When I arrived at Hillel, in 2003, everyone loved calling Hillel a family. At the time, I did not like the concept of the “Hillel Family;” I preferred calling us a community. We were the Hillel community.
Five years ago I concluded I was wrong and that we are, in fact, a family. I feel it even more strongly today. We are part of the Jewish family, and as such, all of us collectively have a connection different from what community members have.
What led me to change my mind? Back then, it was the results of the Pew study that looked at the state of Judaism in America and the influence of the Jewish thinker, Dr. Avram Infeld. Since then, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has also deeply influenced me, among others.
As Jews, we are part of the Jewish people; we have a shared language (Hebrew) a shared land (Israel), shared memories (history) and culture. I now understand that Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people, expressed through our relationship with God and the various practices of the Jewish people.
Dr. Infeld explains that even more than a people, we are family, and families share memories, not history. He distinguishes memories as our understanding of past events that personally impact us as individuals. Family memories inform who we are and shapes us. Our collective Jewish memory does the same – it informs and shapes who we are. History does not impact individuals in the same personal manner.
Family members care about what one family member says to another. Dr. Infeld cites this as the reason Jews argue so much with one another! We may not react strongly 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 chord. In our own school culture, I sometimes think that we believe we have the right to speak to each other in a tone that we would never use outside the comfort and familiarity of our Hillel family. I am not saying it is acceptable, but I believe it illustrates the level of comfort we feel at Hillel. Our boundaries are certainly different than boundaries you would find at a non-Jewish private school.
Even though families can sometimes be challenging, families create loyalties and emotional bonds beyond any community. These bonds hold us together from generation to generation. This is a crucial element of being a part of a family.
I believe that a necessary condition of being a Jew today is to understand that we are part of the Jewish people, and an eternal Jewish family. At the same time, an essential component of our family is our religion, which brings form and meaning to our lives and a relationship with God. We also have a land that gives testimony to our collective memory. In today’s world, we Jews must redouble our efforts to embrace all these elements of our Jewish family.
If we look at our Jewish selves in this way, then, of course, we are the Hillel family. And since we are family, then any Jew can become a member of our Hillel family. Religious attitude or level of observance are not the necessary conditions.
With this in mind, the next time you hear people say that Hillel is not for them because they are not religious, you can tell them that Hillel is exactly for them because they are part of the Jewish people and Jewish family and that is what we are all about – learning and sharing our common culture, language, customs, memories and values. How we express our 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 are all the children of Israel – and that makes us family.