04 July 2010

Jewish Independence

Independence Day celebrations where I grew up usually began on July 3, which is when the City of Milwaukee traditionally holds its fireworks party.  The City launches the 4th of July with a pretty good show and as kids, we'd pile into cars with our cousins and head down to the lakefront early enough to get a good seat.  I have vague but very happy memories of those times--classic kids' stuff.  And in a small city like Milwaukee, there was always a great sense of civic pride in the whole affair.  Last night's show, for instance, is on the cover of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel this morning.  (photo credit, Rick Wood.)
It was a kind of Jewish gesture, in a way, though certainly unintentional, that the show was Erev Independence Day, which allowed for the local communities to have their own celebrations the next night, actually on the 4th, and so it was for us in suburban Bayside, a bit further up the North Shore from downtown.  There, as in all the surrounding suburbs, our own local fire department lit up the skies with a collection of fireworks that seemed like the confiscated stash they had saved up from busting kids all year long.  Besides our own little collection of inflammable material, there wasn't much to the way we did the 4th, given that the big family event took place the night before.  So they're happy memories but, like fireworks, over in a flash.

The last ten years or so I've taken to read from Declaration of Independence at some point during the day (as fine a document of American history as we have) and listening to a lot of Louis Armstrong, who some folks don't realize, chose July 4th as his birthday (though after his death, baptismal records demonstrated an August 4 birth date--no matter:  in America we are who we say we are.)

But what got me thinking about independence on Independence Day was a beautiful picture of my daughters at summer camp--taken on their way to the first Shabbat celebration of the summer.
They're at Camp Ramah, which is a Conservative movement camp; and since more than a few congregants and neighborhood people have asked why we don't send our kids to a Reform movement camp since I'm a rabbi ordained in the Reform movement, I thought this would be a good chance to explain.  There are three reasons.

1.  Pluralism.  More than being a Reform rabbi or Reform Jew--titles I actually don't strongly identify with--we're committed pluralists.  Among our Jewish friends and professional colleagues are people across the denominational spectrum of Jewish life, American and Israeli, and I am a firm believer that there is more wisdom and variety in all the movements than one could possibly find in one specific movement.  We want our children to live inside of an embrace of the multiple forms of Jewish expression that make ours a rich and deeply meaningful Jewish life--and the place where that takes place most authentically, in my estimation, is in pluralistic settings.  I have seen this most significantly in my professional life first at Hillel on campus; then with founding Brooklyn Jews; and most recently with my work as a faculty member of the Bronfman Youth Fellows in Israel--the latter a collection of 26 high school juniors from all denominations who are taught by Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis.  The synergies are immeasurably powerful and BYFI, in some regards, represents an ideal Jewish community of multiplicity and tolerance.  Back closer to home at Shul, I'd have to say, the more I learn about the vast number of families that affiliate, fewer and fewer do so for ideological reasons related to movement and more so for a sense of connection and community.  It makes our hosting of Alt-shul, a traditional, egalitarian minyan, a natural fit and one that elevates spiritual and ritual expression in a beautiful way.

2.  More is more.  The basic principle here is that given the decided secular nature of our neighborhood and the overwhelmingly minimal levels of Jewish practice represented by most members of our CBE community, having the girls spend 4 weeks at a Conservative movement camp where there is more Hebrew, more ritual, more Torah learning, more prayer, and a stronger connection to Israel is an important learning experience for them to have.  A child should have a love for Judaism as well as be encouraged to flourish in an environment where they can see that the Judaism they practice can always get deeper and deeper.  Bare minimum requirements in any discipline don't really *demand* anything from us and since two of Judaism's most compelling ideas--chosenness and commandedness--are still hanging around after 3000 years, I very like the idea of immersing my kids in an educational environment that privileges each of those expressions with pride.

3.   Add, don't subtract.  Like a lot of American Jews born after the mid-twentieth century mark, in choosing to be Jewish it's important to figure out if you want to add or subtract.  I've met people who grew up in oppressive Jewish environments that they want to escape from; others who had little and want more; and still others who have successfully recreated almost the same Jewish value structure with which they were raised.  I grew up knowing that Golda Meir was my grandma's babysitter; that my great-grandfather, Chaim Siegel, was president of the Mizrachi Orthodox Zionist movement in Milwaukee; and I have memories of bouncing between the two shuls that my grandparents were connected to--one Reform, one Conservative--while my family belonged to neither.   I've written before that the two great moments that spurred my own foray into Jewish service were fear of nuclear annihilation in the early 1980s and my father's death, when I couldn't read the Aramaic Kaddish.  These were all vague associations until I consciously decided to find teachers, educate myself, and I've never looked back.  (Well, that's not exactly true, but that's another matter altogether.)

My parents had four kids and I'm the only one who practices Judaism regularly.  I have decided to add.  And the way that I add is by always being cognizant of being part of a greater whole than the particular borders and boundaries of a particular community.  And I want my kids to have that perspective as well.  Never to feel *oppressed* by their Jewishnesss but in fact to feel that they can always know more, do more, understand more; and, that each exploration into the whole of Jewish life and civilization is an opportunity to open new vistas of possibility for becoming fuller people.

Secular or religious; Yiddish or Hebrew or Ladino or Farsi; politically radical or full-blown frum--the goal is to celebrate and love it all and encourage those we raise to find their own place in it.

A celebration of one's Jewish Independence, as it were.

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