Reform Judaism
Reform JudaismFlash 90

The story of the ‘Baby Boomer-Sixties- spiritual pioneers’ must be told.

I believe that a percentage of Arutz Sheva’s current readers are, like me, “American Baby Boomers- Sixties (1960’s) spirituality searchers,“ many of whom eventually ended up in Israel so as to better continue their spiritual renewal project.

My story, I think, is fairly representative of this spiritually pioneering group.

It’s a good and important story. Our story should be understood as a meaningful chapter in the spiritual rebirth of our people (both in America, but primarily in Israel) after the Holocaust, and against a background of massive, ongoing Diaspora assimilation.

Why tell the story of spiritual searching in the Sixties, fifty years after its occurrence?

Why I am suddenly ‘waking up’ and reminiscing at this point in time with the readers of Arutz Sheva ?

I do not have a solid answer. I just know that it is just as important for us ‘survivors of our generation’s Great Assimilation’ (over fifty per cent intermarriage in our generation of Jews) to document our story of spiritual survival as it is for the survivors of the Holocaust to tell their story.

In my case, upon retirement I wanted to do something creative, and thus decided to write a spiritual autobiography, so I could meaningfully explain to my Israeli born children and grandchildren how I went from being an idealistic liberal, assimilated Jew to living a life of Torah in Israel. This was necessary because my path was not similar to the Israeli haredi ‘baale teshuva’ model that my family recognizes from the Israeli media. Also I wanted those of my grandchildren who are haredi educated to think ‘outside’ the haredi box in which they are educated.

My spiritual autobiography is entitled “On the Narrow Ridge of Faith."

In the sixties, we were spiritual searchers. We were NOT ‘baale teshuvah'.

Most readers would term our ‘Baby Boomer-Sixties’ stories the ‘story of a 'baal teshuvah’. But I hate the term ‘baal teshuvah’ because it is inaccurate, misleading and probably condescending.

The term ‘baal teshuvah’ means that at one stage in your life you turned your back on, rejected the truth and ways of G-d’s Torah. And this in no way describes the truth of our lives in the sixties.

More specifically, we were Jewish ‘Baby Boomers’, (meaning we were born, 1945-52 ) immediately after our fathers returned from World War Two. Being third generation Americans all of us still had two Jewish parents and a fair bit of Jewish ethnicity in our blood. Our parents were now beginning to enjoy the fruits of assimilation into American society, and intensely focused on attaining the middle class economic security and the social acceptance that their more immigrant-tainted parents did not attain.

In contrast to our parents, we Baby Boomers grew up with a wonderful sense of unlimited optimism about our future. The expansive, post war American affluence, and subsequent economic successes of our parents, let us be free to begin to worry about and pursue ideals (almost always liberal) about what would constitute a more just and perfect society (a long time, traditional Jewish hobby). Our youthful innocence then encouraged us to become heavily emotionally invested in these liberal social ideals. And for most of us, this very personal investment in liberal social ideals was the real beginning of our spiritual searching. Our youthful liberal idealism can be retroactively understood as an agnostic expression of spirituality.

And we had to desperately search for spirituality, because Jewish America in the fifties and mid sixties was a spiritual wasteland

Please believe me that in the mid-sixties American Judaism was a complete, absolute spiritual desert. And it was a very lonely spiritual desert for a young searching Jew.
And please believe me that in the mid-sixties American Judaism was a complete, absolute spiritual desert. And it was a very lonely spiritual desert for a young searching Jew.

I know that for those readers who grew up Orthodox in the sixties my description here sounds very subjective and exaggerated. But it is really true. To support my argument that mid century American Jewry was a spiritual wasteland I will bring four historical facts.

One, in the mid sixties only 3% of American Jewry kept shabbat, kashrut and family purity in an Orthodox manner.

Two, the vast majority of Orthodox synagogues were still mainly populated by men over 50 who spoke English with a Yiddish accent.

Three, in the mid sixties there were no Chabad houses, no yeshivot for new comers, no outreach programs, and minimal literature on Torah literature in readable English. There was as yet no Art Scroll.

Finally, almost all Orthodox rabbis, other than Shlomo Carlebach, did not know how to effectively communicate with the Jewish college population.

But, against all these odds, Jewish Baby Boomers started spiritually searching. Three thousand year old spiritual genes were in our blood. We started with the spirituality of liberal social values, and eventually, after disillusionment with liberal social ideals, we began to, drop by drop, taste the honey of G-d’s Torah. We did not ‘return in teshuvah’. Rather, we trekked a lonely, very uphill road to our personal Mt. Sinai.

A case study of spiritual searching: the chronology of my own spiritual trip

I present now a factual chronology of my path of spiritual searching which I believe is representative of the paths of my fellow Jewish Baby Boomer spiritual searchers. Numerically we were a tiny, tiny minority of our Jewish generation, but we had an historic impact way beyond our numbers.

Childhood -The facts: I was born, 1947, into a liberal, assimilated, very emotionally supportive, middle class family. My father was a doctor and my mother a teacher. There was no observance of mitzvoth, other than a Pesach Seder, High Holiday attendance in a Reform synagogue, Sabbath challah, sometimes Hanukkah candles, and a Reform bar mitzvah.

My childhood and adolescent spirituality expressed itself in liberal political idealism: avidly identifying with America in its Cold War with the Soviet Union, campaigning at the age of fourteen for John Kennedy, tutoring black children from the poorer side of town, (parallel to the Sixties Black civil rights struggle) and being an activist in a YMHA sponsored high school youth group led by veteran, Old Left, Jewish social-political activists. All of these experiences greatly inspired and spiritually ignited me.

College years -At Cornell Univ. (1965-59) my liberal spiritual idealism continued to evolve and became heavily nourished by intense involvement in

a) a very serious four year study of political philosophy that explored definitions and boundaries of ‘truth’, ‘life’s purpose and meaning’ and ‘social justice’ and

b) serious involvement in the anti Vietnam War movement, and the accompanying New Left, student counter culture.

My father suddenly died at the end of first year at Cornell. Israel’s Six Day Victory sparked an historical interest in my Jewish heritage.

In my third year I had a growing inner sense that these three expressions of agnostic spirituality (social liberal idealism, political philosophy, and the New Left counter culture) were spiritually shallow, and could not ultimately satisfy my inner spiritual longings. So I began to ‘excavate’ my Jewish spiritual heritage in order to unearth new sources of spirituality.

On my own, in an almost anarchic manner, (remember, there were no Jewish ‘outreach’ resources in the late ‘60’s) I began to put on tefillin and say shema most mornings. As an ‘act of kashrut’ I decided not to eat treif meat together with milk (there were no kosher facilitates on campus). I also began to very regularly daven in Conservative and Orthodox minyans on Shabbat.

On Shabbat I would regularly read elementary Jewish religious literature, and avoid recreational activities and academic studies. These sincere, individualistic, anarchic, Jewishly illiterate experiments in Jewish spirituality were small in size, but long term in meaning. I did all of this spiritual experimentation on my own, alone, without any partner or consultant. This single-minded, go at it alone, experimentation in Jewish spirituality became my trademark over the next seven years.

Reform rabbinical school and a year in Israel: In order to continue my Jewish spiritual search and obtain a more formal Jewish religious education I decided to forgo going to law school, and decided to attend the HUC Reform rabbinical school in New York City. HUC quickly became a spiritual dead end. In its dry, academic atmosphere I felt very alienated, lonely and lost. So after one futile year at HUC I decided to continue my spiritual search in Israel for a year (1970-71). In Israel I discovered my Jewish spiritual Promised Land.

During this year in Israel I did not become Orthodox, but my Jewish spiritual heritage, suddenly became alive and tantalizing, and began to speak to me. My most important spiritual adventure was that Israel gave me, for the first time in my life, an opportunity to daven in a minyan with young religious families to whom religious observance was ‘just’ a natural part of their life .(In America, I knew of no Orthodox synagogues where young people my age actually enjoyed davening).

In Israel, I also met other young American Jews –usually from a Conservative backgrounds -who were similarly in Israel to strengthen their Jewish heritage, and simply to ‘enjoy being Jewish’. Visiting religious and historical sites spiritually inspired me, as did several weeks of volunteer kibbutz agricultural work. I attended two Orthodox programs for ‘baale teshuvah’ but left because I was not yet ready to give up my sense of autonomy and accept the authority of Jewish religious law. Finally, I began to understand the inner sense of Shabbat just by walking the serene streets of Jerusalem on Shabbat.

1971-72 year of transition. I came home from Israel spiritually homeless. I spent another year at HUC but was there in body but not in soul. On one hand I was very alone in my searching, but at the same time I greatly benefited from an ongoing maturity in my self awareness that the loneliness induced. Seeking a Judaism that gave space to self creation I became involved in the nascent Chavurah movement.

And then I met Rabbi Riskin. He presented Orthodox Judaism in a charismatic manner and spoke in the liberal language of my searching generation.
The Chavurah movement was composed of young Jews, most with somewhat traditional backgrounds, who sought to make their Jewish religion become alive and personally meaningful by integrating the student counter culture and individual autonomy with traditional Jewish religious practice. I participated in chavurah Sabbaths and educational retreats. I learned a lot and grew spiritually. Their non acceptance of the authority of Jewish law simultaneously both enticed and confused me.

By the end of the year I was still alone, spiritually enriched, but also very spiritually fatigued. For four and half years I had been ‘inconclusively’ searching and growing in my Jewish religious tradition.

And then I met Rabbi Riskin. He presented Orthodox Judaism in a charismatic manner and spoke in the liberal language of my searching generation. He sincerely reached out to me (and to many others of my background). And at this moment some inner voice told me to take his hand and cross the bridge into a Judaism that commanded belief and behavior. I think that voice arose out of both a need to finally make some commitments, and because I inwardly felt that the Chavurah movement, (like secular liberalism and the New Left counter culture), was just not serious and deep enough to truly answer the existential challenges of modern life. I did not know whether Orthodox Judaism could provide better existential answers, but it had become time to try.

1972-73 my first year living and learning as a ‘self annointed’ Orthodox Jew: Rabbi Riskin graciously arranged for me to spend the year learning Torah studies in the Orthodox academic/classroom of a Yeshiva University program for students who had minimal Jewish religious education. The learning was ‘too spiritually dry’ but I greatly benefited from it. It was a ‘good start’ for me in Torah learning.

I also became active in the innovative Orthodox Chavurah that Rabbi Riskin helped imitate. For the first time in my life I found myself with a group of searching, spiritual and intellectual peers, committed to an Orthodox way of life, with whom I felt a lot in common. It was a very exciting, encouraging and comfortable feeling. By the end of the year I felt good and mature about my commitment to an Orthodox path of spiritual growth. The inner voice of the self awareness and self understanding that had matured within me during my years of spiritual struggle gave me the ‘thumbs up/high sign’ on this decision.

1973-76 living as an Orthodox single and becoming a professional social worker : I then spent two years getting a masters degree in social work (a profession I went on to practice with much enjoyment for the next thirty eight years). I also bravely struggled living and beginning to date as a Manhattan based Orthodox single during these three years. I also continued to be an active student of Rabbi Riskin.

G-d gave me the wisdom, to use these experiences to successfully continue my intertwined growth and in spirituality and self understanding. I increasingly understood that a meaningful relationship with G-d must grow out of an honest, biting, self awareness with oneself . I believe that this is also one of the core teachings of Rav Soloveitchik.

August 19, 1976 The spiritual search of this life stage came to a very happy and fruitful ending with my marriage to Hindy who blessedly grew up in very believing Orthodox and Bnai Akiva home. And we made aliyah on July 24, 1978.

Israel post script: Probably sometime next year I will figure how I want to write the spiritual autobiography of my blessed time living in Israel. Right now I can just say that working and bringing up a family in Israel has given my life more spiritual meaning than I could have ever imagined when I was in the midst of my spiritual struggles fifty years ago. The best proof of G-d’s grace is that my wife and I are humbly blessed with a large , productive family all living in the spiritually pioneering settlements of Psagot, Tekoa, Yizhar, Hebron, Ovnat, and Ir David.

Summary: Fifty years later what is the meaning of my personal story of Baby Boomer-Sixties-spiritual searching?

In the personal dimension , some people decide to adopt a Torah way of life as a response to great personal suffering and crisis so that the Torah community and way of life can provide an immediate, all encompassing answer of direction and support in their time of distress.

The loneliness and penury of my spiritual search simply reflected at the time the greater story that non-Orthodox American Jewry was tragically travelling on a speeding train, hurtling down the tracks to...a suicidal self-destruction...of Jewish life.
Some healthy people do experience sudden, convincing, encompassing revelations of the truth of the Torah, and in response feel compelled to make a revolutionary turn about in their lives and become Torah observant.

And thirdly there is the example of my multiyear, incremental, painstaking, lonely education into, and incorporation of, the existential and spiritual truths of both G-d’s Torah and one’s own soul. Fifty years later, in our current hyper, instant, very short attention span, relativistic culture, the lesson of my story of slow, incremental spiritual growth has become only more relevant and important.

And concerning the history of Jewish America, what can I say? I grew up in a very happy supportive assimilated liberal American Jewish 1950’s family with three brothers. Today, sixty years later, I am the only one to give my parents Jewish grandchildren.

The loneliness and penury of my spiritual search simply reflected at the time the greater story that non-Orthodox American Jewry was tragically travelling on a speeding train, hurtling down the tracks to great economic security, to great acceptance and participation in American secular life, and also to a suicidal, self destruction of an independent Jewish life that justifies commitment and belief.

In 1970-71 I had to come to Israel for my Jewish heritage to become ‘alive and existentially meaningful for me’.

In 2021, the fact that only in Israel can the Jewish people create a meaningful, truthful spiritual existence has become so much more obvious and certain.

Dr. Chaim C. Cohen, whose PhD. is from Hebrew U., is a social worker and teacher at the Hebrew Univ. School of Social Work, and Efrata College. He lives in Psagot, Binyamin.