Why am I a Jew?
I taught a class Sunday with our high school students. They are truly a wonderful and respectful group of kids. They are smart and insightful. Currently we are working with them on a congregational project. We are writing a book of stories, memoirs, poems and meditations from all age groups throughout the temple. We are doing this because we have commissioned a scribe to bring us a refurbished Torah. We thought that since every Jew is supposed to write his or her own Torah that we too would invite everyone to bring their life stories and the wisdom they have learned and put it down in a literary format of art as well as invite visual artists to contribute to this project called Torah Shelanu (Our Torah) This is an amazing project. I am so proud of the congregation for the amount of writers who are working from a spiritual point of view and expressing private thoughts and ideas in the public domain for all to see. They have courage and imagination.
The young people and I spoke about a variety of questions regarding how they see themselves as Jews. And this is what I sensed and took away from our fantastic discussion. On the one hand they are proud of being Jewish. They know they are different. One said, “We are the outsiders at school.” Yet, several recounted stories how their fellow classmates in public school proclaimed that they would one day go to hell for not accepting Jesus as their savior. One student was retelling a story of what it felt like to be Jewish as being different than anyone else in the class at the age of five years old!
I sense with them that they are used to being on the defensive because they are Jewish. It has it pros and cons. The benefit is learning at a young age the truth about being a Jew and how people view us with their prejudices and bias. It is good that our kids learn sooner than later how to deal with ignorance about Judaism. Defending the faith is part and parcel of what Jews do century after century.
The cons are concerning too. My feeling is that there is something sad when people can stand up for themselves based upon beliefs they proudly proclaim that they do not believe in and have such a serious problem articulating what they, in fact , do believe in.
I have been dealing with this issue and Jewish kids since I started out in the rabbinate. Serving in smaller communities, I have listened to the same vignettes coming from their counterparts over the decades. There is only a fellow student or one or two more in the classroom. The Jewish kids automatically feel isolated. As they enter high school, Christians who are curious ask Jewish kids what they believe. How do they answer and not lose their social standing in the school community?
I will be curious to see how they will focus on this question, “Why am I a Jew?” We have to help our kids get beyond a definition of Judaism that means what we do not believe in. Instead we should strive for a definition of Judaism those points to a clear message about what we do believe in. That does not mean we forget the question. It simply means we teach our kids to define themselves on their terms and not on the terms of what others ask them about in the cafeteria.
In the end it is all about education. Talmud Torah K’neged Kulam. Education leads to the fulfillment of all other commandments. Learning is the key. Judaism is not only about survival or only about saying what wrong. We have to not forget the blessings in our lives.
I cannot wait to see how the kids will struggle with this seemingly simple question which may be, in fact, more complex than we think. We write and study sacred texts and even pray so that we may understand ourselves and God in relation to each other and the world around us. The spiritual struggle is an ongoing one. Our kids need our wisdom to answer the questions they receive from their classmates who come from other faiths.
I pray that the time will come when we will not see religious bullying of Jewish kids or kids of other non-Christian faiths. I say this because if some makes threatening comments about someone going to hell for not believing in their faith then I would consider that bullying. No more theological bullying. Some would call it legitimate proselytizing. I call it theological bullying.