December 6, 2007
The moment it dawned on me that being Jewish is important
During the opening session for the Professional Leaders Project (PLP), a conference for young Jewish leaders, a man delivered inspirations via PowerPoint, asking us to consider the one "moment" that inspired us to connect to Jewish projects and commit to the Jewish professional world.
So charged, the room began to buzz with energy as enthusiasm spilled forth from the mouths of the newly inspired, freshly minted Jewish leaders, many of them products of Taglit-birthright israel, or of youth groups that showed them the way. But my story is a lot less dramatic.
"What made you committed, when and why?" Well, committed is the right word. Sometimes I feel like I've signed away the papers to my own sanity, voluntarily committing myself to a Jewish nonprofit facility. When I graduated college, I discovered that beginning salaries in publishing were $17,000 a year, while Jewish organizations were paying $21,000. Punch line: I went into Jewish nonprofit for the money. But that's probably not the kind of answer they're looking for in this exercise.
"What was your 'moment'? When did it dawn on you that being Jewish is important?"
Good questions. Had I ever had such a moment of awareness, belonging, mission or peoplehood? Maybe one Yom Kippur, when I was too dehydrated and hungry to notice? Or maybe that time I passed out on an airplane was actually a dawning awareness so momentous that it rendered me unconscious.
"Why be Jewish?" Because it's all I know. It's an important part of my family life, my professional and personal rhythm, and my social context. I write paragraphs and pages trying to determine which of my connections to Jewish life and to Israel -- Jerusalem in particular -- are authentic and which ones are conditioned. It might not matter, as long as I feel they're of value. But that's an emotional response. Intellectually, it bothers me that I can't articulate a specific why.
It seemed like everyone I knew who was involved in Jewish projects had a moment to write home about. Once on another path, they have now chosen a road less traveled: my road, as it happens. They were lyrical and articulate, recounting the moments of their revelations. But a Jewish writer who lives in a world of words 24/6 comes up with a blank page.
For doctors, lawyers, Internet gurus or others who have been suddenly born again as Jewish professionals, there's a eureka moment as their skills mesh with a newly discovered passion for Jewish identity and self-exploration. Approaching the Jewish world from the outside, they spoke of "trigger" moments: Israel, a college experience at Hillel, the connection on a social justice level, some other experience that "activated" their connection to Jewish life. Their eyes shine with purpose, while I look back at them, simultaneously awed, and envious of a trigger I'm not sure I ever had.
I'm not really complaining. Living my life in an observant Jewish home and receiving a Modern Orthodox education, I was given an enviably solid background in text and tradition. I connect to the Hebrew language like none of my secularly educated friends can. I feel the earth of Israel as living Torah, even if I don't observe every precept. And for some undefined reason, I connect to Jews more frequently than I connect with non-Jews.
But because I was born into my Jewish connection, which was then carefully and painstakingly nurtured, I was cheated of the opportunity to experience this level of revelation. I'm brainwashed by education and a drone by birth. If there's a "moment" of importance, it could be this one, in which I'm beginning to question the nature and depth of my connection to this confounding fabric of my being, discovering how I really feel about my own faith and people.
I'm a writer, so I understand. It makes a better story when a secular kid has a birthright epiphany and then devotes his or her life to Jewish content. I love those stories, too; they can be inspiring, and usually feature amazing people who have a right to recognition. But as a freelancer who's worked in the Jewish nonprofit world for over a decade, I can tell you that familiarity is not always a Jewish professional's friend. Organizations expect seasoned professionals to do something for almost nothing, or to give them a "friends and family rate" -- to which we often agree, undercutting our profits and undervaluing our services. To expect anyone to work for little or nothing is unrealistic and unfair. And yet, in certain organizations, it is also de rigeur.
But I am still hopeful. Having just come back from the General Assembly, I was extremely gratified by the olive branches extended by the establishment to some more innovative initiatives. I hope that some of our creativity will inspire mutually beneficial partnerships and match experienced professionals and volunteers with their next-generation counterparts. I am seeing projects like PLP and ROI, which have committed to investing in the future through people like my creative band of friends and me. In all their initiatives, my "newly activated" friends inspire with a passion and commitment that reinvigorates my own. And I provide a more experienced voice, an intensely educated influence, and skills that I've been nurturing in the world that they've just entered.
The road's wide enough for all of us. By integrating our stories, they intertwine in a way that benefits everyone. Pooling our education, our acquired knowledge and our particular skills, we create a reservoir of passionate commitment and renewable energy for a stronger, more sustainable Jewish future, and generate many more meaningful moments for tomorrow's Jewish professionals.
Esther D. Kustanowitz writes for many blogs, including JDatersAnonymous.com and MyUrbanKvetch.com, and is senior editor for PresenTense Magazine (presentense.org), a publication by and for Jews in their 20s and 30s.