressive Jewish ideals, and the Jerusalem Post named him one of 50 of the world’s most influential Jews that same year. Rabbi Wolpe has spoken at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s National Convention, the Democratic National Convention, and countless other social and political forums. He has also made extensive contributions to prestigious news platforms, such as the Jewish Journal, Huffington Post and Al Jazeera. Rabbi Wolpe’s influence may be attributed to his ability to fluidly communicate his breadth of knowledge of contemporary Jewish life in a sophisticated society to all ages. His modern perspective on Jewish culture and community integrates social media and pop culture, making him the perfect candidate to discuss contemporary Jewish youth and our future in American Jewish society.
Over the last year, Rabbi Wolpe has held numerous workshops at Sinai Temple that discuss the relationships young adults have with Judaism and how being Jewish affects most aspects of their lives — observant or not. Among his most popular courses (which we discussed in our interview, and I have personally attended), is one titled “5 Mistakes of Dating.” With nearly 700 in attendance, this workshop gave those in their twenties and thirties an esteemed rabbi’s perspective on the subject of dating in the 2015 Jewish community. Leaving the workshop I felt incredibly inspired and could see the connection between my traditional Jewish values and the modern dating world.
My intent for this interview was to ask Rabbi Wolpe his perspective and insight regarding the relationship between college-aged students and Judaism, and how this relationship affects our community’s future. Hopefully, his wise words and personal anecdotes will grant you all a similar feeling to the one I experience after attending his workshops.
Alexandra Marvizi: At what point in your life did you feel you connected to Judaism?
Rabbi Wolpe: Well, my father was a rabbi so I grew up in a very Jewish home. Although I did not plan to be a rabbi until right before I went to rabbinical school, I think I always felt, even when I had doubts about religion — and I did — and had doubts about G-d — and I did — I always felt part of the Jewish people. And sometimes I felt even more a part of the Jewish people when I wasn’t around Jews, strangely.
AM: Do you think that when you were in college, you felt your connection to Judaism was challenged or was fading away?
RW: What I felt when I was in college — which [is] not what I recommend, or [is] necessarily true for others — was [that] it was my chance to take a break from the intensive Jewish world in which I had grown up. Not only was I a rabbi’s kid, but I always went to a Jewish day school. And even when I went to college, I went to Penn and I roomed with my best friend, who was also the son of a rabbi. So I went off to the University of Edinburgh [in] Scotland, and I really took a break for a year. I didn’t do almost anything Jewish, and that allowed me the space to evaluate what my Judaism was and wasn’t, and what I believed and didn’t. So, for me, in a weird way, college was not where I discovered my Judaism, but where I had some distance from it that allowed me to come back to it more on my own terms.
AM: Interesting you say that, because I’ve noticed that its very common for young people to take a step back from participating in their Jewish community after their bar or bat mitzvahs. And it seems like the younger generation feels like they’ve done enough up until that point in their lives, and are through with Hebrew school and continuation programs.
RW: It’s not unusual. I think that part of the problem is […] if you study Judaism until you’re thirteen, then you only get a kids’ version of it, and then later on when you’re an adult, you reject the kids’ version of it. Which makes sense, just like you would never read another book if the last book you read was Good Night Moon and you never got beyond that. The trick is, how do you get people to study Judaism seriously as adults? One of the reasons I’m going to teach again next year at UCLA — I’m teaching a class with Professor Carol Bakhos — is because I want to be able to teach adults, and most of the people who took [Judaic courses] when they were kids haven’t had that chance. That’s part of the reason, and the other I really think is Judaism, for most kids — as it was for me — is part of what your parents make you do. You go to college and it’s the first time that your parents don’t make you do stuff, so you throw out all the stuff they made you do and later you have to come to it to some extent yourself.
AM: Do you think that would be one of the reasons there is an absence of young people in synagogue?
RW: I think there is an absence in part because there is a certain flight from what they grew up with. And also because the synagogue was designed by a generation that had a very different experience with Judaism and life. I mean, really, human beings are human beings, but social media and Internet have changed the world so much [and] so quickly that when I think back to when I grew up, and I see how my daughter is growing up, it’s a very different experience. So that’s part of it, too.
AM: Now, many young people — as do older people — think about their phones or people who aren’t necessarily with them, instead of concentrating on whom they are with. How do you think that has heavily changed our Jewish community?
RW: In some ways, it’s made it better and in some ways worse. The part that’s better is that the information is there, the knowledge is there and, as you say, you can communicate with people all over the world with the touch of a something in your pocket. It’s amazing and it’s wonderful and great, especially for families that are scattered. […] The disadvantage is that you don’t have the community and the human connection and people don’t feel as much of a need for it. That’s a problem because when your principal means of interacting with someone else is through your phone, it’s — when I was your age and younger, they used to say that the reason that teenagers would spend so much time on the phone was that it gave them intimacy without danger. In other words, […] it felt safe because you were far away even though you were talking to them. Texting does that even more — breaking the forced intimacy that is a big part of what community is about.
AM: Another topic I wanted to ask you about is regarding young people leaving Shabbat early or not even attending Shabbat with their families because they want to be with friends.
RW: It’s normal. As I said, it’s hard to create community. […] Among other things, there were just fewer things to do when I was growing up. You could stay home and watch TV, you could play outside, or you could go to synagogue. That was it, those were your three choices.
AM: Synagogue obviously won. [Laughs]
RW: Yes! And by the way since I grew up in the East, lots of times going outside was not an option, it was raining or whatever. So [going to synagogue] was farther up on the list of possibilities. And also, when people live further away from synagogue and they’re not Shabbos-observant, there’s a lot more they can do. They can go shopping or go to lunch or whatever; all of it, makes synagogue attendance challenging and hard to do. So that is something all rabbis and community leaders think about and try to deal with.
AM: It is also becoming more common for young people to leave Shabbat dinners early. Do you think it will become normal for people to just leave after dinner and spend less and less time at Shabbat and synagogue? Do you fear that this could be the future?
RW: Of course I do fear it and what I wonder is that there are three possibilities: things will stay as they are, or they’ll fall apart, or they’ll change. And my guess is on the change, because I think that the way people observe holidays and so on, someday have to transform for a different generation and different practices. I’m not sure what that will look like, but that’s what I suspect will happen.
AM: To change gears a bit: Rabbi, you started some workshops such as “5 Mistakes of Dating.” What are the main things that you want people to take into consideration when they date in college?
RW: First of all I want them to be careful. To be careful both in a literal sense — just yesterday I went to a seminar on sexual violence on campus — and also I want them to be careful with their emotional and spiritual health. And not to underestimate the impact that it has to be involved with somebody physically, on your emotions and your spirit. The second thing is I want people to take joy in this [time], like [through] dating and discovering both yourself and others; it should be a pleasure and a joy. And if you have too much pressure, [like] “You have to get married at age whatever,” or “You have to have kids at age whatever,” it makes [finding the right person] a chore and a goal and not a joy. In general, I hope that people, with all the appropriate care that you have to take, […] will approach discovering other people and being open with other people as something joyous and wonderful, because it is. Especially on a campus, you have no idea what you can learn from the variety of people that you can talk to. And then of course I have a strong prejudice for Jews to marry Jews, but that’s a whole separate question. [Laughs]