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From K Street to the Knesset – Pt 3:  What Does it Mean to be Jewish?

Over 100 events filled the GatherDC community calendar in April 2018. They ranged from a weekly Jewish yoga class at Adas Israel to listening to a Holocaust survivor at the EDCJCC. Events spanned all areas of the city, and extended to Maryland and Virginia. They included social gatherings like bar bingo, and educational outings for Jews of all identity groups.  

Diverse in many ways, but one thread bound these 100+ programs together: they were Jewish.

The 2017 Greater Washington Jewish Community Demographic Study denoted that, “DC’s Jewish community numbers nearly 300,000 Jewish adults and children in over 155,000 households.” The study found that 22% of the community is 18-29 years old, and another 21% are 30-39.

The Greater Washington Jewish community is the third largest Jewish community in the country. 43% of those in the DMV community are young professionals. Although many of these young adults are often seen at Jewish events (or on JSwipe), our local community spans far beyond these highly involved individuals. The study highlights that in America, being Jewish or not Jewish is not a binary classification. Jewish pluralism is alive and well in the U.S., and thriving in our nation’s capital.

As a part of B’nai B’rith International’s 175th Anniversary, I looked to better explore this idea of Jewish pluralism in a project dubbed The Zero.Dot.Two Initiative. With approximately 14.4 million Jews alive globally, our people represent approximately 0.2% of worldwide citizenry. In the U.S., which is the second most populous nation of Jewish citizens, we are still only 2% of the population. In Israel, three out of every four citizens are Jewish. To better understand Judaism in today’s diverse world, I began interviewing different local, national, and international Jewish influencers with just one question: what does it mean to be Jewish?

GatherDC’s Rabbi Aaron Potek answers the question by saying, “my five paths [to a meaningful Jewish identity] are spirituality, wisdom, ethics, community, and culture. I think these are five different ways to think about Judaism. Obviously, some of these paths intersect, but I believe each one individually can be a path that someone can go down.”  

Other DC-area rabbis share their own messages:

Rabbi Shira Stutman of Sixth & I Historic Synagogue discussed the orienting principles of her Jewish identity, which included tikkun olam (repairing the world) and, more specifically, how “that the world as it is, is not the world as it could be… It is our responsibility, as Jews in this world, to continue to yearn to heal the world, which is broken in so many ways, but also to improve the way that we interact with the world.”

Rabbi Steven I. Rein of the Agudas Achim Congregation of Alexandria, VA, who also serves as Jewish Chaplain for Arlington National Cemetery, said “one of the most important roles of Judaism is to provide the ‘derech‘ or path and motivation by which we can aspire to be our best selves, and in doing so, make a positive difference in the world in which we live.”

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, the founding rabbi of B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, spoke of fulfilling the mitzvot. He paraphrased Elie Wiesel in saying, “to be Jewish in the 20th century is to be offered a gift. I look at Judaism as I look at this wonderful treasure – this wonderful heritage that we have. It has to do with our values that we offer both to individuals, and the values that we contribute to the world. Secondly, being Jewish offers us a sense of identity. An identity of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going.”

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who is the Executive Vice President of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), and also serves the governmental and diplomatic needs of the international Chabad-Lubavitch movement, said, “the core of being Jewish means [asking], do I have a strong relationship with my creator – with G-d? Do I nurture that relationship on a daily basis? Do I do whatever I can to make the world better…bringing the world to a place where the nations of the world will be blessed through us collectively as Jews and individually?”

Beyond these religious leaders and teachers, the interview series has included elected officials, academics, celebrities, business leaders, Jewish communal professionals, and more.

U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) answered the question by saying, “It’s family, it’s tradition, it’s values. Almost every Friday, our family gets together for Shabbat dinner because that’s our tradition. We talk about each other’s lives, and what we can do to help our community – because that’s Jewish values.”

Mr. Cardin’s counterpart in the U.S. House, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who represents a swatch of Montgomery County, MD, answered by referencing the first time on Sunday school that he heard the famous Rabbi Hillel dictum, “If I am only for myself, what am I?”


This interview series has been an exciting project for me as I continue to develop my own Jewish identity, that has been significantly evolving throughout my life. 

Growing up, I used to think that I was a “bad Jew.” My family didn’t keep kosher, regularly observe Shabbat, belong to a synagogue, or even celebrate every Jewish holiday.  Today, I don’t think anyone can be labeled a “bad Jew” because I no longer look at Judaism in a binary construct. I recognize that while some may choose to observe Judaism through a more traditional path, others may choose a different route. These paths run parallel to one another, rather than in opposite directions. 

My Jewish identity has matured exponentially while living in DC due to this wonderful, local Jewish community that has taught – and continues to teach – me so much. Today, when I think about my Jewish community, I see past the 300,000 Jews living in and around DC. I consider the wider global Jewish community that offers me lessons on how I can be a better person by representing Judaism in a way that is meaningful to me. I know that I want to raise my future family Jewishly, and am beyond excited to marry a caring, loving, smart, funny, confident, and beautiful young Jewish woman in just a few months. My fiancé makes me a better person, and a better Jewish man, every day. She is my besheret (destined/soulmate). I cannot wait to see how our two Jewish lives and families, unique in their own ways, forge themselves into a single Jewish household under the ‘chuppah’ – and into our collective future.

Thinking back to my meeting with Rabbi Potek at GatherDC’s new Dupont Circle townhouse on April 19, I consider how the significance of that day relates to my personal Jewish identity. Although that day may have appeared like any other Thursday, to me, it was significant. This  importance was not just because I enjoyed learning from the rabbi, but also because we met on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day).

My own Jewish identity includes a great connection to the land and the people of Israel.  I’m proud that last month the nation celebrated its 70th anniversary since its founding and I have a deep respect for the thousands of years of history of the connection of that land to the Jewish people.

This series of exploring differing perspectives on Jewish identity is a teaching tool. We all relate to our personal Jewish identity in our own way.  One of my favorite things about Judaism is that we often have more questions than answers to some of life’s most complex ideas. These questions and answers can be unique to each of us.

So, my blog series, “From K (or M) Street, to the Knesset”, was meant to share that there is no singular answer to the question, “what does it mean to be Jewish?” Judaism is unique to me. It is unique to you. It is unique to someone on K Street, or M Street, or in the Knesset. It is unique to a Jew in DC, Maryland, or Virginia. And it is unique to someone in Jerusalem, London, Paris, Moscow, Cape Town, Montreal, Morocco, Tokyo, or wherever Jews call home.

Like the 100+ events on GatherDC’s community calendar – to be Jewish is diverse. But, it includes one common thread: t be Jewish is to identify as being Jewish.  Whether you identity as orthodox, conservative, reform, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, tall, short, Jew-curious, or just Jewish – you are all my Jewish brothers and sisters.

P.S. My personal answer to “What does it mean to be a Jew” is this: Being Jewish comes down to one question, and it isn’t “is your mother Jewish?” I ask myself, and I hope others ask themselves, if they identify as Jewish. If so, then: Do I/they choose to live a life that is based on Jewish ideals; Do I/they recognize that the world is imperfect, and that it is up to each of us to try to find our own individual way to repair it; Do I/they treat others with respect and as-if we would like to be treated ourselves; Do I/they know that God exists and that we as a people should try to both learn and teach Torah.

P.P.S. If you are interested in exploring your own Jewish identity, reach out to GatherDC to learn about all of the wonderful ways that they engage 20-and-30-somethings in the DC-area. Or, to hear other news important to the Jewish people, “like” the B’nai B’rith International Facebook page.

 

About the Author: Jason Langsner is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you. Jason has been an active lay leader of the Washington Jewish community since moving to the city in 2004.  He is a small business owner and formerly served as the head of digital strategy for the oldest Jewish human rights and humanitarian organization in the world – B’nai Brith International. When not blogging, he can often be found walking around his Eastern Market neighborhood or riding around DC area bike trails.

 

 

 

 

 

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

From K Street to the Knesset – Pt 1:  Zionism Today and Into Tomorrow

[Editor’s Note] Jason Langsner, one of our community members and bloggers, shares his perspective on Zionism today, and his experience at the American Zionist Movement Conference this past November. The views and opinions expressed in his blog post are not necessarily representative of GatherDC, and we welcome readers to share their thoughts in the comments section, or to reach out to Jason to dialogue further at jason.langsner@gmail.com.

It is the year of chai (18) – of life – so let us all hope that 2018 is the year that a just and lasting peace is found between the Israeli people and the Palestinian people.

Some signs point to optimism, such as the recent behind-the-scene actions of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in how they’re approaching a new peace plan with the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership.  Other signs point to continued pessimism, such as how the PA and United Nations reacted to President Donald Trump recognizing Jerusalem as the capitol at the end of 2017, that such a peace will not be found this year.

GatherDC readership, the broader Washington Jewish community, the American Jewish community, and the Jewish diaspora as a whole are not a monolith.  We each have different opinions on whether a just and lasting peace can be met between the Israeli people and the Palestinian people this year (or at all).

We are all individuals, who may be tall or short.  Our hair and eyes are different colors.  Our faith in Judaism may be self-identified as Conservative, Traditional, Reform, Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Secular, non-practicing, or other.  We may be Sephardic.  We may be Mizrahi.  We may be Ashkenazi.  We may not be Jewish, by birth, but we identify with aspects of Judaism or Jewish culture.  We may not be Jewish, by birth, but a spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend/partner may be and we want to be supportive.  Or we may have converted…

We are all individuals.

Some of us will be attending the AIPAC Policy Conference in March.

Others will be avoiding it and attending the J Street National Convention in April.

Some may be at both.  Others at neither.  And some reading this blog may not know what AIPAC or J Street stand for as organizations.  If you’ve gotten this far in the blog, I can tell you now, that I’m not going to be telling you about either advocacy group or how they are perceived to be different within their organizations or from outside of them.

What I am happily willing to talk about is about my feelings about Zionism, what Zionism means to me today, and some points addressed at the American Zionist Movement (AZM) conference, about how Zionism may be defined into tomorrow.

It isn’t my place as a person or as a Jew to question another Jewish man, woman, or non-binary individual’s motivations in how they express their Judaism; how that may relate to Israel; how they feel about the word, “Zionism;” and how or if that may relate their Judaism to how they look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  It certainly isn’t my place to state any of this in my first blog post for GatherDC in this series – although I’ve happily shared many an opinion in Gather’s blog since it was launched years ago. And, I’ll gladly grab a coffee, beer, or scotch with anyone reading this that wants to chat about Jewish identity, Zionism, or Israel (no matter your perspective).

I’m always happy to talk and to learn from others.  And I know when thinking about Israel, I should sometimes consider the advice taught in “Hamilton” to “Talk less.  Smile more.”  Because active listening and engaging with others from different viewpoints is the best way that I personally learn.

Unfortunately, though discussions of Israel are sometimes, if not often, contentious within our Jewish community.  Some synagogues have chosen to avoid discussing the topic as to not create friction between congregants who hold different positions.  But my feeling is different.  The hard talks are the important ones that we need to have as a community.

It seems so recently that the Jewish people celebrated a milestone year, 2017, which was what brought AZM to DC commemorate and hold conversations around two important moments in Jewish history over the last 100 years.  

Last year represented the Centennial anniversary of the British government’s Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917, which was the first time in modern history that a major world power declared support for the creation of a Jewish State and the 70th anniversary of the UN Partition Plan of the British Palestinian Mandate, which was adopted on November 29, 1947. Certainly, a great deal of history has occurred over these 100 years and I think I may need more than a single blog post to go through those years.  

At the AZM conference, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in written remarks read by AZM President Richard Heideman, qualified the 30 years between the Balfour Declaration and the UN Partition Plan as “long” and “tragic” to turn “international support for Herzl’s dream into reality.”  Israel Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, while hosting a reception at the Embassy of Israel in DC, said that this 30-year span that began in 1917 and ended with David Ben-Gurion’s declaration of statehood, “is probably the most significant period of Jewish history since the days of the bible.”

In future blog posts, I’ll discuss the next 70 years including current events related to the U.S.-Israeli affairs.

Ron Dermer, Israeli Ambassador to the US, speaking at the AZM National Conference

In hopes of sharing some of the messages about what Zionism means today and what it may mean tomorrow, based on the AZM speakers, I’ve compiled a short video montage from the conference so you – as the GatherDC reader – can infer your opinions as if you were in the room with us.  While watching, think to yourself – what does Zionism mean to you?  And if you could reframe the narrative about Zionism and supporting a Jewish State into tomorrow, how would you do it?

To me, I understand Zionism as the national movement of the Jewish people that supports a re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel; and that Zionism comes from the root word of Zion.   As a noun, Zion is the hill in Jerusalem where the City of David was built and a synonym for both Jerusalem and the Jewish people.  I support a two-state solution, but I don’t know what the future borders of the State of Israel will look like – although I have great faith in the Israeli people and all Israeli elected officials who have been elected to represent different views of the diverse Israeli population that they are the best shepherds of their own future.

I recognize to some, the term Zionism is a pejorative.  To me, it isn’t.  I’m very proud to be a second generation Jewish American and a proud Zionist.

 If the modern State of Israel existed when my grandparents and great-grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe, perhaps I would be an Israeli rather than American.  Who knows?  I’ll gladly plant trees in Israel with JNF, purchase Israel bonds to support the development of Israel, give to other Jewish/Israeli causes that are meaningful to me, and write about my appreciation for Israel and allow whoever who chooses to read it (thank you for reading this far!) hear my voice.

If you have a difference of opinion to me, I’ll gladly hear you out and I pledge to respect your opinions we search for common ground – such as with finding a path to bring about a just and lasting peace for all people affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  If you’re interested in dialoguing further, share your thoughts on the blog’s comment section or to my directly/privately at jason.langsner@gmail.com.

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About the Author: Jason Langsner is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you. Jason has been an active lay leader of the Washington Jewish community since moving to the city in 2004.  He is a small business owner and formerly served as the head of digital strategy for the oldest Jewish human rights and humanitarian organization in the world.  When not blogging, he can often by found walking around his Eastern Market neighborhood with his Jewish dog, Shekels, or riding around DC area bike trails.

 

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.