It is the kind of spectacularly beautiful day that takes your breath away. It’s a Thursday morning, and I’m pedaling through the Livermore wine country. My cycling buddy and I are deeply engaged in a conversation about the weekly Torah portion and how it might shed light on our modern lives.
Some might wonder if riding down the road dressed in spandex is a good setting to engage with Jewish ideas, and I would answer wholeheartedly, YES. Seemingly secular activities — such as cycling, golfing, or participating in a book club held under the umbrella of Jewish values — draw people in. Many people are more interested in expressing their Jewish identity through activities that engage them in ways that seemingly “religious” activities may not. They want to interact with Jewish culture, and more and more of that engagement happens outside of traditional Jewish institutions.
At Hebrew Free Loan, we practice “big tent” Judaism, welcoming Jews across the continuum of Jewish practice and affiliation. I am struck by how many of our loan applicants are secular, with little formal religious observance but a strong sense of Jewish identity. Others grew up with minimal connection to their Jewish heritage and worry they may not be “Jewish enough” to belong. What benchmark must one meet to feel entitled to belong? Observance of certain rituals? Ethnicity? Belief in God? Birth? Conversion? A shared common history? Is there an accepted commonality to being Jewish?
According to the Pew Research Center study of Jewish Americans in 2020, “U.S. Jews do not have a single, uniform answer to what being Jewish means. When asked whether being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion, ancestry, culture or some combination of those things, Jews respond in a wide variety of ways, with just one-in-ten saying it is only a matter of religion.”
Jewish identity is made up of many factors (birth, ethnicity, conversion into a specific denomination, etc.), and few of us have all of them. In some communities, certain specific factors or practices may carry more weight than in others (Shabbat observance, dietary laws, etc.). Some of us do this and not that, and some of us see the world or our Judaism differently than others, but hopefully that doesn’t make us feel less Jewish or not a part of the community.
At Hebrew Free Loan, our loan recipients come from Jewish families like yours, like mine, or like their own and no one else’s. Our families may have very little in common, but the great thing is that we all belong. Hebrew Free Loan is here to help all of us.
This Friday, May 26, 2023, Hebrew Free Loan is co-sponsoring the 35th Annual East Bay Tikkun for Shavuot. The holiday of Shavuot begins Thursday evening and commemorates the spring harvest and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. And while tradition teaches that everyone stood at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, not everyone heard the same thing. “Each Israelite heard what was in his power to hear.” (Sh’mot Rabbah 28:6). Beginning in the 1500’s, a tradition developed to study all night long on Shavuot, and it is in this vein that the East Bay community comes together to learn about a wide variety of subjects. Topics include Spiritual Dieting with Kabbalah; The Loneliness Crisis: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help; and A Neo-Hasidic Approach to Revelation and Creation, to name just a few of the over 30 classes.
If you’d like to witness the strength of our Jewish community, the diversity of ideas, and a broad display of what it means to be Jewish, come to the Tikkun. I’ll be leading “Talking Torah While Peddlin’ Down the Road,” a discussion on finding gratitude and community on a bicycle. Come learn with me (I am teaching at 3 PM in Room 7 of the East Bay JCC) or attend another session that calls to you.
May the wind be at your back as we cycle down the road of life.
– Rabbi Jamie