This past year, I participated in a fellowship with clergy and educators across the denominations of Judaism. We had the opportunity to study with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, an Orthodox theologian and a longtime proponent of Jewish pluralism. Although we might have very different perspectives on Jewish law, his writing has deeply influenced my own thinking and practice since I read his book, The Jewish Way, in college.
I was so excited to learn with this great scholar. But I soon found myself growing distracted in his lectures. It felt like ivory tower stuff, heady theological conversations without much talk about their practical application. What was I supposed to “do” with all this material as a Jewish professional? What could I bring home to share with all of you?
Finally, another participant asked the question I had not been able to formulate: “What does any of this matter when we’re fighting for our very survival?”
I’m not sure which fight for survival my colleague was referring to. Did they mean the global crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change? The tensions in the international political sphere and the breakdown of civil conversation in our country? Or did they mean the more specific questions of Jewish survival, amidst shrinking demographics and rising antisemitism?
I never got any clarity as to the nature of my colleague’s question. But Rav Yitz’s answer, though also a question, was crystal clear: “Survival for what?”
Over the past three millennia, our people have survived more than could reasonably be expected of such a small, scrappy, stiff-necked nation. Survival is such a persistent theme in our tradition that many jokingly summarize our major holidays as, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”
We have survived overt threats of expulsion and exile, forced conversion, antisemitic violence, and even genocide. In more recent decades, we’ve faced more subtle threats of discrimination and quotas, pressure to assimilate from without, and division and infighting from within.
We’ve survived all of that. Often, we’ve thrived under the harshest conditions. We’ve flourished here in America. So much so that the previous generation created a new threat to our survival: sustainability. Our parents and grandparents built a large network of expensive Jewish institutions, thinking we would always keep growing. Now, as demographics shift and cultural norms change, these institutions have grown unwieldy. The Jewish community of Old York Road is a microcosm of this issue. Even just this one building is a microcosm of this issue.
Sometimes, it takes colossal effort just to keep the doors open, and the lights on. But Rabbi Rick Jacobs warns that, in pursuit of this goal, many community leaders have started to sound like café managers, stopping people on the street, saying, “Please eat here, or the restaurant will close.”
Keeping the doors open and the lights on—not to mention the seats filled and the people safe—is an essential part of the Jewish project. But it is not enough of a motivator for the Jewish community today. The paradox is that we will only survive if we have a purpose beyond mere survival.
The theme of Jewish survival is central to Dara Horn’s breathtaking collection of essays about antisemitism and Jewish life, sharply titled, People Love Dead Jews. If it were socially acceptable, I would simply give each of you a copy of her book right now, and send you home to read for the rest of the holiday. Instead, I’ll share an exercise that Horn does with the audiences of her public talks. First, she asks people if they can name three concentration camps. Then she asks the same group of people if they can name three Yiddish authors. “What, [she] asked, was the point of caring so much about how people died, if one cared so little about how they lived?” (People Love Dead Jews p. xix).
Horn’s book covers everything from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. She discusses a case of discrimination against a Jewish employee at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, and gives heartrending personal responses to recent acts of violence against Jews in America. She argues that, while the world is always willing to memorialize, and even celebrate, the Jewish dead, there is often a lot less love for Jewish life and culture. Her opening line pulls no punches, “People love dead Jews. Living Jews, not so much” (People Love Dead Jews p. 1).
While Horn focuses primarily on how living and dead Jews are perceived by outsiders, this paradox also applies to how we perceive ourselves. We too, could probably name three concentrations camps before we could name three Yiddish authors. By the time I was confirmed, after 11 years of Jewish education, I had never seen a page of Talmud or read a single Israeli poet. But at sixteen, I had seen Schindler’s List. Twice.
We cannot deny that remembering what we’ve lost is an essential part of this project of Jewish survival. We must be vigilant about ensuring that history doesn’t repeat itself. But if we are going to survive as a people, we cannot only protect Jewish bodies and Jewish buildings. If we are going to survive, we need to nurture Jewish life.
In December 2019, a lifetime ago, Professor Deborah Lipstadt gave the keynote address at the URJ Biennial in Chicago. Dr. Lipstadt was then the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. She was best known for being sued for libel by Holocaust denier David Irving, a suit that she won. She is now a U.S. Ambassador and Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism.
I expected to hear Dr. Lipstadt speak about her day in court with David Irving, or perhaps to sound an alarm about the rise in antisemitism. What I did not expect was that her speech would be the shortest and most uplifting talk I have ever heard in a Jewish public forum.
She first addressed the concern that weighed heavily on my heart. “As much as I worry about what antisemites might do to us,” she said. “I worry about what we might do to ourselves because of antisemitism. …. Has antisemitism become the leitmotif, the cornerstone of our identity?”
She described an encounter with one of her Jewish students, who had started wearing a kippah every time there was an antisemitic incident, “to show the antisemites they can’t frighten me.”
She went on to say, “…I admired his moxie, what we call chutzpah, his desire to show his identity and not cower in fear. But at the same time, inside, my heart was breaking just a little bit. Because he had allowed the antisemite to determine when he felt Jewish. …. He had ceded to them the power over his Jewish identity … he was motivated by the ‘oy’ and the not the ‘joy’ of Jewish life. That’s not my Judaism, and I don’t want it to be his.”
Dr. Lipstadt described her own Judaism as one that commands rest on Shabbat, not only for ourselves but also for our employees, our animals, and even our land; a Judaism that proclaims that life is precious and that we must protect the vulnerable; a Judaism that commands us to pursue justice, and professes a love for Israel, even when we disagree with it.
Her words made me wonder how any of us might answer the question: What is my Judaism? It is, essentially, just another way of asking Rav Yitz’s question: What is the “what” for which we are hoping to survive?
Each year, there is a sermon that is particularly difficult for me to write. Usually, I realize, it’s because it’s the one I most need to hear myself. I wasn’t sure if I could answer this question, in a way that would be satisfying to you or to me. So, after weeks of being blocked, I brought my question to the modern-day marketplace. I asked my friends on social media to fill in the blank: “The most important aspect of Judaism for me is….”
There is no way I could mention every name or cite every brilliant idea that popped up, but I am grateful to everyone who responded. I heard from people from nearly every phase of my life and nearly every community I’ve ever been part of or served. I heard from complete strangers and from my second grade Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Buckwalter. I heard from Jewish professionals and synagogue support staff, Jews by Choice and Catholic youth ministers. It comforted me knowing that I wasn’t the only person thinking about this. It made me hopeful that there might be an answer, or, more likely, two or three answers per person.
There were the gut reactions: food (and sometimes very specific kinds of food), jokes, summer camp, tradition! There were the metaphors: Judaism as a compass to guide us, a torch to light the way, or a lens through which to see the world.
But there were also a few overarching themes, none of which had much to do with trends or demographics or gastronomy: Being, Doing, Connecting, Wrestling, and Striving.
For many people, Judaism is a core aspect of our identity. It is part of our DNA, a language—or multiple languages—that we speak. It can be a faith or a culture, sometimes both, sometimes neither. It is what we believe, what we’d like to believe, and what we can’t quite bring ourselves to believe. It is what helps us to live a life of purpose and action, and what nudges us to connect to others.
The most repeated word in this thread was “community.” Being Jewish is about connecting with people who share our values, and coming together to engage in primary Jewish acts: study, prayer, acts of kindness and the pursuit of justice. Being Jewish is about sharing, as one person said, the “rhythms and seasons that remind us to gather, grieve, mark time, sing, take silence, and build a path forward with the best world in mind” (Alexis Scott).
This sense of community stretches across space and time. There is a sense of comfort in knowing that, at any given moment, Jewish people all over the world are celebrating the same holidays, reciting the same prayers, studying the same texts. There is a sense of responsibility that comes with knowing that knowing that we are connected to the generations that came before us, and the ones that would come after.
Being part of a community doesn’t always mean we are in agreement with each other. In fact, something that came up repeatedly was how being Jewish meant making space for multiple viewpoints and varied interpretations. Torah, in its most general sense, is not a list of rules set in stone, but rather a story we keep telling and retelling, a conversation that continues throughout our lives and across the generations. Questioning, debate, and argument are not a bug, but a feature of Jewish learning.
Wrestling is essential to our primary Jewish acts. Whether it is the internal struggle of determining the best course of action for ourselves, or coming together to decide the best way forward as a community, we aren’t meant to be passive recipients of instruction. We are supposed to push back. We are supposed to strive for something better.
Often it feels like the Jewish calendar moves in circles. But it isn’t meant to be a merry-go-round. It is supposed to be a spiral, always ascending, moving us towards a vision of a better self, and a better world. The High Holy Day liturgy is not meant to be a deluge of guilt and shame, but rather a reminder that change is possible, necessary, and perpetually unfinished. We are broken, but we can heal. The world is broken, but we can fix it. As Rabbi Tarfon says: “It is not up to us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:16)
My Judaism is a chapter of Deuteronomy, where it is said, practically in the same breath, “There shall be no needy among you,” “But if there is a needy person among you…” and “There will always be needy among you” (Deuteronomy 15: 4-11). This contradiction urges us to strive towards a world without poverty, even as we respond to a world in which poverty is rampant. We are meant to strive for a world rooted in justice and fairness, a peaceful world, even as we recognize that this goal is always going to be just out of reach.
Every few years, or sometimes, it seems, every few days, there is a new survey or study or think piece, sounding alarms about threats to the Jewish future: everything from antisemitism to apathy to online rabbinic ordination. Sometimes these articles offer solutions: trips to Israel, campus outreach and activism, preschool scholarships, incubator grants for summer camps, seed funds for Jewish startups. They are usually very good ideas and noble causes to support. But the bottom line of the ask is always that something needs to be done, and quickly, or Judaism as we know it will cease to exist. “Please eat here, or the restaurant will close.”
History has shown us that we are absolutely not the first generation of Jews who thought we might be the last generation of Jews. And so I’ve learned to take these frantic calls to action with a gigantic grain of salt. Because possibly the most important thing I’ve learned in my years as a rabbi, and especially since I’ve come to Kol Ami, is that the fact that the sky is falling has little impact on what kind of work we need to do every day. Our synagogue, as an institution, might not even register in whatever rubrics these studies are using. But that doesn’t mean that what we do doesn’t matter. Our contribution to Jewish survival, and Jewish growth, is going to happen one person at a time, one moment at a time, one connection at a time.
It can be tempting to follow trends, to do whatever the most successful communities are doing, or what think pieces and consultants tell us to do. But I noticed that none of those trends came up when I asked people to define what matters about their Judaism.
A certain amount of adaptation and evolution is always necessary for survival. We’ve experienced that firsthand these past few years. And if we survive, it IS going to be because we adapted. But it’s also going to be because we held onto what is timeless and essential about our tradition. It is going to be because we focused our energy on what matters.
When people ask me when I decided to become a rabbi, I usually go back to preparing for my bat mitzvah and going to URJ Camp Harlam for the first time. But another experience that shaped the kind of rabbi I want to be was a NFTY-In-Israel trip I took when I was sixteen.
A required stop on any Israel trip is Masada at sunrise, and this was no exception. I’d participated in a group b’nai mitzvah ceremony on Masada years earlier. But this time, I saw the ancient desert fortress in a new light.
As our group leader told the legend of the brave Jewish zealots who committed mass suicide so as not to be captured by the Romans, I found myself growing agitated. This site was a common place for religious rituals and military induction ceremonies, not to mention the countless tourists who stopped here to watch the sunrise on the way to the Dead Sea spas and the Naot Factory. But this was yet another site that celebrated Jewish martyrdom, not Jewish life. The only reason we knew the story of those who died, I realized, was because we are the descendants of the people who stubbornly lived to tell it.
I resolved at that moment, probably not quite knowing what I was getting myself into, that my purpose as a rabbi would be to urge people to live for Judaism, rather than to die for it.
Often, perhaps too often, we celebrate those who gave their lives for something. But we don’t always acknowledge the courage, the persistence, and the discipline it takes to live for something. Jewish survival will likely not happen because of some massive historical event. It will happen because of those of us who choose to take small, quiet steps towards our vision of a better self and a better world, even when it feels like the whole world is pushing us in the opposite direction.
I see Jewish survival when a couple chooses to plan their wedding with a rabbi and finds the experience meaningful.
I see Jewish survival when a student learns something in Religious School that stays with them into their adulthood (and it’s never what we think it’s going to be).
I see Jewish survival when someone chooses to join the Jewish people, or to be a loving and supportive member of a Jewish family, even when they come from another culture or faith background.
I see Jewish survival when someone finds solace and strength in our community during a difficult time.
I see Jewish survival when someone decides to seek meaning and connection at a crossroads in their life and finds it here.
I see Jewish survival when someone grounds their modern struggles in our ancient wisdom.
I see Jewish survival in the faces of all of you who have, against ridiculous odds, made it here to pray with us tonight.
And I see Jewish survival in the blinking red light of the camera, that reminds us that our community now expands far beyond this room.
Professor Lipstadt concluded her biennial speech with a prayer. Not Yizkor or mourner’s Kaddish, but a prayer for her young student, and for us: “I was glad that my student wanted to proclaim his identity,” she said. “But as he left my office I prayed that he build it eventually on a knowledge of what Jews do and not what is done to Jews…. My prayer is that [my students] will embrace our tradition because of its wisdoms, its teachings, how much it has given to the world. May they embrace it because it is theirs. May you embrace it because it is yours. May we all embrace it because it is ours.”
Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz