Published by The World Union for Progressive Judaism
July 2, 2015 / 15 Tammuz 5775
By: Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs, Former World Union president, author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford, CT, USA. He can be reached at email@example.com, and his website.
So many times, I have heard rabbis or Cantors announce, “We begin our service with Mah Tovu!” And then the rabbi, Cantor, choir and congregation or some combination of those resources begin to sing: “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!“ (Numbers 24:5)
As thinking Jews, and especially as Progressive Jews, we should not be content to simply intone our prayers mindlessly.
We will enrich ourselves and our worship if we make the effort to understand what they mean, what their literary-historical context is…
Twenty five years ago, when I was the single mother of two little boys, we had one of those moments that turns into family legend. I was using a power drill to fix something, and the six-year-old (who loved tools) was trying to keep the four-year-old (who loved touching things) back behind the tape line I had set as a “sit here and watch” boundary. Aaron knew that if Jamie didn’t stay behind that line, I was going to put the tools away, and wait to do the work when they weren’t at home.
Finally, in desperation, he hauled his little brother back from the line one last time and said, “Jamie! You don’t want that stuff! It’s GIRL STUFF!” Jamie wasn’t fooled, though: that was Adult Stuff, and he wanted it.
To this day, we refer to power tools as “Girl Stuff” in our family.
Kids want to do the things they see their parents doing. They see those things as far more desirable than “kid stuff.” They’re smart; they see what we think is important, and those things are irresistible to them.
So when we are talking about raising Jewish children, the question I always want to ask parents is, what is important about Judaism to you? And what do you do about that? Because that is what your child sees (or will see.) That is a more powerful message than anything likely to happen in Hebrew school.
If you want your children to love Jewish learning, let them see you engaging in it. Find a group doing some kind of Jewish learning that interests you, and make it a priority. Read Jewish books in their presence. Read Jewish books to them. Cook Jewish food (if you don’t know how, that’s fine – let them see you learning how to cook Jewish food.) Watch Jewish films, listen to Jewish music, sing Jewish songs, go to synagogue or the JCC or wherever it is you want to be your child’s second Jewish home.
You don’t need to know Hebrew, but if they see you trying to learn Hebrew, they’ll be fascinated (especially if it threatens to become the language for adult discussion at home.) They will be thrilled when they find out that their sponge-like child brains will outstrip you in language learning. You may still be on “Alef-Bet” when they are chattering away with other kids at Hebrew school. That’s OK: every scrap of Hebrew you learn will serve you well.
Jewish culture is not magic. Unless you are living in Israel or certain Jewish neighborhoods in the US, your children will not catch it by osmosis. The dominant culture will simply wipe out Jewishness that isn’t heavily modeled and given precedence at home. The dominant culture is a secularized Christianity, with holidays at Christmas and Easter and parking meters that are free on Sunday. The culture will teach them about pop stars and TV and sports and Christmas shopping, but if you want them to be Jewish, they will need to get that at home.
The good news is that if your children are still little, there’s plenty you can do. First, think what it is about being Jewish that is important to you. Then prioritize it and act. If you feel that you don’t know enough to identify what is meaningful to you, take a Basic Judaism class. See what interests you, and pursue that interest. If your Hebrew is rusty, or you’ve never learned it, take a class. Indulge your interests, and everything else will follow.
I don’t know what liberal Judaism will look like in 50 years, because we are in a time of change. What I do know is that little children are interested in the things that they see their parents doing. They want to do those things too (preferably with you.) And from there, everything else can follow.
I refer you to three important articles that raise questions and challenges concerning Jewish well-being in Europe and America.
The first is a provocative piece that appeared in The Huffington Post that recalls the classic Jewish fear that we are an “ever-dying people,” yet it shines a light on the specific challenges facing liberal American Jews today on the one hand as well as the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of America on the other.
The second is an investigative report in The Atlantic on the rise in anti-Semitism in Europe and what might be the future of Europe’s remaining Jews.
The third is a short op-ed that appeared in New York’s The Jewish Week, concerning the attack on American Progressive Zionists by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). My predecessor at Temple Israel of Hollywood, Rabbi Max Nussbaum (z’l), served in the 1950s as the President of the…
Once upon a time, thirteen years ago this month, a certain rabbi was in Jerusalem to attend the World Zionist Congress. While he was there he met one of his students for lunch. The student had been in Israel only two weeks, but she had already begun to fear that she had made a terrible mistake. She had broken up housekeeping, sold her house, and moved to Israel to go to rabbinical school.
El Al security had questioned her for two days before they let her even get on the plane. Border security had quizzed her for another two hours upon her arrival. Two weeks later, all of her clothing – all of it! – was still lost somewhere in the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Israeli security. It had never occurred to her that her story might sound odd to security, or that sounding odd might generate so many problems.
She could not speak Hebrew very well and she felt lost nearly all the time. She had already begun to suspect that she’d spend the year near the bottom of her class, struggling with the language.
It was June in the Middle East. She was hot, dirty, and scared. But she was determined not to disappoint her rabbi, so she met him for lunch with her chin up. Because he was a wise man, he saw right through her. Because he was a very gentle man, he chatted with her about this and that. Then right before lunch was going to end, and he was going to go home to Oakland, he said something to her that would carry her through the rest of a wonderful, difficult, terrible, miraculous year of transition:
“Do not be intimidated.”
She clung to those words through the next eleven months, through her struggles with her studies, through the violence of the Second Intifada, through the beginning of the Persian Gulf War, through the deaths of friends back home, through the cancer treatments of her dearest friend, through illness of her own, through everything that year threw at her. Those words reminded her that someone whose judgment she trusted believed in her.
She heard his words again and again in the words of the Torah, every time there was a challenge to be met, or a transition to be made.
Sometimes it was direct, as in Exodus Chapter 20, when Moses told his people, “Do not be afraid.” They were trembling at the foot of the mountain, afraid of the God with whom they were making the Covenant, afraid to move forward to become the People they were destined to be.
I hear those words, less directly but still quite clearly, in the words of this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha. The Hebrews are making the final preparations before leaving Sinai and going out into the midbar, into the wilderness.
They’ve gotten comfortable in their camp while they built the Ark of the Covenant. Now the time is coming to leave that comfortable camp to move onwards into the unknown. They’re scared.
To help them, God gives Moses a ritual for the beginning and the end of every day of marching:
In the morning, when the Ark was to set out, Moses would say:
Advance, Adonai! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!
And when it halted, he would say: Return, Adonai, you who are Israel’s myriads of thousands! –Numbers 10:35-36
When we are starting a new phase of life, two things can make all the difference: first, the encouragement of a mentor, and secondly, ritual that marks the passage of time and works to contain the stress. During my long, tough year, I held on to my rabbi’s reassuring words while self-doubt battered me.
And during that year, ritual sustained me. Every week, Shabbat would come and for a few hours, put a pause to the study. I would email my kids and write in my journal. I’d pray and listen to Torah for sustenance, not for recitation or a test.
Even more homely rituals sustained me day to day: in the morning I made eggs sprinkled with za’atar on my hot plate and ate them, always the same way. And at the end of the day, I’d put on my nightgown, creep into bed, and read the bedtime Shema from my old prayer book from home.
There are things we can learn here: first, it is normal to be nervous about a big life transition. Graduations, weddings, funerals, new jobs, new cities – all are scary. Second, there are things we can do to make these transitions easier: we can accept encouragement from our mentors (as opposed to pushing them away with “I’m fine!”) and we can look for rituals to help us persevere in the task before us. Neither is a magic pill (there are no magic pills.) Rather, they will sustain us as we put one foot in front of the other, traveling a challenging road towards a distant goal.
If you are on a new road right now, I wish you a kind mentor and comforting rituals. I wish you a safe arrival at some future time and place, when the unfamiliar has become familiar, and the wilderness has given way to home.
More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish People. – Ahad HaAm
These words were written a long time ago by one of the early Zionists. Ahad Ha’am, “One of the People” was born Asher Ginsberg in Kiev, in the Ukraine, in the 19th century. He became a prolific writer, active in the revival of Hebrew.
He is remembered as the founder of cultural Zionism, arguing that the Jewish homeland should be more than simply a nation of Jews. Rather it should be a Jewish state, incorporating Jewish values. He warned against the fantasy that Israel was an “empty land” and cautioned that it was important to take seriously relationships with Arabs living in the land.
I love the quote at the top of this page. It reminds me that I lose sight of Shabbat at my peril. Shabbat keeps the Jews, but it also keeps me.
What is your Shabbat observance? How did you decide on it? I look forward to your comments!