Every time we walk away from something Jewish, we lose a little of ourselves, sometimes without realizing it. It doesn’t have to be that way. Just as many of us have chosen to walk further away, so can we come back, one step at a time, as we do the introspective work of return (teshuvah). Our traditions set up the Jewish day, and calendar year, in such a way as to encourage children and parents to focus on the most important things in life – family, community, prayer, time together, and Torah learning, and its practical application. It only takes recognition of this fact to begin the journey home.
When we forget what we have forgotten, we are lost. And when we are lost, we feel empty and alone, even when we are surrounded by other people. Today, too many people – young and old – feel lost, and there is no question that one cause of this loneliness is the breakdown of community.
Humans are social animals; we rely on each other, and flourish better together than alone. While our country idolizes individuality, it was actually built on a social contract to work together to create a more perfect union. Without it, loneliness can lead to emotional illness, too.
Judaism is all about community, being there for one another. It is more than a religion. In fact, the religion could not, and would not, exist without the people first. As Jews, we are not only required to engage in a relationship with God, and to struggle with that relationship, we are also required to be in a relationship with our fellow Jews. We all need community – and we tend to gravitate towards people with a shared identity. People also feel a need to connect and belong to something greater than ourselves, and that is what the Jewish people have to offer us.
As Jews, we are extended family, connected to those who came before us, and those who are yet to be. As a Jewish family, we do not simply share history; we share collective memories, and traditions that not only inform who we are, but shape who we are – especially if we give thought to that, and understand why that is so. You see, a family holds on to memories, shares them, and passes them down. For me, there are specific Freedman memories, and collective Jewish memories. These memories are often steeped in practices and customs that when lived, are expressions of who we are, and connect us together. These practices and values operate outside the structure of time – they are neither ancient nor modern.
I believe in the immortality of the Jewish people – that we have a reason and purpose for being on this earth. We may believe in many universal values but with particularistic strategies to live them – and that is was makes us separate, even as we live among others. The fullness of living a good and meaningful life comes not just from material pleasures, which are fleeting, but from meaningfully connecting with others, and working to recognize that we belong to something greater than ourselves that expects something of us.
We recently celebrated Pesach, and in preparation, I read many different articles. One that stood out was by Yossi Klein Halevi, an author and teacher. About Pesach, he wrote: “My late teacher, Rabbi David Hartman, noted that the Hagaddah’s definition of Jewish heresy offers us a precise definition of Jewish identity. The ‘evil child’ of the Hagaddah refers to the Jewish people as ‘you’ rather than ‘us.’ Unlike Christianity and Islam, say, where heresy is the rejection of belief, for Judaism heresy is self-exclusion from the community.”
Know that “nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort…”
To be part of the Jewish community, our people, and God, does take time, effort, and work. It is not meant to be easy, rather meaningful. This is not only about how observant you may or may not be, or even where God, faith and spirituality fit in – though I hope you thoughtfully struggle with that as well. This is equally about how strongly you can identify and express your relationship with your Jewish family/people and its values and practices – which can bring so much joy and meaning to your lives and the lives of your children. I know that one way you do this is by sending your children to Hillel Day School, and I thank you for that.
As I end my time as Head of School at Hillel, there is so much more that I want to write and say, hoping it will be embraced by your heart – but only you can do that.
I have devoted my professional life to Jewish education with that hope that it will inspire and provide Jewish children and adults the tools to find their rightful place among their people and religion, and to find meaning in it. To me, there is no greater purpose than to bring sanctity into one’s own life, and to help others to do the same. With sanctity comes dignity. This is why Hillel Day School exists, and why I have been honored to serve as its Head of School for the past sixteen years.
In the end, none of us ever has to feel lost. We must do the work of remembering – capturing and internalizing the memories of our family, and the extended Jewish family. With those memories we can bring into our lives the traditions, values, and practices that make us who we are as Jews and as people, and then we all can be found!