Back when I was growing up, the modern State of Israel was the center of the Jewish universe. It was at the core of being Jewish, tucked inside the greater American-Jewish identity. There were no contradictions. Jews were solid U.S. citizens, equally proud of their American heritage. But the brutal sting of the Holocaust which had hit home more often than not, made the establishment and continuity of the Jewish state a prerequisite of daily life.
Having just spent a semester sabbatical in the United States, I unfortunately have witnessed a different state of American Jewry. Jews have never been so successful; the urge to integrate has seamlessly transitioned into assimilation. The result? Today Israel is a blip on the Jewish-American radar screen, and for many there's a definite disconnect. When I brought this up to one rabbi his response was more troubling than I expected. “The disconnect you sense,” he explained, “is a byproduct of the general disconnect to Judaism.”
A cleric of a flourishing congregation, he confessed that he felt more like an entertainment director than a rabbi. “I have to constantly think up new gimmicks to draw the crowd in,” he elaborated, while admitting that without the constant beat of Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations bringing in hundreds at a time, weekly attendance would be down to a drizzle.
Certainly, similar worries existed when my generation was growing up. Still, back then American Jews understood that with or without Israel, they were part of a nation within a nation. Unfortunately, this fact seems to have been lost in translation over the past few decades. Not with the minority who send their children to Jewish Day Schools, but with the majority shepherding their children to synagogue religious schools, if at all. It's not their fault alone. This latter educational framework either fell asleep at the wheel, or did not have the resources to ignite a sense of pride.
While the holiday curriculum is important, it's become too humdrum and detached from the students' own lives. In this digital age with kids seeking links, what better tie-in for educators than Judaism's contribution to day-to-day living in the Western World.
Believe it or not, there are some techies who do a better job at getting this message across. Take Tiffany Shlain. A filmmaker and founder of the Webby Awards, she was cited by Newsweek as “One of the Women Shaping the 21st Century”. Shlain declared sundown Friday to sundown Saturday to be her personal “Technology Shabbat.” She explains on her blog: “The idea of taking one day a week off from responsibilities and work is a very, very, very old idea.” What makes Shabbat so special? Tiffany hits the nail on the head: “Unplugging for a day makes time slow down and makes me feel very present with my family. I not only appreciate this quality time with my family, but it has also made me appreciate technology in a whole new way.”
Succinctly said. A day of rest removes stress, providing time for a fresh and new perspective. That's the kind of "disconnect" Jewish professionals should be promoting; precisely the type of "assimilation" Jewish clerics should be encouraging. It's all about the ABCs of Jewish life and the gifts Judaism has given the world: the concept of a day of rest; the foundation for a socially just legal system; a commandment to respect one's parents and an annual reminder every Yom Kippur not to cast us away in our old age; an ecological love of the land coupled with humane treatment of animals. The list of ancient Jewish commandments and values that are part and parcel of modern day life is impressive indeed!
And the holidays? For those into meditation, nothing beats the soul-searching of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Organic produce lovers should be directed to the harvest-dedicated holidays of Sukkot and Shavuot; creatively couple them with the Biblical laws of Shmita and Orlah and you have a show stopper of a lesson. This is the kind of reverence Judaism deserves if it is to be properly translated into 21st Century life.
And then, once American Jews proudly reconnect with their religious-cultural heritage, bonding with the Jewish state and the greater Jewish nation will be a mere hop and skip away.
Tami Lehman-Wilzig, an American-Israeli living in Israel, is an award winning, Jewish-content children's book author. She has written 10 books and one children's book app. Her 11th book, Stork's Landing, will be coming out Fall, 2014. Visit her website: www.tlwkidsbooks.com.