The New York Times recently published a list of five new books that touch on issues of American Jewish identity. The focus of the books is the question “What will sustain Judaism in the future?” According to the writer, the outlook does not bode well for the future of a Judaism that most of us grew up with. Diminishing affiliation and increased socialization into the majority culture suggests that remaining distinct in our practice and particular in our outlook seems less and less likely.
The title of the article caught my attention, “American Jews Face a Choice: Create Meaning or Fade Away.” The Judaism in which I grew up provided me with friends from camp and youth group, and a strong identity (never forget), but there was no intellectual content. We didn’t study text and we were taught to practice rituals we didn’t understand, and worse yet, that weren’t practiced in our homes. In short, the Judaism of my childhood could not stand on its own two feet as I grew into adulthood. What drew me into Judaism as a teenager was protection from a strong sense of “otherness.” I felt ugly as a child and unrooted, and in my synagogue, I felt grounded. If I had been accepted and popular at school, perhaps I too would have drifted away. “Never forget” as a reason to remain a practicing Jew was not enough to sustain me. It is only as I grew into adulthood that my passion to uncover meaning in my Jewish life emerged.
I am a strong advocate of creating meaning, taking our tradition and using it as a framework and a resource to help us meet the challenges of modernity. If you and I don’t find meaning in what we do here today, how can we expect our children and grandchildren to be interested in what our tradition offers for their future? Yes, I am interested in building for the future, but in the immediacy of this moment, I use my energy and knowledge to create a vibrant community of meaning here and now. And so, while the future of the Judaism we knew growing up may be less certain, the Judaism that we are living today, and that we create together, is bright.