The Curse of Being Jewish in New York City
Niles is the author or editor of nine books, including the award-winning Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith, and his writing has appeared in many publications, including Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The Forward, and Moment. He has been featured and interviewed in Time, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Jerusalem Report, The New York Observer, New York Magazine, The Jewish Week, and Beliefnet, as well as on domestic and international television and radio.
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I think all of lower Manhattan has changed dramatically since 9/11, but specifically the Jewish community of lower Manhattan which is the community that I’ve served for over a decade now, has changed in that more and more communities have popped up. More and more Jewish men and women, I think if you dig more deeply, are yearning for something more. Maybe 9/11 triggered it, maybe other things triggered it, but I think A) there has simply been a lot of growth in terms of Jewish organizations and synagogues since 9/11. Really over the last decade, but I think they’ve also changed in that many of these communities are very different than traditional, established congregations or institutions that have been around for a long time. They tend to be a little more willing to think out-of-the-box, they tend to be less centralized and hierarchical, they tend to be much more egalitarian and consensus-based, and they tend to really be focused on meeting people where they are, whether it’s in terms of garb, or in terms of beliefs. So, it’s pretty interesting. You know, the one major area of concern that I have is that sometimes they also involve a kind of watering down of the religion that to me, as a Rabbi, is unfortunate and unnecessary.
I think by watering down the religion in order to make it more accessible to people, and I think there’s nothing wrong with making religion, and Judaism in particular, accessible to people. We want that. I want that. I try to do that, but I think sometimes it becomes a slippery slope between making something accessible, meeting people where they are, and pandering; pandering to people.
Sometimes you’ll see programs and approaches to worship that, in my view at least, seem to be pandering and really trying to reach the lowest common denominator and offering a kind of Judaism-light. And that I think doesn’t really serve anybody well.
In my mind, Judaism is there really as a way to help us transform ourselves. And as a Catholic colleague of mine in the FBI once said about our job as clerics, but I think the same thing applies to faith. I think the task of any good religion or religion when utilized in its best way is meant to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable. And I think a lot of us become too complacent. And that's when religion, like for me the martial arts can come in and really challenge us to become better than who we are. And I think that's a key value to religion that is sometimes overlooked.
Question: What are the problems facing the Jewish community today?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I think some of the challenges facing the Jewish community today are similar to those facing many faith communities today because of the recession. I think there are very serious and sometimes dire financial challenges. One of the ways that I think that is most problematic is that so many of the foundations of organizations that historically has funded more innovative projects and more out-of-the-box interesting initiatives are now, because they have lost so much money, being forced to basically prop up organizations and institutions that I think should have gone away a long time ago. So there are a lot of innovative ideas out there and a lot of projects that are simply not getting off the ground because there is no money to fund them. And I think that's a real problem. So that would be one thing that comes to mind.
Question: How can we get away from that redundancy and lack of innovation?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I think that we just have to keep love alive. Who did that as part of his campaign? Al Sharpton? Keep love alive. I think we just have to keep on our toes. You know we have to stay vigilant and again this is a concept that is applicable to the martial arts too. We have to always be conscious and aware that whenever we feel complacent and relaxed there is inevitably going to be a challenge around the corner that we don't see. So complacency is something that I think is a very dangerous thing. We always ought to be striving to be better; we always ought to be working hard to improve what we have because there's always room for growth.
Kafka, one of my favorite authors, says that slothfulness, laziness, is the cardinal sin of the human condition because from that sin all others emanate. And I've never forgotten that teaching. He writes about that in one of his journals and I think it's a real -- he's hitting on something very profound that when we become lazy, when we become complacent, when we rest on our laurels, whether we've won a Nobel Prize for established a new congregation that is when we are at our most risk for not evolving, but devolving.
Question: What does it mean to be a Jew in New York today?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I think to be a Jew in New York today is to realize that we had been blessed with so many options out there, there are so many different kinds of congregations, some many different kinds of organizations, almost all of the national Jewish organizations have their headquarters here in New York. So in some ways that is a real blessing. You have everything from the most extreme right-wing orthodoxy to the most extreme left-wing secular humanist communities.
I think that's also the curse of being Jewish in New York City. There are so many options and flavors that it can be overwhelming. I happen to think that's one of the blessings and curses of New York City in general, whether it's going to the theater or film or museums, there is just so much you can't possibly do it all. It's almost like Martin Seligman's experiment of learned helplessness where dogs in a laboratory, no matter what they did, were hit with an electric shock and eventually they just stopped moving at all. I think we're so bombarded by stimuli in New York whether it's in the arts world or in the world of religion that it can be so overwhelming that you don't do anything. And so I know a lot of Jews in New York who don't belong anywhere because it's just so overwhelming and they just say, well I don't need it. It's always there if I needed. And then in the end they never take advantage of it.
So I think it's a mixed bag, it's a mixed blessing I think in New York; lots of options, which is great, but so many options that it can sometimes be paralyzing for some people.
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