Who Are We Anyway?

by Steve Freedman

When you ask your child to think of a story about a character taking off shoes, what do you want the association to be? Cinderella, or Moses at the burning bush? This is one of many poignant questions Avraham Infeld asks in his new book, “A Passion for A People: Lessons from the Life of a Jewish Educator,” a book I highly recommend.

Cinderella is a folk-tale found in many cultures, dating back to the Greeks. Moses and the burning bush appears in Tanakh in the third chapter of the Book of Exodus and is a uniquely Jewish story. How we answer Infeld’s question may very well give an indication of how we view ourselves as Jews. It’s not that we shouldn’t know both stories; it’s about priority – which story do you first want your child to connect with?

The answer will significantly impact us as we move through this century. From Biblical times until the 19th century, Jews were known as “Am Yisrael,” the people of Israel, or as “B’nai Yisrael,” the children of Israel. In the 19th century, Enlightenment swept through Western Europe and Jews gained citizenship for the first time. These Jews began identifying themselves as part of a religion, or as secular – to better assimilate into the larger society as citizens. American Jews also defined Judaism as a religion, and that is how almost all of us grew up understanding Judaism. The notion of Jews as a people was largely abandoned and forgotten.

Narrowly defining ourselves as a religion has allowed throngs of Jews to walk away from Judaism. As Rabbi Infeld points out, there are many ways to be passionate about Judaism. He learned this from his father, who embraced Judaism in a manner different from his mother. Rabbi Infeld ultimately embraced Judaism differently from both his mother and father when he became an adult. What he has deduced from years of teaching, inquiry and study, is that one embrace is no less authentic than another. Rabbi Infeld advocates that today’s Jews must find ways to be “unified, if not uniform,” through this diversity.

This unification begins with reclaiming the understanding that we are a people.

According to Infeld, Jews are a people, and Judaism is our culture, and within that culture are religious elements. God plays a central role with the Jewish people through the covenant, and within that collective of Jewish souls, each individual has to find his own Jewish expression that also works towards unity with the Jewish people. For Infeld, the building blocks for Jewish unity are the Hebrew language, and a relationship with God, and with Israel, to name a few.

It is thus imperative that each Jew knows her story, and can see himself in that story.

Infeld eloquently explains that a Jew remembers our past, and then explores and embraces the relevance of that past for his or her present and future. For example, the story of the exodus from Egypt is woven into our daily prayer. Our collective memory is invoked as we partake in rituals and holiday observance, as we learn our songs, our stories, and our Hebrew language. Ultimately, these keys to our culture can give us a feeling of great belonging and purpose.

The challenge is to see these memories as our memories; the stories as our stories; and to own most or all of these, and to commit to authentic expressions of Jewish living. At Hillel, we are examining deeply how to recapture the narrative of Jews as a people, and how that informs our curriculum, Jewish programming, and Jewish life at school. Our goal is to enhance the ability of each child, and each family, to feel a greater connection to the Jewish people by developing a relationship with God, a connection to Israel, a mastery of the Hebrew language, and the internalization of the Jewish story, so that each can answer the question, “What does it have to do with me today, and tomorrow, and how must I respond and act?” In answering that question, they will also answer with pride, “The story about the character who takes off his shoes, is Moses, of course, at the burning bush!”

Steve Freedman is the Head of School at the Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills, MI.

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