Our Brightest Days

Rabbi Aaron Miller headshot

This post originally appeared in Roots of Reform Judaism’s The Reform Advocate and is reprinted here with permission.

My office is full of pictures. To my left is a picture of my wife with me at my ordination and another of the bedeken from our wedding. Just beyond is a stream of framed photographs of my two daughters taken over the years. I have photo cubes and photo collages, photos between books and photos behind clocks, but right in front of my laptop is a picture of my grandfather, Rabbi Judea Miller z’l, and my father, Rabbi Jonathan Miller. They are standing next to each other, leaning on either side of a podium. My grandfather is clean-shaven, wrinkled, and smiling behind glasses that I am sure were at the height of fashion in the early ’80s. My father is young, bearded, and looking with intensity into the crowd. Each of them devoted their lives to Reform Judaism and the congregational rabbinate, and each were and are outstanding rabbis of their time.

Two men in coats and ties

Rabbi Judea Miller z’l and Rabbi Jonathan Miller.

My grandfather’s father Dave grew up in Upole, Poland, spent his childhood in a yeshiva, and as a teenager, fled antisemitic oppression for the goldene medina, where he met my great-grandmother Yetta. They lived in New York City, worked in the garment industry, and raised their children to be model Americans. Upon ordination, my grandfather served as an Army chaplain. It was later, as a congregational rabbi, my grandfather found his prophetic voice that marked the great rabbis of his generation. In the 1950s, Judea was at the front lines of the racial justice movement and a fierce advocate of fair housing for people of color. In the 1960s, Judea would put his life at risk multiple times, traveling to Mississippi to fight for voting rights. Judea’s was a rabbinate defined by the struggles of his day—civil rights, the founding of the State of Israel, workers’ rights, the Vietnam War, Soviet Jewry, and immigration. These causes, and many more, captured my grandfather’s fighting spirit. As my grandmother Anita used to say, “Judea never met a cause he didn’t love.”

If my grandfather’s rabbinate was about bringing his congregation to the streets, my father’s rabbinate focused on bringing them back home. My father spent the first nine years as a young rabbi at a large congregation in California, but spent the rest of his career in Birmingham, Alabama. His was a rabbinate of passing down the lessons of the Shoah and miracle of the founding of the State of Israel to a generation who had not experienced these events firsthand. My father led development projects and building campaigns and transitioned his classical congregation out of the High-Church aesthetic that had largely defined Reform Judaism until then. Jonathan was a rabbi in the deep south when the Christian right, and the culture that came with it, was at its peak. Interfaith collaboration was among the most important work of my father’s career. In these decades, the early 90s and aughts, chart-topping boy bands wore purity rings and “What Would Jesus Do” bracelets. First Priority, an evangelical youth group, was far and away the most popular student community at my high school. Religion ran deep in Alabama, and Birmingham’s Jewish community needed a Judaism that was as resonant and identity-defining as the Christianity of our neighbors.

I am a Millennial rabbi, and every time I look at that picture of my father and grandfather, I am reminded how seismically the Jewish community has changed. Intermarriage is now the norm, antisemitism is skyrocketing, and we live in an era of atomization, extremism, loneliness, and profound uncertainty. More than any point in Jewish history, my generation is embracing spirituality and religious wisdom from an array of sources. The doomsayers of Jewish demography are having a field day.

But there is a parallel unfolding that makes me wildly hopeful. The Jewish population is not shrinking—quite the opposite. Since 1990, the Jewish community in the United States has grown by 35%. Surveys show how Jews are the most admired religious body in the country, more people are converting to Judaism than ever before, and a full two-thirds of intermarried couples are now raising their children as Jews. Never in the history of the Jewish people has there been an opportunity like the one before us.

Rabbis Miller & Fischel at a table in front of an audienceWe are at the beginning of another Jewish renaissance. I have seen a deep and unfulfilled hunger for Jewish content among Jews and non-Jews alike. Our success hinges on how we leverage the best digital tools available to communicate the power of our tradition’s 3,500 years of wisdom. But digital outreach, while broad, is also shallow. In our age, content is free, but the discovery of community and belonging is precious. It is in our congregations— some of our country’s last truly communal spaces— where next-generation institutions hold the power to bring millions of Jews on the periphery and Jew-curious seekers together to lead deep and resonant Jewish lives. If we are going to be successful, we need to teach adults who did not grow up with much or any Yiddishkeit to love Judaism like we do, and then to give them the language and passion they need to pass it down to the next generation. To fight antisemitism and pursue equality for all, Jews will need to reach across our current political chasm and empower allies on both the left and the right. In this next chapter of Jewish life, visionary philanthropy will ensure that congregations do not need to overly rely on dues-revenue to dream and to grow. These trends have defined the past twelve years of my rabbinate, and as I look to the decades ahead, momentum is growing faster than I ever thought possible.

“More than any point in Jewish history, my generation is embracing spirituality and religious wisdom from an array of sources.”

We are serving a generation longing to uncover its spiritual wells. While they may not always have the words to say it, most Millennials know that they are missing something essential to living a life with depth and meaning. If we can help bring the largest generation of Jews our country has ever known closer to their spiritual center, if we can light a fire in the Jewish soul, then I know our brightest days are ahead. Rabbi Aaron Miller is Associate Rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington DC.