Don’t Tell Me I’m Next

On June 6, 2010, Hebrew College celebrated its 85th commencement. I graduated with two masters degrees: one in Jewish Studies, the other in Jewish education. I was incredibly honored to be one of two student speakers at the graduation ceremony. What follows is the speech I delivered at graduation.

My relationship to Hebrew College is somewhat different from many of my fellow graduates, although far from unique in the history of the school. I am a graduate of Prozdor, the high school of Hebrew College – class of 1995; I am now the associate director of Prozdor and the director of Makor, Hebrew College’s middle school collaboration with community congregations; and today I am graduating with both the Masters Degree in Jewish Studies and the Masters in Jewish Education. Hebrew College has been many things to me – the birthplace of many important friendships; a laboratory for testing out Jewish ideas; a supportive environment for professional growth; and most importantly a family.  It is particularly meaningful that my graduation is also a day honoring Dr. Stephen Simons, who was my first supervisor and cheerleader in the world of professional Judaism when I worked at Congregation Mishkan Tefila, as well as Margie Berkowitz, who was my teacher when I was a teenager, and before that my mother’s camp counselor at Camp Yavneh, but most importantly, a dear friend and beloved colleague and mentor. My first week on the job at the college, I attended the brit milah of Margie’s youngest grandchild; yesterday I celebrated with her family the bar mitzvah of one of her eldest; it’s fitting that my time at the college is book-ended by these smachot, these family celebrations, because when we refer to Prozdor as a family, we really mean it.

Earlier this year, when it became clear that I would, in fact, complete my degrees this June, people began asking me about what would come next. I’m sure many of my classmates fielded the same question. Now, I’ve been taking classes part-time for eight years towards these degrees, so to be honest, it hadn’t occurred to me that graduation might necessitate a next step.

In retrospect, this should have been obvious. The Jewish community is in a state of perpetual anticipation. Maybe this is a natural state for a people waiting for the messiah. I came of age in the era of “Jewish Continuity,” when federations around the country feared that the forces of assimilation were laying waste to Judaism at such a rate that Jews might not be around in a couple of generations if we didn’t take action. While researching my masters thesis, I learned that this was not a new communal stance, just a new label.  In my parents’ generation, the call to arms was “Jewish Survivalism.”  Today, we instead talk about strengthening Jewish identity. But whatever you call it, these phrases all tend to mask the same shared anxiety: will there be Jews left on earth after we’re gone.

As a teenager, the focus on “Jewish Continuity” always rubbed me the wrong way – I felt like a participant in a historical relay race, being handed a baton only so that I could pass it off to the runner following me. My only value, it seemed, was being able to produce a new generation of runners so there would be someone to receive my pass. I wanted a more active involvement in Judaism – to extend the metaphor, the baton I passed on would not be the same as the one I received.

Today, I’m told the community is eager pass that baton to me. I know this, because I have been the target of dozens of initiatives aimed at the so-called “next generation.” The Jewish community keeps telling me I’m next. But I want to tell you something; I’m already here. If I’ve learned anything from my experiences in Israel, it’s that waiting in line is overrated.

I mentioned that yesterday I attended a bar mitzvah. As educators, we spend a lot of time bemoaning how the bar mitzvah experience overshadows all else in the Jewish lives of young people – so much so that we’ve lost the real message of the bar mitzvah. Our tradition says that by the time we enter adolescence, we are fully functioning people. In the introduction to the book Youth, Identity, and Digital Media, David Buckingham reminds us that  young people are significant actors in their own right, they are ‘beings,’ and not simply ‘becomings’ who should be judged in terms of their projected futures. That is the central message of bar mitzvah; it should be a central message to Jews of all ages.

Take a look at today’s graduates. Rather than asking what’s coming next, ask us about what we’re doing today. My classmates are educators and ethicists, musicians, and machers; surely many of us will go on to do great things, but many of us are already doing great things. We are fighting to make the Jewish community more inclusive of learners with special needs, of families of all configurations, and of individuals who don’t fit the Jewish stereotype because they are a different color, class, or sexual orientation; we are creating new initiatives in Jewish education and contributing to the ongoing excellence of existing programs; we are making our communities stronger, more connected, and more welcoming to newcomers; we are raising families and giving aid to strangers.

So I say to the foundations and federations who are worried about what’s to come: You want insurance for the Jewish future? Focus on the Jewish present. Judaism has always been more a religion of deed than creed, focused more on the performance of mitzvot than on the explication of theologies. We’re reminded in Pirkei Avot, the Talmudic collection of rabbinic sayings:

כל שמעשיו מרונים מחכמתו חכמתו מתקימת

When a person’s good deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom will be enduring.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that “good deeds” are more important than ritual mitzvot that have less obvious immediate impact on the world; on the other hand, I’m no fundamentalist, and it doesn’t particularly matter to me if your morning was spent putting on tefillin or devouring a sausage McMuffin. But I believe Judaism has something to offer the world, and something to offer us as individuals. And I’d imagine that each one of us in this room feels the same way. But what exactly is it that Judaism has to offer us?

On the Prozdor enrollment forms, parents are asked to tell us what they hope their children will get out of their Prozdor educations. The overwhelming majority of parents write something fairly generic, such as “we hope our child will learn to carry on Jewish traditions.”

My first reaction is “which traditions,” quickly followed by “why.” To paraphrase the Passover Hagaddah – what is the meaning of these traditions to you?  In researching my masters thesis, I was alarmed to discover that for the last sixty years, Jewish educators have been struggling with the same problem: we are too often called upon to train children in the performance of the “customs and ceremonies” of a religion they will never perform outside of the classroom. So I ask you the hard question: what is the point of Jewish education? What is the point of Judaism?

Part of our difficulty in answering this question is that today’s Jewish landscape offers a variety of answers to the question. Scholars attempt to differentiate between “Judaism” as Jewish religion and “Jewishness” as everything else that Jews do, while struggling against the usefulness of such a dichotomy in describing the actual beliefs and practices of American Jews. This is made more complicated by an age-related divide – older  people primarily relate to Judaism as an ethnic group; younger people see Judaism as primarily a religion. In other words – older people see their Judaism as an inherent and inherited part of their make-up; younger people see Judaism as a system of beliefs and practices that can be adopted or discarded.

This is a new challenge for the Jewish community. Previous generations lived by the truism that if you for a minute forgot that you were Jewish – someone else would remind you. While antisemitism hasn’t been entirely wiped out today, for the most part this is not the experience of my generation or my students. Sociologist Bethamie Horowitz sees this reality as creating a new urgency for establishing compelling central themes for American Judaism. In her words, “The dynamic of acceptance versus rejection (or belligerence) regarding one’s Jewishness has been replaced by a dynamic of finding Jewishness to be meaningful versus remaining indifferent to it. Jewish continuity of the group as a whole has come to depend on the individual’s commitments and decision-making.”

So what makes Judaism meaningful to you? Does Judaism give structure to your relationship with God or does it guide you to be a better member of the human community? Perhaps a little of both. Whatever your answer may be is less important than having an answer at all; but even more important than having an answer is figuring out the “so what.”  You know what I mean.  “Judaism gives structure to my relationship with God…. so what?”  The “so what” is the call to action; if Judaism guides you to be a better human being, then what are you doing to follow through on that guidance? Because if Judaism isn’t affecting your behavior, isn’t making you a better person in some palpable way, why are you so concerned with whether or not your grandkids might be Jewish anyway? The only real way to demonstrate Jewish value is to live Jewish values.

It turns out, I do know what comes next for me. This afternoon’s Prozdor graduation will be my last act as associate director of Prozdor; tomorrow I begin my new job as the editor of JewishBoston.com, a project designed to make it easier for a greater number of Jewish individuals to get connected to events and organizations that are meaningful to them. But our success won’t be measured by how many Jewish grandchildren can be traced back to our work; rather we measure our success by the degree of Jewish participation we can foster in the present. So I challenge each and every one of you, not by asking you what’s coming next for you, but instead, how is Judaism influencing your life today?

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