Posts

A Real and Lasting Source of Jewish Pride

Recently Gather the Jews co-founder and president, Stephen Richer, declared that Jewish pride is not a sin. He is correct. Not only does Jewish pride lack sinfulness, but it is a seminal and necessary ingredient in bringing a Jewish person to involve him/herself in communal Jewish life. But, what is Jewish pride and how can we foster a real and lasting pride in being Jewish?

The answer can be summed up in one word: Torah. If we desire to see subsequent generations of Jews not only survive, but flourish, we need to make sure they are educated about Judaism. After all, it is Judaism, which unites us as a people and in which most of our cultural traditions, quirks, humor, and even success are rooted. The Torah is the foundation stone of Judaism, and its study and observance is what has sustained Jews as a cohesive group with a strong identity for thousands of years.  The Torah has kept us alive against the backdrop of both violent persecution and times of encouraged assimilation and apathy. It is what makes us a nation and unique entity. Its values have enabled us to make the world a better place.

The problem American Jewry faces right now is apathy and a disturbingly high rate of intermarriage. Studies have shown that children of interfaith families are far less likely to actively participate in Jewish life when they reach adulthood. Yes, Holocaust remembrance and support for the Jewish state of Israel are very important and noble activities, but more is needed to ensure that Jewish young people marry Jewish and raise committed Jewish children. A person who has incorporated such things as kosher and Shabbat – to whatever degree they choose – will naturally want a marital partner with whom to share such things. ‘After-the-fact’ discussions about how to get Jews to marry within the faith or stay connected are not nearly as effective as the vaccination of Jewish education and observance.

A lot of us in this age of high-speed internet and smart phones, so used to the instant gratification these things provide for us, would like a ‘quick-fix’ or an easy solution to the problem of Jewish assimilation and disintegration. Unfortunately there isn’t one. Jewish education is the key to ensuring a Jewish future. To learn or teach Judaism is a gratifying and pleasurable experience, but it is one that takes time, dedication, and most of all hard work. Flashy advertisements and t-shirts or other programs that seek to make Judaism seem ‘hip’ or cool, but are devoid of substance, will not make a lasting impression on young people as evidenced by the recent collapse of J-Dub and Jewcy. A Jewish communal life that is only focused on social justice or tikkun olam, as Joel Alperson pointed out, will also end in failure.

We live in a changing world, and the spirituality, healthy family structure, and intellectual stimulation that a Torah observant lifestyle provides is the only way to effectively combat all the sterile alternatives that the mainstream established Jewish community has thus far offered.  Our ancestors survived for thousands of years by studying and observing the Torah and transmitting that knowledge of Judaism to subsequent generations. Today there must be a renewed effort at enhancing and promoting Jewish education. Thank G-d, there are many organizations that provide children, teenagers and adults with Torah classes. Obviously more has to be done, but a positive trend is emerging. A substantial number of Jews are reclaiming their tradition and raising their children with a love and passion for Torah, mitzvot, and acts of kindness.  There is truly no better buffer against the rising tides of assimilation. Many young American Jews are tired of the fluffy and the superficial. Young people today need something real if they are going to continue to identify as Jews.

Social events such as Gather the Jews happy hours and Israel trips such as Birthright are excellent for bringing Jews together and fostering that basic Jewish pride, but it’s what we do with that pride that matters and will ultimately determine the Jewish future. It is one thing to be inspired to want to do something a little more Jewish, but temporary political causes and social events fade. Torah is eternal.

Some will undoubtedly not like this answer to the problem of Jewish continuity, but they should consider the following. The study of Torah has sharpened Jewish brains for millennia and this devotion to education has carried over into the secular realm with Jews earning a disproportionate amount of college degrees, wealth, and Nobel Peace prizes. We are foolish if our ‘pride’ is based on false beliefs that somehow Jewish people are naturally ‘better’ or ‘smarter’ than the rest of the population. Such assertions are foolhardy at best and down-right racist at worst.

We are successful, because our roots are in the Torah and its observance. When a plant is severed from its roots it will continue to live for a little while longer, but eventually it will begin to whither and decay. As American Jews we must ask ourselves why we should continue to be Jewish. We need to know what to tell our children who may one day ask us this question. We need to have a better reason than ‘because they tried to kill us’ or bagels and lox. Torah and G-d are eternal. By investing in G-d and His Torah we too will remain eternally.

We would do well to consider the following words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “At a collective level [Torah Judaism] is the ultimate path to the unity of the Jewish people. We are one because we are part of the Torah. The Torah is one because it is the word of G-d. That is the truth which our ancestors carried with them from generation to generation, enlarging not only themselves but the moral horizons of mankind.” We owe it not only to ourselves, but to all of humanity to stay connected to Jewish tradition.

Jewish pride is not a sin

Pride is one of the seven deadly sins.  Fortunately, that septet is a Christian invention.  And I’m a Jew.  A proud Jew.  And I’m proud to be a proud Jew.  To be a proud Jew isn’t wrong – as Halley C. at the DC JCC suggests.  Rather, pride in Judaism is the only way we can save American Judaism.

On July 27, Joel Alperson wrote at the JTA that “the non-Orthodox way of life is falling by just about every metric we have at our disposal.  … We’re losing Jews and the commitment of Jews far too quickly.”  Mr. Alperson’s remarks are disturbingly familiar; the number of Americans identifying as Jewish has been on the decline for a long time – between 1990 and 2000, the number of self-identified American Jews fell by five percent.

The only way to reverse this trend is through more Jewish pride.  We proud Jews must share the smart, funny, great, cool, innovative, and powerful Judaism with our children, friends, and colleagues.  Otherwise they will not join.  They will not join because of Torah – sacred texts are no longer sacred in America.  Nor will they will join through stories of the holocaust – pity and sympathy are not club-joining adjectives.   We can only win the allegiance of tomorrow’s Jews by showing them that they are members of an impressive club with an illustrious history.

That this strategy works cannot be doubted.  Sociologists tell us that emotions are contagious: pride will beget pride.  Marketers tell us that people want elite products: Mercedes cars, expensive wines, and Ivy League degrees.  And Washington, DC tells us that people like winning teams: Capitals hockey games are sold out; Nationals baseball tickets are $5 after six losing seasons.  We Jews have a winning team, but nobody will know our record if we never tell a newspaper.

This marketing should of course be done in good taste, and the majority of the marketing should take place within the private Jewish community.  And marketing shouldn’t be put ahead of the product.  Our first responsibility as communal Jews must be to continue to succeed in all dimensions we can.

But we can no longer afford to raise American Jews who are afraid or embarrassed to admit they’re Jewish.  These Jews don’t know that Judaism is a shared bond with many of the smartest, richest, and most successful in the country.  And it’s these Jews that walk away from Judaism.

Pride is not a sin.  If we accomplish great things, then let us share our accomplishments, and let it be incentive to keep pushing.  A Rabbi once praised the biblical David because “where he walked, the ground shook.”  We Jews need to shake the ground and make some tracks.  In doing so, the next generation will know where to follow us.

Stephen Richer is co-founder and president of Gather the Jews.  This blogs reflects only the opinions of Stephen.

Have something you want to write on?  Email Noa at Noa@gatherdc.org