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Those We Count and Those We Don’t Count

By Rabbi Shalom Morris

The final census of the Torah occurs in Parashat Pinhas. It appears, though, in a peculiar way with a paragraph break in the middle of the pasuk! The pasuk (Bamidbar 26:1) begins “And it was after the plague concluded” then abruptly starting a new paragraph and continuing “and G-d spoke to Moshe…saying.” The ensuing verse then commands the new census. The mepharshim debate the reason for the repeated countings and for the paragraph break.

Ibn Ezra says that the final census was necessary as it was about preparing the nation to finally enter the Land of Israel. Therefore there is a sharp break in the verse to reflect the advent of a new era – a break from the ups and downs of the preceding forty years.

Rashi, on the other hand, specifically connects the count to the preceding plague. Rashi says that all of the Torah’s countings occur following the loss of life, whether Egypt, the Golden Calf, or the worship of Pe’or (see Bamidbar 1:1). According to Rashi, the counting is an expression of love, with G-d demonstrating the preciousness of the survivors. Presumably according to Rashi, the paragraph break highlights that the census was taking place specifically as a result of the devastating plague.

The debate between Rashi and Ibn Ezra reflects two very different views as to the purpose of the count. For Ibn Ezra the count focused on the future, whilst for Rashi it was tied to the past.

This past week the Institute for Jewish Policy Research released the results of their most recent census. The study focused on synagogue membership numbers, calculating the number of Anglo-Jewish households maintaining membership (under 80,000). It also identified these numbers according to community affiliations and drew attention to affiliation trends since the last count in 2011.

Whilst a lot of people are focusing on those trends, the most important number to me is that only 53% of Jewish households maintain a synagogue membership of any kind. That number may demonstrate that nearly half of Anglo-Jewry is disconnected from their Judaism. However, the truth is that they aren’t all actually lost.

I’ve encountered an important phenomenon as the rabbi of Bevis Marks Synagogue. Bevis Marks (est. 1701) was once in the middle of Anglo-Jewry, located just within the City of London and part of the old East End. Whilst today the largest concentration of Anglo-Jews live in NW London, Jews continue to live across the city. In fact, a large number work and study in the environs of Bevis Marks, whilst an increasing number of young Jews live in the surrounding areas too. What I’ve discovered is that many young Jews are deeply connected to their Jewish identity, but choose to remain outside, or on the periphery of established Jewish communities. Some are uncomfortable with organised religion, but many others are simply intimidated by them, either because they don’t know how to participate in a synagogue, or because they feel unwelcome.

As a rabbi outside of NW London, I’m not only concerned with the Jews whom we are already counting, but also with the ones whom we aren’t. Like Ibn Ezra we can focus on those that remain, or we can follow Rashi and see this recent count as a reflection of those that we’ve lost. Those are the Jews that I also think about. But how do we find them?

I believe the answer lies with both Ibn Ezra and Rashi. Like Ibn Ezra, we can’t become preoccupied with the past – we need to be thinking about the future. According to Ibn Ezra, the count was a preparation for the conquest and division of the Land of Israel. The count was about mission and this is what we must do. We need to find ways to engage all Jews where they are at, and to model for them the ongoing relevance, viability, and importance of the Jewish community – not get caught up with silliness. But most importantly we must be like Rashi and love them – respect them. We need to create environments that make those who are unfamiliar with synagogue life still feel comfortable and truly welcomed in our congregations. When we respect others, and give them the space to explore our communities on their own terms, they will increasingly find their ways to us and to the Torah.

Many unaffiliated Jews, are in fact proudly Jewish. If we can provide them with a vision for the future, and the space to explore their Jewish observance free of judgement, they will return to our communities. This is the key to ensuring that the uncounted don’t remain uncounted when the next census comes around. There need not be a break with the past.

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