Recently, I was fortunate to attend a lecture by Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He spoke about the current state of Jewish institutions and Jewish life in America, and with impressive clarity and articulation, he conveyed that we are a people in flux. As he said, while there are absolutely Jews in America today who desire and engage with relatively long-standing Jewish institutions (e.g., synagogues and day schools of particular denominations and pluralistic days school such as CESJDS) and feel that those institutions are aligned with their personal approaches to being Jewish, there are also a growing number of Jews who seek new and more fluid Jewish opportunities. They may, for example, wish to express their Jewishness in some parts of their lives, engaging with the Jewish community at those times, and at other times be more connected with their broader communities. Dr. Kurtzer’s exploration of these realities was incredibly important for me to hear. It also left me feeling uneasy, and wondering, how can we sustain with what may be a growing number who are only partially engaged, not to mention those who choose to not be engaged at all? Since I attended the lecture, I’ve moved on from those initial fears and found some clarity and assurance. I explain further, below, but first I will share some of my background and recent experience, as both inform my perspective on Kurtzer’s remarks and on Jewish life in general.
I grew up on Long Island, attended public school, did not attend any summer camps, my family did not keep kosher and we did not observe Shabbat. We did belong to our local synagogue, where I attended supplementary school and had my Bar Mitzvah. For the next couple of decades, I had very little to do with any sort of Jewish life. It wasn’t until I sought work in education, and found myself working in a Jewish day school, that I began my Jewish journey in earnest and came to see that my Jewish identity is inextricably intertwined with my overall identity. A particularly impactful part of my journey was when I had the privilege of participating in the Day School Leadership Training Institute, a program supported by the Avi Chai Foundation and the Davidson Graduate School of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Each participant was charged with leading a mincha service. The type of service was left open--some participants led more traditional services, others led various alternative types. Being the least Jewishly informed in my cohort, I decided to move out of my comfort zone and lead a more traditional service. I asked two other participants, Mordechai Cohen (who is now Head of School at the Alexander Muss High School in Jerusalem) and Rabbi Marc Baker (who was formerly Head of School at Gann Academy in the Boston area and is now President and CEO of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston) to help me prepare. The two of them spent hours teaching me, tutoring me, coaching me, rehearsing with me and supporting me. Two people I had not known for very long made a significant commitment to my development. They had no expectation that I would come to observe Judaism in the same ways that they did (we continue to be very different in that regard), yet they gave of themselves tremendously to help me find my way. It was so much more than assistance with that one mincha service. They helped me to understand more about myself and who I was becoming. Now, each year working in a Jewish day school deepens and broadens my sense of being Jewish in contemporary society and my appreciation for my Jewish ancestors who lived in Eastern Europe.
With my Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish world firmly in place, the events and tragedies in Charlottesville a little over a year ago and in Pittsburgh a little over a month ago shook me to my core. As Rabbi Malkus and others have written recently, the reality of life for Jews in America has changed. Worldwide anti-semitism is on the rise. This concerns me as a part of the worldwide network of Jews and in my role at CESJDS. It makes me grateful for the steps our school has taken and continues to take with security. And I’m finding that it is also a catalyst to further heighten my pride and resolve in being Jewish. We simply cannot allow hatred to keep us from authentically expressing who we are, where we came from, and what we believe. Darkness may appear, but light shall prevail. Our history and our story are miraculous, our achievements are of disproportionate import, and we have many friends and allies of different faiths and lineages. All of which brings me back to my reaction to Dr. Kurtzer’s remarks.
The changing landscape of Jewish institutions and Jewish life need not be a source of fear or anxiety. On the contrary, it can be viewed as an opportunity for us to continue to grow and evolve, to further our enmeshment in the fabric of America, to honor our traditions and make new meaning as the future unfolds, and to continue to bring honor and insight to our fellow citizens and neighbors. Just as I was accepted and nurtured by my first Jewish day school (now named deToledo High School, in the Los Angeles area), and by Mordechai Cohen. Rabbi Marc Baker, and everyone involved with the Day School Leadership Training Institute, we can all broaden our purview and find ways to encourage Jews of all varieties to follow their paths. Unity, with recognition of all of our differences, is possible and perhaps necessary. It’s what we do in the high school at CESJDS, it’s a transcendent reason for us to be honest about our shortcomings and strive for excellence, and it’s a primary motivator for us to continue to be a model and resource for other day schools across the country.