Empowered Judaism – the opportunity

Why “redemptive”?

My wife tells me that I should calm down regarding the school that our daughter will be attending next year. I’m trying to, but I won’t be able to get this out of my system unless I hash out my thoughts in writing.

This isn’t easy for me to write about succinctly because there’s so much wrapped up for me in the matter of my daughter’s Jewish education; still, I shall try.

I’ll start by throwing a word out there, which I shall come back to later. The word is: “Redemptive”; keep that in mind as you read on.


My family background

Eastern European Jews (Ashkenazi Jews)

In brief: with no exaggeration, everybody on my side of the family is Jewish. Both of my parents took DNA tests their results were quite conclusive: We are of Eastern European Jewish descent. Unfortunately for our ties to our Jewish heritage, my parents were both born in the USSR.

The USSR vis-à-vis religion & the Jews

For the purposes of this blog post, you should know the following: The secular, communist USSR did its utmost to systematically obliterate all religious expressions and institutions within its borders. This was true for all religious faiths, and it was especially true for Judaism, for the USSR was overtly antisemitic.

My parents both knew that their families were of Jewish descent, but neither grew up having much sense of what being Jewish actually meant. Neither was raised celebrating Jewish holidays; neither received a Jewish education; neither was taught Hebrew (or even Yiddish, for that matter, which their parents spoke fluently). They were the products of forced assimilation and secularization.

Repatriation to Israel

My parents were lucky enough to immigrate to Israel in the mid-70’s. At that time, Jews were not free to leave the USSR; only a very limited number were granted exit visas.

On the one hand, my parents gained fluency in Hebrew and gained exposure to traditional Jewish texts (such as Talmud) as students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem; and they became very close friends with Sephardi Orthodox Jews who observed the Sabbath and kept kosher. On the other hand, while they adopted some of the more fundamental Jewish traditions, they both continued to self-identify as secular Jews.


My Jewish upbringing

Israel

I grew up in the USA, but my parents raised me with a deep love for the State of Israel, which we often visited to see my mother’s family. Mine was a very Zionistic upbringing; the State of Israel was central to my family’s Jewish identity.

Jewish traditions

We did not adhere to religious strictures qua religious strictures, but we did not consume pork, nor eat meat and dairy at the same meal; and we did not eat leavened food products on Passover. We lit candles for each of the eight days of Chanukah, and we fasted on Yom Kippur.

We were more traditional than any of the other members of our extended family.

Hebrew school

“Hebrew school” is an afterschool program for Jewish children, usually at their synagogues. I attended public school during the day and Hebrew school two afternoons and one Sunday morning a week. Unlike the majority of children at [my] Hebrew school, I attended that program of my own volition. I can’t say that I learned much, but it instilled in me a sense of belonging to the Jewish people.


Yearning & learning

Falling deeply in love with Judaism

It was in college that I began to increasingly fall deeply in love with and explore Judaism and Jewish identity, launching a journey that would come to profoundly shape my life. I have no idea why it is that I care as much as I do about my people and our shared heritage, but its a passion that continues to consume me.

I have become religiously observant, spent years studying Torah, and repatriated to Israel, among other steps along the way. For years, I fantasized about becoming a rabbi because I loved contributing to Jewish community and also wanted to learn how to freely swim the seas of Jewish tradition.

Moving back to Israel as an adult

Without getting into detail [right now], I decided not to pursue the rabbinate, and, instead, to move back to live in Israel when I was thirty years old. It has not been an easy journey for me.

Despite the challenges of adapting to Israeli culture, language, etc., etc., I have never doubted that moving to Israel was the correct decision for me, and that is because of my daughter. Watching her growing up in the Jewish State, speaking Hebrew, living according to the Jewish calendar… these are things that I can only wish I’d had as a child.


Jewish education

The Israel advantage

Providing one’s children with substantive Jewish education outside of Israel is a challenge and a great expense. Jewish day schools are incredibly expensive, and they’re not readily available everywhere. In Israel, on the other hand, Jewish children can attend state schools that provide them with a rigorous Jewish education – at very little additional expense. These schools exist everywhere throughout the State.

As I mentioned in my previous post, it is for this reason that I would have been happy “enough” if my daughter had been accepted into one of the three State-Orthodox schools that we applied for on her behalf.

Why only happy “enough”?

While Israel’s State-Orthodox schools provide children with the learning skills they need to navigate ancient Jewish texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, they are all ideologically Orthodox, and this includes even the most openminded State-Orthodox schools. They all espouse some form of theology.

Now, I have no problem with people who believe in God or believe in the veracity of the Torah, but I do have a problem with people adopting theological views simply because they’ve been actively discouraged since early childhood from considering any alternatives.

At a State-Orthodox school, publicly questioning the existence of God and the veracity of the Torah would not be smiled upon. The traditional party line would be enforced.

Our State-Secular school that is not secular

That’s why I’m so excited that my daughter has been accepted to this incredibly unique school, where students are provided with a rigorous, traditional Jewish education; but Secular children and Orthodox children study together and are not expected to believe in anything that they don’t feel personally comfortable believing.

In all of Israel, there is only one such school that I know of.


“Redemption”

Broken chains

If you’re still with me, I will now get to the crux of the issue.

My family came from the USSR, which successfully obliterated Judaism within its borders, leaving most Soviet Jews without any meaningful understanding of their roots; but the Holocaust, which swept through Europe also succeeded at obliterating Jewish traditions – by obliterating the Jews who kept the tradition.

The point is that whereas for generations and generations and generations and generations, Jewish people passed down their traditions through their communities and families, those chains of transmission were largely destroyed in 20th century Europe.

Where there once existed a natural balance between the authority of the rabbis and the traditions of Jewish homes, there were left only ancient religious tomes and the few men who could decipher them. Those who wanted to live according to rich Jewish traditions had to rely entirely upon religious scholars because hardly anybody else was left to transmit the ways of the people.

And this remains true today for people like me. There’s nobody in my family who can tell me what my family’s traditions used to be. I am left with Jewish religious texts and the modern scholars who interpret them.

Every rabbi is a blacksmith

It is only natural that those scholars who continue to work to revive the ancient Jewish folkways by educating the new generations imprint their religious views and approaches upon their students. It is only natural. Only natural.

But to what extent, then, do the new generations own their Jewish identities? And to what extent are they their own Jews?

For those who feel little attachment to religious traditions, this does not much matter… but it does matter to me. In my ideal world, I would have loved to have received a Jewish education in my childhood that both empowered me to explore the depths of ancient Jewish texts and encouraged me to seek and find my self in them and in relation to them.

The empowered generation

And that is why I am so excited for my daughter. That is why I feel that this special opportunity is redemptive.

Decades ago, something was taken from my family that can never be returned to us, but, now, generations later, we finally have the opportunity to [re]build something from the ruins of our past. Judaism is a very complex and rich tradition, and one must be provided with the tools to navigate it, else she will only know enough to reject those ways that don’t feel right to her – limited, like her father before her.

I don’t want my Jewish daughter to grab ahold of somebody else’s mended chain. I want her to forge new, sturdy links for herself.

34 thoughts on “Empowered Judaism – the opportunity”

  1. “In my ideal world, I would have loved to have received a Jewish education in my childhood that both empowered me to explore the depths of ancient Jewish texts and encouraged me to seek and find my self in them and in relation to them.”

    I wish I’d had this myself too, so much – but for all the reasons you discussed, I think it’s an incredibly rare thing. Your daughter is lucky to have parents who’ve gone to such lengths to seek it out for her!

  2. It sounds like you love your daughter very much and want her to have every experience to support her faith, choice, and future. Providing her this informed foundation makes wonderful sense.

  3. So much in this post. Thank you for sharing your family’s story. What a gift to pass on such a rich heritage to your daughter.

    I always have to think about how persecution in fact only draws out even more beauty and a deeper seeking. How terribly hard it must have been and yet what beauty has been passed on to you. They couldn’t steal, kill or destroy that.

    I also love that you are giving your daughter the gift of free will. I always said I would do the same with my girls, after my own experience of the straight-jacket of religion.

    So, when they asked me to stop reading their kids’ Bible, I agreed. And I felt God ask me: “do you trust me with them, Anna? That I will reveal myself to them in my way and timing, just as I did with you?”

    A few nights later, my oldest hungrily listened to a story I shared about the power of love in atrocity. She’s been studying what happened in the Holocaust at school and it frightened her so much that something like that could happen.

    But it was a wonderful opportunity for me to talk to her about the power of love. I shared about Corrie ten Boom, whose family hid Jews in Haarlem (where her Papa was born and grew up and her grandparents still live). I told her about Corrie’s years in a concentration camp and watching her sister die, but I also shared about how they both had such incredible peace and love present there and were such a comfort to so many in that place.

    I told her that I don’t know what horror she may yet have to face and if I will always be there with her to protect and help her, but that I could promise her that no matter what love will always be present with her, just as it was to Corrie and her sister because God’s love never ever leaves us. I told her to always look for that love. She was so at peace after our chat. The fear disappeared.

    Keep sharing your stories. You encourage me as a parent to surrender and trust.

    1. Anna, I taught Holocaust studies at my Hebrew School to seventh graders for two years, and we watched a lot of movies on the subject. I know the story of the heroic ten Boom family well –

      Thank you for your kind and empathetic feedback – I really appreciate it! You encourage me too! ❤

      Yours,
      David

      1. not sure what prompted me to re-read my recent post about Carmel (going back to an old haibun, going back to meeting friends in Safed… but when I did, it just occurred to me – and I remain aware that it is, it cannot be more than a thread in the rich tapestry of what you are working out, living in: you daughter en-route to a new generation of embracing secularism, Jewish secularism that is. –

  4. Thank you for such a rich and well broken down read David to understand for clearly your dilemma.

    I love when you said this:

    “I have no idea why it is that I care as much as I do about my people and our shared heritage, but its a passion that continues to consume me”.
    It is so cool that you have that. As much as I interweave many faiths, traditions and cultures into my life, I miss having those root. I am a mutt. I think that’s why I loved marrying my husband who is only 1/4 Greek. He is also Swedish, Irish and German. Greece always is a stand out for people and the heart and soul of love with the Greeks is palpable. My kids claim to be 1/2 greek when they are truly an 1/8th.
    Anyway, I am still with you… are you with me? 🤣
    Your herritage is rich with tradition and culture and I truly love your enthusiasm and strong roots, questioning and desires you have for you daughter.
    I thought you said you post once a day.
    Twice could almost loose me but it was so well done💖❤️❤️

    1. Cindy, thank you so very much for your kind compliment. I feel your words in my heart, and thank you for sharing too.

      I said I post at least once a day – but no more than thrice 😉
      (and I always try to space them out)


      David

      1. ahhh you’re so welcome and I’m glad to know that.

        I do know you said thrice… I’m not a fan of twice either but for you… 😝
        I need help on how to “finish” reading, commenting, posting and be done each day… it’s like laundry….. so I’d love that to be one of your
        topics. 💗

          1. there is no finishing but I like to check all of my followers posts everyday and respond to my messages. The messages I can do but the reading is tough. Maybe I need a schedule of when I check each one but I like to read hot off the press… maybe unrealistic.

  5. thank you for explaining all that so well; it’s a grace freely given to get the chance to understand you as within your ‘chain’ as you call it, your context. I’d also be very interested to read how your wife sees herself with relation to her/your chain.

    1. I don’t feel entirely comfortable writing on her behalf, Barbara, but she’s a mutt, unlike me. She’s 25% Jewish from a genetic perspective, but as a teenager, she found that she most deeply and closely identified with the Jewish people and the Jewish heritage. That’s why she ultimately moved to Israel and built a solid Jewish identity and life for herself here.


      David

  6. David, you are a star in this blogging universe. “There’s nobody in my family who can tell me what my family’s traditions used to be.” But there is this blog, for your daughter. And so very rich it is. That’s what I adore about your blog… you are your solid self, you are honest, you are bravely multifaceted in a world that likes things categorized simply. I feel your reasoning is flawlessly expressed, and backed by sources as usual, but the main reason I love reading what you write is because you also listen, question, and deeply hear the opinions of others, too. And it sounds like that’s what this school might also do. Much love xoxo

  7. The only way to forge new links in the chain or to even start a new chain is to know and understand the past and have exposure to the rich traditions of all the people in the community. Sounds like your excitement is justified however I would give her a few (10) years to absorb that which will inform her choices as an older teen and adult. Perhaps this conversation should wait until her Bat Mitzvah??

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