Creating the next pillars of Jewish identity

Creating the next pillars of Jewish identity

WASHINGTON — I grew up with a Jewish identity steeped in the twin pillars of love of Israel and passion for understanding the Holocaust. The Jewish institutions that formed my Jewish consciousness combined optimism for the future (i.e. Israel) with reverence for the past (i.e. the Holocaust), and there was continuity from what I learned in these institutions to what I experienced at home.
But what happens when these pillars crumble? What will replace them for the next generation so that a Jewish connection remains?
I ask this because Israel is losing its appeal as a core source of Jewish identity for young American Jews. It is a wonderful country, with whom many American Jews share a deep kinship, but it is becoming very distant. Israeli heroes such as Golda Meir, David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, were celebrated on the walls of American Jewish homes for decades. But now, how many American Jewish homes would claim to have pictures of Bibi Netanyahu or Ehud Barak on their walls, let alone Avigdor Lieberman or Ehud Olmert?
I also ask this because the Holocaust generation is fading away, making it difficult to explain this event’s significance to our children. I doubt that my children will ever meet a Holocaust survivor, as I did many times, and I wonder whether the Holocaust will appear as ancient to them as World War I was to me. My grandparents are of the World War II and Holocaust generation, and I learned a great deal from them. But how can this one moment in Jewish history be expected to continue to shape new generations of young Jews to come, especially when their parents did not have direct memory of this event?
Compounding this crisis of the pillars of future American Jewish identity is the clear weakness of Jewish institutions today. This was not always the case. I was lucky, and was fortunate to have been provided nearly unlimited access to Jewish institutional life by my family. I spent summers at Camp Ramah, school days at Hebrew school, evenings with the United Synagogue Youth, and college at Brandeis. Yet these institutions now seem so difficult for me to connect to, and I’m a father of three. How can I carve out the necessary time to commit my children to such intensive institutional connections when they are competing with children around the world on math, science and in the arts, and not just in cultural identity?
We are in the midst of a Jewish American shift, and how Jewish Americans adapt to these changes by revising our dependence on the past pillars of Jewish life will determine future Jewish American continuity.
And here is where the future must differ from the past. What the previous pillars — Israel and the Holocaust — had in common was that they were external events that happened to other people. I personally am not Israeli and I personally did not suffer in the Holocaust. While my life was enriched by visits to and knowledge of these events, they were not truly my own; they were inherently external to my life.
The future must be different. What is needed now is a return to the deeper part of Jewish identity, the part that is both internal and communal. As individuals, we must dig deeper to connect to the amazing spirit of Judaism. Likewise, our institutions must work harder to create a meaningful communal connection for American Jews that builds upon this spirituality.
Fortunately, there is reason for optimism.
Just days ago, I came home to Pittsburgh for the baby naming of my third daughter. My mother organized this event in her congregation, Dor Hadash. The baby naming was extraordinary. It was a celebration of life and connection, with a deeper sense of spirituality and community as a result.
My daughter felt this, lighting up and smiling at the congregants while the cantor blessed her.
This deeply rewarding moment demonstrated that a new set of pillars for the next phase of Jewish identity is possible. My newest daughter’s name is Bhavana, which means “meditation” in Sinhalese, a language native to Sri Lanka, which is where my wife’s family comes from. Bhavana was welcomed with open arms into the community. There was no discussion of the Holocaust, no fiery sermons about Israel — just plain Jewishness. And it worked.
So perhaps the next pillars of Jewish identity will in fact reflect the oldest ones that sustained us for nearly 2,000 years, from the fall of the Second Temple through the Holocaust and up to the creation of Israel. We’ve been focused on other things for more than six decades, with good reason, but it seems as though now is the right time to pause and reconnect with what really makes us Jewish. And we had better do it before it’s too late.

(Joel Rubin, deputy director and chief operating officer of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at His views are his own and not necessarily those of the National Security Network.)