"It doesn't matter where you come from, it matters what you do".  I heard this coming from the TV the other day as my kids watched, mesmerized by the Care Bears and their message of acceptance and love.  "It doesn't matter where we come from..." I thought...yes it does!

It's important that my children know where they come from. It matters that they appreciate and understand the experiences of those who came before them, those that fought to survive so that generations later, they could live.  It matters that my children know where they come from because we are Jews and have been for thousands of years and that means something.  It means something to me so it should mean something to them!

In Shaul Magid's new book American Post-Judaism, Magid observes an American Jewish community embracing the very same ethic now resonating with my kids. He argues that more and more Jews have come to value our national, historic, ethnic identity less and less. This, he writes, is the effect of Americanism on American Judaism.  An exclusive identity feels un-American.  If I can't join your group simply because my parents weren't in it, that's a problem.  America is all about equal opportunity.  Our national religion, if you can say there is one, is the celebration of the individual and his or her ability to do.....anything.  So, are the Care Bears right?  Is Magid speaking of the death of Judaism?  How will we survive?

Lineage and history have always been the basis upon which Jewish identity is formed. Without a fairly intensive conversion process, if your mother, or in the case of patrilineal descent, your father, isn't Jewish - you're not either. Further still, you can only be a Cohen if your father was a Cohen and his father before that and his father before that.  Take Passover as another example. This central Jewish holiday, perhaps the most celebrated holiday on the Jewish calendar, is a day on which we recall the story of the Exodus from Egypt as if it were our own. Of course telling the story is not enough. We go to great lengths to identify with that historical event which happened thousands of years ago, because where we come from matters. If you don't know the story, how can you call it your own?

Maybe this simply speaks to the need to further strengthen the Jewish narrative in our educational programs?  Perhaps if we did a better job telling and teaching our story, Jewish identity would be immune to the effects of Americanism? The truth is we don't know. Magid explores a number of responses to this phenomenon, ultimately arriving at no best practice or tried and true method by which the particularism of Judaism transcends the impact of living in this country. As educators and leaders in our community, we can no longer ignore the tension between our two inherited traditions, Judaism and Americanism. We can recede into a Jewish cocoon and try to ignore the wider culture in which we live. We could toss aside our heritage and dive head-first into the sea of American secularism. Or we find a third way - reimagining our Jewish narrative in authentic ways that embrace the open and fluid American reality in which we live.


Reimagining asks us to tell a new story, a new version of what it means to be a Jew. This new narrative could connect people with a past which they might share no ethnic or historical connection to. This new narrative could be an American innovation in which the values of the Jewish people and tradition are rooted in a mythic past available to all.


As I prepared the conversation I planned to have with my kids after the Care Bears, to counteract the damage that this Americanism had done to my children's impressionable minds, I heard my son yell from the TV room, "Aba, it's true isn't it?  What matters most is what we do. That's just like how Abraham smashed the idols and became the first Jew".

There has never been a time in the history of Diaspora Jewry where we have lived with such freedom.  We have had the opportunity to amass wealth and realize positions of power.  In these ways and in many more, Americanism has worked out well for us.  


It's also true that we're coming to grips with the changing world in which we live.  As we struggle to understand these changes, be it through scholarly works like Magid's or through studies of Jewish identity by Pew and others, we should remember that Judaism is big, and deep, and old.  It has meant many different things to Jews for thousands of years and it is during these times of transition and change that the greatest innovations have been realized.  


When the episode came to an end, I chose to say nothing to my kids, my son was right. As educators, parents, grandparents, and leaders it's our responsibility to inspire those who look up to us to find the Avraham in themselves. The stories we tell to achieve that inspiration will characterize Jewish Education for a long time to come.


What would you have done?  Join the discussion on Facebook..


Rabbi Joshua Fenton  

Associate Director , Jewish LearningWorks 

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October 2013 

Cheshvan 5774



 Yogand Wholeness: With a Jewish Twist

8 Session Series
Experience the groundedness of gentle Iyengar-based yoga. Each week we will focus on a unique theme to enhance our asana practice as we learn Jewish mystical teachings about connecting on all levels of being. Open to all.

The Black Russian is the story of Fredrick Bruce Thomas, born in 1872 to former slaves in Mississippi. The biography follows his life from birth through his journey to create a new life for himself.

Come shake off those post-Shabbat blues! You'll get to dance in a group, play along in a big wild jam session and even lie down and cuddle with your family while you sing along. 

Inspired by their trip, Helix participants documented their journey through photographic work. Their photography will be on view while participants discuss their experiences and journey to the heartlands of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

Join a lively discussion about the epic novel where family and community relationships are transformed by wealth, social divisions, and the politics of a rapidly changing world.


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