This coming Thursday, the Jewish community, alongside all other Americans, will be celebrating the fourth of July and the Independence of The United States of America. The relationship between Jews and America is one that is not only a historical phenomenon but is indeed an outstanding human and moral phenomenon in human history.
Despite the fact that the Jewish people are a people who lived in so many different countries, who experienced close exposure to so many cultures and attitudes the American Jewish experience is one of the most exceptional and fascinating ones in our history. Typically Jews, wherever they lived, did a lot to integrate be accepted, and to be appreciative and respectful to the countries that have granted them with homage and hospitality. This appreciation showed itself in many different ways that varied from special prayers said in synagogue wishing well to the local governments, paying taxes, in serving in the local armies and so on. In many cases Jews did not only pay much courtesy to the countries they were living in but many cases adopted the identity of the countries they were living in; British Jews saw themselves as British, French Jews saw themselves as Frenchman, and Russian Jews saw themselves as Russian. The gratitude to the hosting country became an an adoption of identity. What began, for example, we gratitude to Napoleon and the French for their emancipation had slowly become a character adoption.
After so many centuries of oppression we developed some kind of Stockholm syndrome where we suddenly began to see the countries in which we were oppressed as great redeemers once they granted us freedom; we suddenly no longer saw freedom as a means to the end of being able to practice what we believed in but we began to see it as an end to itself. Being able to practice Judaism freely in France, for example, was no longer the goal but it was rather becoming Frenchman and woman that was our goal. This, however, was not a one sided trend; when granted civil rights in the eighteenth and nineteenth century Jews were expected to fully integrate and become a part of the societies they were living in. When Napoleon granted French Jews civil rights he made it clear that intermarriage and full integration into society is expected and should be concomitant with the granting of civil rights. This was not the case only in France, other counties such as Russia, Germany, and more. These countries showed clear expectations and anticipation that the Jews abandon their religious practices that separate them from societies they are living in and fully integrate into the societies that granted them freedom.
And then came America. From its earliest days The United States of America was a welcoming, open, and safe haven for Jews; this did not only manifest itself in George Washington’s famous letter to the Jewish community of Rohde Island where he assured their religious freedom expressed his vision of Jews living freely in America, but was indeed the practice of the land. From America’s earliest day Jews enjoyed a great deal of freedom and security and the American people have excelled far beyond any other people in the extent of opportunity, tolerance, and safety extended towards the Jews in America. This uniqueness was outstanding that Jews were no longer just tolerated but were recognized; unlike in European countries where Jew were tolerated despite their religion, Jews were tolerated and seen as full members of society with their religious having no bearing on what their status in the country would be. So much so that being Jewish was not only not an obstacle towards full social rights but, as renowned British novelist Howard Jacobson put it, ”You often feel that to be American is to be Jewish”.
With this realization in mind it would be an epic loss for us not to take advantage of this outstanding opportunity; to not realize that in today’s America where Jews are not only tolerated and unconditionally accepted but are also welcomed and appreciated would be a historical mistake.
As Jewish learning and adult education in Israel and America flourish and learning opportunities abound it is essential that we take this opportunity to embrace our Jewishness, to find out what it means, and to persue a higher level of understanding of it.
To be satisfied with the level of knowledge we have had at our Bar and Bat Mitzvas and to not pursue a more mature and deeper understanding of what Judaism is all about at this beautiful juncture of history would be a mistake for which history will never forgive us.
We have been blessed; we have been immensely blessed- let us have the courtesy to go and pick up our gift. God Bless America.
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is Fellow, The Institute for Advanced Research in Jewish Law, Yeshiva University