Purim was out of this world. Approximately 70 people joined together at our “Purim in the Roaring Twenties” themed celebration. Adults and children came in costume, we read the Megillah, we had a full bar featuring 1920s drinks, Chavie’s mouthwatering delicacies nourished us as usual, Walt the Magician entertained the kids, and the creative balloon decorator beautified the room. This year we also hired Jeff Applebaum, a Jewish comedian from Northern California, to do a comedy show for our crowd.
I’m sharing this not just to give you a report, though I know that many of you enjoy hearing about Jewish life out in the wild west, but to talk about the importance of having fun in being Jewish. As Yidden we know how to daven and how to learn Torah. We have zest in fulfilling mitzvos and celebrating yom tov. We are exceptional at doing chesed. But with all that, somehow, for too many of our Jewish family, the idea of “fun Judaism,” “joyful Yiddishkeit,” or “kosher laughter” seems impossible. Too many Jews, especially young souls, feel like they need to seek entertainment outside the walls of our communities and outside the framework of halachah. They can’t imagine that we can be Jewish, Torah-observant, and let loose with unadulterated simcha at the same time.
I heard about Jeff from a colleague in Roseville, California. I e-mailed him, we chatted, and we booked the date. He did a full hour routine, and the crowd, me included, was plotzing; we couldn’t breathe due to roaring laughter. I haven’t laughed like that in ages. He was 100% kosher—no profanities or grotesque topics, no inappropriateness whatsoever, just funny jokes about topics that are neutral—and the crowd, from the right and the left, the religious and less religious, the older and the younger, all found him to be absolutely hilarious. Instead of thinking they needed a “comedy bar” to find laughter, a place that will make fun of holiness and modesty, make fun of religion and malign segments of humanity, they now know that there’s an alternative that is OK even in a shul and that can be funny without being vulgar.
I thought about it a lot after the Purim celebration because I’m always thinking about what is making so many of our Jewish youth leave the confines of Torah and mitzvos and choose lifestyles and environments that are antithetical to our beautiful way of life. Why would a young woman from Crown Heights shed her modest clothing and choose to be an immodest model among people who don’t value her at her essence and instead see her as a mere body? Why would a young man from Lakewood, who has a brilliant mind for a blatt Gemara and the Rishonim, drop it all and convince himself that being a secular attorney is somehow more valuable than being a frum businessman who learns the daf in the morning and Chassidus in the evening?
Like all human beings, I, too, have struggles, doubts on occasion, questions for Hashem all the time, but it doesn’t lead me, even remotely, to dropping the depth of our faith, the brilliance of Torah, and the bond that connects me, and all of us, back to Har Sinai. Yet, I have dear friends, classmates, people whose friendship I cherish who have done just that. They have made the decision to choose Halloween over Purim, Solstice over Sukkos, and New Year’s with alcoholic parties over the solemnity of Rosh Hashanah.
Of course, the answer is multifaceted. There are experts like Rabbi YY Jacobson, Rabbi Manis Friedman, Rabbi Shais Taub, Mrs. Dena Gorkin, Rabbi Yeshi Ghoori, Rabbi Benny Zippel, and so many others who do amazing work in this field and have some answers to understanding why. Yet, in my humble opinion, there are two key issues that plague our communities and push our youth in that direction: (1) We aren’t listening to the cry of the child. (2) We are making Judaism too law-and-order like and not fun.
Let me explain.
This week’s double Torah portion is Vayakhel–Pekudei. Chassidus explains, and the Rebbe, zt’l, emphasized, that when these two parshiyos come together it seems oxymoronic. Vayakhel means “gathering,” representing the gathering of the Jewish people by Moshe and the collective togetherness in donating to the building of the Mishkan, and Pekudei discusses the specific numbers focusing on the gift of each individual to this process. Is it about togetherness or individuality? Is it about the community or the person?
The truth is that both are correct and can be fused together to create the wholesomeness of our community. There is an invaluable aspect of Jewish life that is communal. There is the general fabric of our Jewish society that is woven together by the Torah and its Author; the fabric is made up of the unbreakable foundations that make our Jewish communities beautiful places of holiness, kindness, and love. Yet, there is an equally invaluable part of Jewish life, and that is the individual, the specific person created “in Hashem’s Image,” with a unique neshamah on a unique journey, that needs to be individually nourished, pampered, and guided, like the words of Shlomo HaMelech teach: “Educate a child according to his own way.”
When we lose one or the other, G-d forbid, when we lose our community structure and become a bunch of lonely individuals, or we lose our individuality and become a blob, a mass, without any recognition of the individual neshamos that make up the community, then we’ve lost track of how Am Yisrael works. So, issue number one that chases so many of our own away is that they don’t feel heard, they don’t feel like anyone understands or even cares about their personal struggle and story, and, sadly, too often, the ones who misunderstand them are the ones closest to them—parents, siblings, grandparents, and their teachers.
Yet, the second issue is just as significant, and that is the lack of fun in Judaism. A life of halachah should feel freeing, because structure is a most healthy form of freedom. David Brooks of the New York Times once wrote that “Freedom without structure is its own slavery.” So yes, we have structure, and that shouldn’t be felt as a burden but rather as a gift. If children learn hilchos Shabbos only from hearing someone screaming “Muktzah!” 12 times on Shabbos, it won’t excite them about Shabbos. When I see my kid coloring on Shabbos, my instinct is to say, “Muktzah!” But a much better approach is to ask if they want to read a fun book on Navi or parashah or even a book about colors, taking their attention off the “muktzah” item without screaming the word.
If Pesach makes us so anxious that our kids feel choked by our chumros and don’t appreciate the freedom embedded in the matzah and the royalty embedded in the wine and reclining, then we have failed. If a child loves camping in the wilderness but doesn’t enjoy the sukkah, something is off in how we are offering Sukkos. If a child thinks it’s only through alcohol that one can find joy on Purim, it’s because he doesn’t see our excitement in the story of the Megillah and the four mitzvos of the day. I have a friend in Pittsburgh who goes with his family on Purim morning to volunteer at a soup kitchen and then delivers those meals to the families in need. That’s how you teach a child the special and worthwhile mitzvah of matanos l’evyonim.
When our children don’t feel the warmth, joy, love, camaraderie, and inspiration in the mitzvos, something isn’t right. Either we aren’t living that way ourselves—they see we are treating it as a burden, they hear us complaining too often about this mitzvah or that Jewish custom and it rubs off on them—or we are doing it right but somehow there’s a disconnect; they just aren’t in touch with their neshamah and need even more love. If we won’t spend the time, the agonizing hours to hear them and hold their hand in their struggle until, with Hashem’s help, they start their journey back to Torah, we shouldn’t be surprised if they aren’t interested in coming back.
We must role model for our children that we know how to laugh, how to enjoy life, how to love, how to celebrate, and how to relax, or they will think that our life of Torah is a horrible choice. No, we don’t ever break even the slightest aspect of halachah, but if they only see us davening and never see us horseback-riding or white-water rafting, they will think that the world is full of fun, but not available for Jews.
Let’s reverse the trend, let’s build our Vayakhel, our beautiful communities, while giving each child his or her Pekudei moment of individual attention and personal guidance. It makes all the difference, and our people will be in a much healthier place until we merit the moment that Yeshaya HaNavi prophesizes: “You will be gathered up one by one, O children of Israel,” with the coming of Mashiach.
Rabbi Chaim Bruk is co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. For comments or to partner in our holy work, e-mail email@example.com or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.