Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Author and Scholar, to Assess State of American Jewry April 2

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How do you begin to assess the state of American Jewry?

That’s the question Rabbi Joseph Telushkin ponders as he prepares for a presentation at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am on April 2 at 4 p.m. as part of the Harry and Evelyn Silver Scholar Program. His free presentation is part of the synagogue’s 70th anniversary celebration.

Rabbi Robert S. Leib is looking forward to Telushkin’s address, which will be followed by a Q&A. Telushkin came to mind as a potential speaker as Leib was reading the scholar’s latest book Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History.


“He seems to be a rabbi obviously steeped in the Jewish religious and literary tradition on the one hand, but an individual who has a compelling story to share with this modern generation,” Leib said, calling Telushkin a “man of all seasons.”

“It’s more than likely, knowing the contemporary American Jewish community as he does, that he’ll be able to address the subject in a fascinating way, and I’m sure we’ll be able to learn from him but at the same time challenge him as well with questions to ask.”

Telushkin is ready.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin will speak at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am on April 2.

“In all of these sorts of discussions,” Telushkin said by phone in New York, “there’s nothing really superior to the opening line of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ There’s a famous teaching of the Talmud that since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy exists only among children and fools. When people make prophetic statements about Jewish life in America, they often tend to be wrong because there’s a tendency to always just think whatever’s going on will necessarily be how it’s going to continue.”

Telushkin’s mother, for instance, grew up in New York in the 1920s and thought she was witnessing the last generation of Orthodox Judaism in America.

“Very few people would have anticipated, for example, the renewed viability and strength and power of Orthodoxy in contemporary American Jewish life. Or the openness, and greater openness in some ways, of the tradition in the Reform community,” he said. “There are strengths and weaknesses in all of the movements. In a sense, that’s what I want to analyze.”

He’s also thinking a lot about language as he revises an earlier book, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well.

The book deals with two Jewish laws: lashon hara, how we speak about others, and onaat devarim, how we speak to others.

It’s a topic that might even be more timely today.

“I had written the book in ’96, and certainly I think issues of words and misuse of words is very important now in America. And also because I think there’s a genuinely interesting and stunning Jewish insight,” he explained, citing a rabbi-defined lashon hara as a “mean-spirited truth.”

“By definition, lashon hara is true,” he added. “It’s true, but it doesn’t mean other people need to know it just as we all have things about ourselves that we wouldn’t want people to know unless there’s a reason for them to know it. That’s the Jewish insight I want to make more widely known.”

When the book was originally published, he tried to start a National Speak No Evil Day, which he hopes to revisit.

“The atmosphere in the United States today has gotten very volatile,” he said, “and people are continuing to be hurt with words, and I sort of felt I wanted to give the book another chance.”

Language was also a key topic in Rebbe, which took him five years to research and write.

The inspiration for the book came from an article he wrote on the 12th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing. He realized then that there was more to Rabbi Schneerson than he thought.

“I realized also, as I was writing the article, how unusual a leader he was because as a general rule, when a charismatic leader dies, the movement usually starts to really decline,” he said. “But here, the Rebbe had died and … the movement has continued [to expand]. I realized I was dealing with a rare sort of leader, one whose influence grows after his death, and there haven’t been that many very successful leaders like that in Jewish life.”

He also learned of the Rebbe’s influence on positive psychology.

For example, Telushkin said, the Rebbe tried to influence an Israeli hospital to change its name from the Hebrew words for “Home of the Sick” to “House of Healing.”

“He said the goal of the hospital was to make people better,” Telushkin said. “When somebody feels they’re in the ‘home for the sick,’ that in itself is psychologically bad.”

While Telushkin is known for his books, he has also left his mark in the arts world, writing episodes of TV’s The Practice and Touched By an Angel. For Angel, he received a request from actor Kirk Douglas, who said to him, “Before I die, I want to be in a movie in which I put on tefillin.”

Telushkin rose to the challenge.

“I always wanted to write about Jewish life in a lot of different ways,” he said, “not just by doing nonfiction.”

As he usually speaks on topics such as that of “words that hurt, words that heal,” or even about Jewish jokes and humor (another subject of one of his books), speaking on the state of American Jewry will be a challenge — but there are insights he hopes to impart.

“What’s always been important to me is that in Judaism and Jewish life, knowledge really is power. One thing that all the movements do have in common is a commitment to Jewish study. But Jewish study has to be presented in a way that people can understand these terms and understand how they can apply [it] to their lives,” he noted.  

“I’ve always also been committed to things like lashon hara, translating Jewish ethics into daily behavior because we don’t want run the risk of Judaism just being a religion that people practice either on the Sabbath or on holidays,” he added. “How do we make it a daily part of our behavior? So that’ll basically be what I’m focusing on.”

Contact: mstern@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740

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