Ten years ago when I arrived at Hillel, everyone loved calling Hillel a family. I did not like the concept of the “Hillel Family;” I spoke about it at the time and I believe I even wrote about it. I preferred calling us a community. We were the Hillel community.
Ten years later, I have concluded I was wrong and we are, in fact, a family. We are part of the Jewish family, and as such, all of us collectively have a connection different from what community members have. What has changed my mind? I have been thinking a lot about Hillel as a Jewish community day school (we are in our fifth year as a community day school), reflecting on the Pew study, and I was reminded about who we are, in a powerful and inspiring way, by International Hillel’s Past President, Avraham Infeld. Dr. Infeld spoke at a Detroit Federation event a few weeks ago.
As Jews, we are part of the Jewish people; we have a shared language (Hebrew) a shared land (Israel), shared memories (history) and culture. Dr. Infeld claims that Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people, expressed through our relationship with God and mitzvot.
Two things he said really struck me; families share memories not history. He distinguishes memories as our understanding of past events that personally impact us as individuals. Family memories inform us about who we are. More than that, memories help to make us who we are. Our collective Jewish memory informs each of us about who we each are. History does not impact each individual in the same manner.
The other thing he said, with humor, though I believe it to be true, is that family members care about what one family member says to another. He cites this as the reason why Jews fight so much among themselves and get angry at each other. We do not react the same way when a member of the larger community says something about us, but when one Jew says something about others Jews it can bring on real anger. We care what our family says to us. It strikes an emotional cord. In our own school culture, I sometimes think that we believe we have the right to speak to each other in a tone we would never use outside the comfort and familiarity of our Hillel family. I am not saying it is acceptable, but I believe it gives a perspective of the level of comfort we feel at Hillel.
Even though families can sometimes be challenging, families create loyalties and emotional bonds beyond any community. These bonds hold us together generation to generation.
Dr. Infeld takes it even further. He states that the necessary condition of being a Jew is understanding we are part of the Jewish people/family. He also makes the point that this is not enough. We must also recognize that an essential component of our family is that we have a religion that brings form and meaning to our relationship with God and we have a land that gives testimony to our collective memory.
If we look at our Jewish selves this way, then of course, we are the Hillel family. And if we are a family, then any Jew can become a member of our Hillel family. Religious attitude or observance is not the necessary condition.
With this in mind, the next time a friend or family member says Hillel is not for them because they are not religious, you can tell them that Hillel is exactly for their family because they are part of the Jewish people/family and that is what we are about – learning and sharing our common culture, language, customs, memories and values. How we express our Jewish religious selves can vary, and while we explore our relationship with God and observe mitzvot at Hillel, personal practice and choice are best left for the home, synagogue and temple. As I like to say, whether we belong to Temple Israel, Young Israel or B’nai Israel – we all have Israel in common!