Of course we want to eradicate anti-Semitism, and racism and bigotry and sexism and homophobia and every other kind of crazy baseless hate. But the effect of this widespread acceptance of, and even appreciation of, Jews in American life has had a sizeable effect on Jewish Identity: 20 percent of American Jews do not identify as religious. In our bright, glittery world of Woody Allen and Drake and hummus and chutzpah, we are liberated of the terrible stigma that has always marked us as other. This should be beautiful, this should be glorious, this should be the stuff of utopian fantasy! And yet.
Here I am now with this terrible luxury, this magnificent burden, of choice. I have the ability to choose Judaism, or not to choose it. I am not branded, segregated, or shunned by the circumstances of my birth; I am amazingly, terrifyingly free. For many young American Jews, this means religion-lite, religion in small, calorie-free portions. A brisket sandwich, sure. A little Heineken and hamantaschen when Purim rolls around, no problem. A Friday night service? That’s a bit much, now, giving up some of my Friday night to participate in a tradition I have little connection to or interest in maintaining. Why should I, the wicked son, participate in something arcane and musty and confining? I have no incentive. And therein lies the tragedy.
At the 2013 Jewish Federations of North American General Assembly held last month in Israel, I met Jews from Poland, England, France and an array of other places. Places where, I was chagrined to learn, anti-Semitism is not the lowest it has ever been; rather, it is on the rise. Thus the young adults I met from those countries were fighting, still, for the freedom to be Jewish. Fighting! For what so many American Jews give up voluntarily, thoughtlessly, every one an Esau throwing his birthright at a pot of lentils. In an environment of openness and tolerance, where Jews are not held together by the threat of external forces, we must find a concrete way to retain Jewish identity and encourage its continuation.
The greatest accomplishment of the General Assembly of 2013 was the ingathering of so many cognizant, clever, and vibrant young Jews: Jews from all across North America as well as the world over, Jews with brilliant, enterprising minds and fresh ideas and well-thought-out opinions derived from formative experiences. We learned so much just from being in the same room with each other. Sharing our beliefs and passions and ideas enriched our sense of Jewishness and of belongingness, which really boils down to being the same thing. Judaism is a way of life built on community, on togetherness, on belonging to something created by individuals and yet greater than any individual. Together, we hold the future of our people in our young, unlined palms, and it is that spirit of unity, and the strength of that unity, which will eventually draw young, apathetic Jews back to Judaism.
Samantha Oppenheimer is the daughter of Carla and Scott Oppenheimer and a member of Congregation Beth Shalom. She is currently spending the year on Masa’s Israel Service Fellows program, teaching English at a rehabilitation village for troubled youth, planting and maintaining community gardens for older immigrant communities and various other volunteering placements. She was a member of the Masa Israel delegation to 2013 JFNA General Assembly in Jerusalem along with 50 other emerging Jewish leaders studying, interning and volunteering in Israel.