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Jewish Engagement – That’s the point!

July 6, 2010 – 8:11 pm6 Comments

Am Yisrael Chai (The People of Israel Live!)

By Ittay Flescher

Simon Green recently posed a challenging question on Galus Australis entitled “Jewish Continuity – What’s the point?” In it, he argued that too many people are asking the wrong question by focusing on “How do we keep the kids Jewish?” rather than asking “Why should we keep the kids Jewish?”

As someone who has taught in several Jewish schools in Melbourne, I would like to praise Simon for raising a question that is rarely discussed by leaders and educators. Too often, Jewish continuity is measured by responses to questions such as:

1. Do you attend a Jewish school, youth movement or synagogue?

2. How often do you visit Israel?

3. Do you give regularly to Jewish charities?

4. When you watch or read something in the media, do you ask yourself, “is it good for the Jews?”

And finally, the holy grail of ‘continuity’ questions,

5. Is your partner Jewish?

What the answers to these questions fail to identify are the reasons for answering yes or no to each of these questions. Simon suggests that if youth are only answering yes to these questions because of “unquestioned guilt and compulsion to be Jewish in a prescribed way,” than we have a major problem ahead of us.

Haim Watzman wrote an excellent piece about the trend of people choosing Judaism despite something (rather than because of something) in a blog post entitled “Jews, Despite the Holocaust.” In it, he writes, “I don’t want my children to be Jews who are Jews because they are victims. I don’t want my children to be Israelis because the world hates them. Our history, tradition and culture are rich and powerful and provide adequate reason to want to be a Jew and an Israeli even if Hitler had never been born and the swastika never had reigned.”

Watzman argues that we must have new reasons for engaging with Judaism.  “Why not say “I’m a Jew because the Jewish people produced the Bible, whose stories and poetry have become the common heritage of mankind?” Why not: “I’m a Jew because of my people’s ethos of learning, argument and dialogue, because of the Talmud, midrashim, and thinkers ranging from Maimonides to Spinoza to Soleveitchik?” Why not: “I’m a Jew because my people preserved its language and culture through centuries of dispersion and reestablished and recreated them in the modern State of Israel?”

I agree with Watzman that the answer to the question “Why should we keep the kids Jewish?” must be answered in the positive. I would add three other personal reasons to his argument about why engagement with Judaism is worthwhile:

A. It gives meaning to my life

This was the answer that Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl came up with after several years in Theresienstadt and Dachau. He wrote that whilst “the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour, what matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” It is vital that Judaism be meaningful to young people, no matter how eccentric a way they wish to interpret their faith, tradition and culture.

B. It inspires me to be a better person

Almost everyone I know thinks of themselves as a good person most of the time.  These same people are also always looking for ways to be better. Better students, better employees, better environmentalists, better friends and better lovers. It would be wonderful if each person had one teaching, idea or historical lesson from Judaism that they could interpret it in a way that makes them a better person.

C. It is a worthwhile endeavour

Everyone has something that they like to do to fill their spare time. It may be following the news or football obsessively, embracing all forms of art, surfing the net, or thinking about God. It is vital that Judaism enters this mix as a culture, ethnicity of religion that is desirous of endeavour.

In order to have a Jewish community less concerned with Jewish continuity and more with Jewish engagement, here are some questions that could provide a much better measure of the health of our community:

1. Do you find any Jewish rituals or festivals meaningful? Why/how do you make them meaningful?

2. Are you able to have well reasoned discussions with your Jewish and non-Jewish friends about Israel?

3. When you see injustice in the world, do you speak out?

4.  When you read or watch something in the media, do you think about whether similar events have happened in Jewish history before you respond?

5. Does your family share quality time together doing Jewish activities?

To quote Victor Frankl again, “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He who knows the “why” for his existence will be able to bear almost any “how”.”

I wish you all behatzlacah in finding your “why.”

Ittay Flescher is a Jewish Educator in Melbourne. He also blogs for Makom/Haaretz.

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  • ariel says:

    I’m reminded of this story. For those who may know it in better detail, please excuse any mistakes in the dialogue:

    There was a Chabad Chasid named Mendel Futerfas who was sent to Siberia by Stalin.

    Whilst in the gulag, he would smile constantly.

    One day when the inmates were chatting, they asked Mendel: “Why are you so happy all the time?”

    Mendel replied with a question of his own: “Why are you depressed all the time?”

    One by one the others explained: “I used to be a top doctor in Moscow. Now look at me what’s become of me!”. Another said “I was a professor at the university. Now look at me!”.

    Mendel replied: “You see, back in Moscow, I was a Jew. And now, here in Siberia, I am still a Jew!”

    That was the secret of Mendel’s happiness…

  • Ari says:

    I agree whole heartedly with Ittay’s and Simon’s article. I have often found it overly problematic that not many people in the older generation can answer the question “Why remain Jewish?” in a sufficiently ideogical and fulfilling way. Even, many Jewish educators, people who have devoted their lives to working with the young Jews of the Australian Jewish community cannot come up with a good answer and therefore probably find it difficult to inspire the next generation in a meaningful way.
    Even though I still believe all that I have written above and still maintain a strong disapproval of being Jewish because of the Holocaust, I have recently come to recognise a positive quality in atleast one aspect of all of this that is often overlooked. I do believe there is something positive to be said for those who simply don’t have an answer to that question. People who simply never questioned why be Jewish and simply took it as a given. To paraphrase Shamir, we will only be a normal nation when we stop questioning our existence. Why do we need a state? ככה! Because!. Similarly there is something positive in somepeople simply being unable to answer the question since to them it is so self-evident, so beyond questioning, because it just is.
    I am fully aware of the fact that this may be hard to pass on to a generation looking for answers and may even take away from an intensly passionate Jewish experience aiming for a particularly powerful sense of being Jewish. But in our post modern world detached from any strong sense of tradition, community and statue we sometimes forget that sometimes an answer to a question can also be simple. Not because it is weak or without focus but simply because to some it is so plain and simple.

  • It has been said that Jewish continuity today means that your grandchildren are still halachically Jewish. The Torah observant groups have the highest number of progeny that are still halachically Jewish after three generations. That proves that Jewish continuity is best achieved through authentic Torah observant halachically true Judaism.

  • Ari says:

    The question though is why is that important at all? Surely you don’t believe that people should keep halacha to ensure Jewish survival for no particular reason.

  • It’s important because of our relationship to G-d, and because this is who we are in essence. It is important because of the role of our people in the purpose of Creation. And if you have to ask why it is important, then you are alienated from your Jewishness.

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