Michael H. Steinhardt, Jewish philanthropist and co-founder of Birthright Israel, spoke recently at the 92nd Street Y about the state of world Jewry.

Though he mentioned optimistic signs for the future, such as "our next generation seems to be more spiritually searching, and at the same time more innovative," the focus of his talk was on "a darker, more worrisome tale."

"A barometer of the malaise in the Jewish world today is the standing of our communal organizations," Steinhardt asserted. "No more than 15% of philanthropic contributions given by Jews go to Jewish organizations. That's a pretty low and depressing number, and I think it is emblematic of the lack of passion these organizations have been able to inspire."

According to Steinhardt, the reason for these dismal numbers is that too many organizations forget the ideals on which they were founded, and instead divert valuable resources on merely sustaining their own viability. The cycle becomes one of promoting the organization as "a real player." Why are they spending money on advertising, asked Steinhardt, rather than on doing what they say they're supposed to be doing? The answer: to convince rich donors that the sponsoring organization is on the map.

"But if that's the goal at the end of the day, who are these organizations servicing? Their constituents, or themselves and their donor base?"

All too often, the very organizations that were founded with the mandate to reach out to all Jews, to be kind, giving and charitable or to promote Jewish unity, get caught up with internal and external bickering over just whose unity or charity is being credited. Their once noble ideals become slaughtered on the altar of self-promotion, without any real focus or evaluation of how to service their initial goals and ideals.

I found Steinhardt's observation an astute reminder for why many things that have become "organized" lose their initial passion.

And don't many of us suffer from the same malaise on a personal level? Don't we mirror some of the same duplicity in our day-to-day rituals?

The other day I was watching a group of young boys beginning their morning prayers. They had just sweetly sung the verse, "We hereby take upon ourselves the commandment of 'Love your fellow as yourself.'"

It was right at that point that I noticed one boy shoving his elbow really hard into the ribs of the boy next to him. Apparently it was payback for his toe being accidently stepped on a minute earlier.

I wish I could excuse this behavior as simple lack of consideration due to youth. But it reminded me of too many examples in our adult lives where we have similarly lost the inner passion of our ideals, while preserving the hollow outward shell of our acts.

I remember once being a guest at a Shabbat meal when the husband belittled his wife for forgetting to place the challah cover on the table during the kiddush.

Normally we recite the blessing on bread before wine, but on Shabbat, we reverse the order to say the kiddush. In order for the challah loaves not to feel "slighted" or "embarrassed" by being second place, we cover them.

Obviously, bread has no feelings, but the custom is meant to cultivate within us an awareness and sensitivity for the feelings of others. If we are concerned about inanimate bread, how much more vigilant must we be not to humiliate another human being—especially a spouse.

So how did the challah cover suddenly become more important than a wife's feelings? How do noble words about loving our fellow get transformed into a shove in the ribs? And how do selfless communal organizations become breeding grounds for politics and self-promotion?

And why have so many of our youth become disillusioned with what they perceive as lifeless rituals and visionless communal organizations –even while still searching for more innovative spirituality?

Gerald Edelman, a Nobel Prize winner and neuroscientist, proposes that our habits—our most familiar ways of thinking, feeling and reacting—take shape at the neural level through the impact of simple repetition on the connections between cells. The more a particular circuit in the brain is used, the stronger its connections.

As we repeat a habit over and over, the neural connections for it strengthen, while the neural connections for behaviors countering the habit weaken. Or, in the words of our Sages, "Routine becomes second nature."

On the positive side, this theory explains why once we've learned to ride a bicycle or drive a car, we basically can do so mechanically. It is also why young people conditioned to drop pennies into a charity box become trained in the trait of giving.

But, on the downside, it explains why repetitive patterns become automatic responses, often lacking proper evaluation. That is also why well-meaning organizations can fall into a cycle of self-perpetuation and how actions that are supposed to cultivate the noblest qualities can become hollow—if we don't constantly and actively challenge our default state of mindlessness.

Judaism is full of reminders throughout our day, of little and big rituals, mitzvot or customs that are meant to make us stop, think and become aware. From the moment we wake up we are meant to cultivate a consciousness of why we are here that should be affecting our entire day. Before every morsel of food enters our mouths we must acknowledge our gratitude to our Higher Being.

Our days, our homes and significant stages of our lives are filled with actions that are meant to remind us to lead more purposeful lives.

But it only works if we can mindfully focus on the messages of our actions.

Animals, too, learn from habit. Their performance, too, can be impressive. But animals live primarily for survival and propagation. People who exist on that level aren't living; they are "being lived."

Only humans are distinct in being able to cultivate consciousness in our lives, to discern meaning behind our actions. To stop, think and evaluate why we are acting and what changes need to be made to develop our unique endowments that lie undeveloped within.

If we want to improve the standing of our communal organizations, or if we want to improve the spiritual state of world Jewry, perhaps we need to start on a personal level.

It is not the ritual, customs or words of prayers that need to change, just as it is not the noble communal organizations that need to be disposed.

It's our framework of consciousness that needs a paradigm shift. It is not being satisfied with hollow acts—even positive ones—performed merely out of habit, on a default mode.

It is keeping a genuine inward focus that challenges us to ask, "At the end of the day, who are we really servicing?"