By Robert Victor, 8th grade student at Hillel Day School
I bet at one point you have been asked, “What are the necessities of life?” Your response most likely sounded like this: “Food, water, and shelter.” Yet you have never been asked, what are the necessities of a Jewish life? For this answer, you have to think. Maybe some Shabbat candlesticks, a siddur, some creamed herring (if you are one of the lucky few who can keep it down). I believe, more important than that, to live a meaningful Jewish life, you need two things. A Jewish education, and a strong Jewish identity, and of course the two are related.
A Jewish education, like the one I have received from Hillel, seeks to foster more than just faith in God. Because even if one has no belief, they cannot deny the lessons taught by Judaism. You don’t need to be ultra-Orthodox to realize the importance of giving tzedakah, and even an atheist can see that one should not steal. In my opinion, the value of a Jewish education comes not solely from knowing Hebrew, or the rules of kashrut, but rather through these lessons that are–actually–derived from the Torah. The great stories with unfortunate endings due to a lack of morality, and those that tell of prosperity for the protagonist due to their moral conviction. In my opinion, this is the most important takeaway from a Jewish education. Morality. How to be a mensch. Because without that, everything else simply fails.
One of my favorite things about this school is that the Hillel community recognizes just that. Hillel provides more than an education, it provides a proper way of life.
So a Jewish education is very important, yet alongside it is something of at least equal importance. Jewish identity. When a Jew acts like a Jew it is good, but when a Jew lives as a Jew, that is great. A Jewish education gives you all the tools that you need to be a good Jew. A Jewish identity is what results when you apply them. If you use these tools to involve yourself in the Jewish community, to help Israel, to form a love for your religion and your people, then you have integrated Judaism into your daily life and made it important to you. That is a strong Jewish identity. You then teach your children the same, and they form Jewish identities, and they teach their children as well. Judaism remains unforgotten.
The importance of a Jewish education and identity is obvious. I believe that after nine years as a Hillel Day School student, I have gained both. I guarantee, that if you ask any past or present Hillel eighth grader, they will say the same. However, most Jewish children would not.
According to the 2013 Pew Research Center Survey, of the roughly 1.8 million children in this country being raised in households with at least one Jewish adult, only half are being raised as exclusively Jewish. The idea that half of all American Jewish children are disengaged from their Judaism is frightening. But the children of these children will be completely blind to their Judaism, and their children as well. Thus, the identity of our people withers away.
We were enslaved in Egypt, but we endured. We were exiled from our promised land, but we persevered. We were murdered by the millions in Europe, yet we survived. However, now, as I consider all that we have overcome, I fear that the greatest threat to the existence of our faith is ourselves. We allow for half of American Jewish children to not be raised as Jews. If this continues, the identity of the Jewish people will become lost. Every generation straying further away. We are forgetting our people.
Jewish schools like Hillel are the reason why we have not withered away. Hundreds of Hillel students add to their Jewish educations and identities yearly. Hopefully, they will all continue the cycle, me’Dor Le’dor, from generation to generation. Like I have said, this is my ninth year at Hillel, and because of this school, I am glad and confident of my Jewish education and identity. I would like to thank you all for donating to Hillel and helping to keep our religion and peoplehood in the lives of both current and future generations.
I leave you with one final quote. From where else, but Captain America: Civil War. “An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again, but one that topples from within, that is dead.” We must not allow Judaism to topple from within. We must not let Judaism die.
View Robert’s speech here.