Why be Jewish? I’ll answer the question myself

Why be Jewish? I’ll answer the question myself

In March I wrote in the Jewish Standard about the challenges posed to the organized Jewish community by my generation, the much- (if not, over-) discussed Millennials (“So, really, why be Jewish?”).

We need to refocus ourselves, I said, by turning away from questions like “Who is a Jew?” The key Jewish question of our time is this: Why be Jewish? “With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millennials, the question, ‘Who is a Jew?’ is rather passé,” I wrote. “The fact is that ‘Who is a Jew?’ is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance-to regain it, really-the question we must ask today is ‘Why be Jewish?'”

Although the rest of the column more deeply addressed the Millennials and the reasons to ask the why-be-Jewish question, a couple of readers (who read the piece much more sharply than I apparently had) pointed out that I did not offer my answer to the question.

They were right to point that out. It’s cheap to demand that others answer the question on my behalf. So I’ll offer up some answers here.

First of all, for me to offer a single answer would be to miss my own point. The point is not that we need to find the answer to the question of “Why be Jewish?” The point is that every organization out there in the Jewish community is now in the business of answering that question, whether they like it or not. Each organization may come up with a different answer, but that’s not a problem; varying answers are not mutually exclusive just because they differ from each other.

For a Jewish organization to have any relevance to Millennials, it must come up with an answer and a way of conveying that answer and providing experiences that prove it to all comers. It should be no problem if one organization’s answer isn’t compelling to a given person – because there should be other groups providing other answers.

In fact, if every segment of the Jewish community – every federation, synagogue, social justice organization, indie minyan, etc. – provided its own compelling answer that would be best. It is the vast diversity of answers that will reinvigorate the Jewish community. Each Jewish organization should look at what it does best and at what keeps those who are engaged with it coming back for more; deep organizational introspection along those lines will reveal each organization’s answer(s) to the question.

Think of it like a mission statement that can be lived and experienced by any and all comers. For instance, suppose your organization’s answer to the question of “Why be Jewish?” is “Because the importance of spending one’s life studying and seeking out education is paramount in Jewish tradition.” If that were the case, then this emphasis on education should be seen, heard, and experienced at every event and meeting held by your organization.

But I said I’d get into my answer to the question. I don’t know if this is true for all of us (though I assume it is for many Jews), but I find that the adage about three opinions holds just as true for one Jew as it does for two. So, instead of my answer (because God knows what that would even be), I’ll give you three that I quite like.

My former boss, Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, the executive director of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, put them more succinctly than I ever could. He has a great list called “Ten Answers to the Question ‘Why be Jewish?'” Several of his answers deeply reflect my own connection to Judaism and the Jewish people, while others I find less personally compelling. However, each reason on the list brings to mind many Jews I know personally who would find that it resonates with them.

Here are the three that speak to me the most:

“1. As a Jew, the collective story of the Jewish people becomes my personal story. My own life’s story contributes to the collective memory of the Jewish people. The historical narrative of the Jewish people evolves as the Jewish people march forward in history….”

This one is particularly resonant at this time of year. Every year, as we enter Passover, the Haggadah reminds me of this powerful injunction that each and every one of us sees ourselves, not only as the inheritors of the exodus from Egypt, but as having personally participated in it. The seder provides me a transporting sense of a personal connection to stories so old that they transcend history as myth and legend; it is one of the few things to which I feel comfortable applying vague terms like “spiritual.”

“5. The Jewish community provides support to the individual (and family) during life’s liminal moments, including those times in which we soar, as well as those that bring us into the deepest, darkest moments of our lives.”

As the sort of Millennial who knows several people who might as well be characters from the television show “Girls,” everybody I know goes through about 11 wild ups and downs per month (grad school, weird breakups, impossibly long job searches, couch surfing, “finding ourselves” and all manner of other obnoxious crises). But the people I know through our mutual connection to the Jewish community generally seem more well-adjusted to me. In one form or another, we come together to celebrate and support once every week (at least).

“7. Judaism emphasizes lifelong educational growth of all kinds. Jewish education helps us to morally navigate the world. (The Talmud requires parents to teach their children ‘how to swim.’) Judaism also provides a framework for teaching children their moral responsibility to the world.”

I’m a book guy. I wasn’t always a great student, but I have always been a reader, a thinker, and a questioner. Even if that doesn’t describe you, who can deny the personal, societal and economic benefits of lifelong growth and education?

So those are a few of my favorite answers. If you like them, take them. If you don’t, there are endless variations. What is your answer? Or what are your answers?

Or take three. They’re small.