Think Again: Waking up Jewish

The more a person identifies with the Jewish people and makes his Jewish identity primary, the more likely he is to ask at some point: Why is it important that the Jewish people continue to exist? Of what does our people-hood exist?

Israeli flags 300 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Israeli flags 300
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The 45th anniversary of the Six Day War this week is also in many ways the 45th anniversary of my own Jewish awakening.
The two weeks preceding the outbreak of the war were ones of high tension in my home.
We always ate a formal dinner together as a family, in a dining room from which no television was visible. The only time I can ever remember a television being permitted to invade the sanctum of the dining room was during the two weeks prior to the war. The whole family sat in silence watching the UN debates, with Abba Eban so eloquently making Israel’s case.
On the morning of June 5, my mother was crying when she woke us up with the news that Israel was at war. By the time I headed off to high school, the only news reports consisted of Arab boasts of glorious victories. I spent the day wondering how my fellow students, approximately 50 percent of whom were Jewish, appeared to so unconcerned that Israel’s fate hung in the balance. During drivers’ education, it was all I could do restrain myself from asking the instructor to turn on the car radio.
The fear that the Jews of Israel might indeed be pushed into the sea, as Nasser had been screaming for weeks, is one that most young American Jews have never experienced.
Nor was the Six Day War the last time the State of Israel had a lasting impact on my developing Jewish identity.
I spent the summer of 1976 in Israel, along with two of my brothers. When I got on the bus the morning of July 4 – the US bicentennial – on my way to ulpan, my Hebrew was not yet good enough to understand the news blaring from the bus radio or to grasp why everyone was hugging and kissing one another. Only gradually did I realize that Israel had rescued the captives in Entebbe.
The electricity on the bus that morning forced me to ask: Why do I feel so bound to everyone on this bus despite all the obvious external differences between us – a reaction I never experience on a New York subway? The answer that I came up with then remains to this day: We are each the product of an unbroken chain of ancestors who found something so powerful in their Judaism that it was worth enduring a never-ending chain of pogroms and forced exiles and resisting all the blandishments that the gentile society held out to those willing to become apostates. I asked myself: Could a secular Jew at the end of the 20th century still tap into that mysterious power? The Entebbe rescue challenged me in another way as well. Yonatan Netanyahu and I shared a first name and Ivy League degrees, but the contrast could not have been sharper. My entire life up until that point consisted of burnishing my resumé in anticipation of some great future contribution, while he had insisted on accounting for every day in the present and gave up his life for something he believed in more than himself.
Even today, the story of the incredible sacrifices that went into building the modern State of Israel never fails to move me. I can never read too much of Abraham Rabinovich’s military histories or my friend Ambassador Yehuda Avner’s diplomatic memoirs, both of which remind me of how many times Israel’s existence has dangled by a slender thread.
The letter quoted by Avner in The Prime Ministers from his wife’s sister Esther Cailingold to her parents and siblings, as she lay mortally wounded in the battle for the Old City of Jerusalem in 1948, urging them to rejoice with her in the thought that “you will one day, very soon I hope, come and enjoy the fruits of that for which we are fighting,” should be committed to memory by every Israeli child. (My own children have heard me try to read her letter without breaking down numerous times.) THE PATH from ardent Zionism to full religious observance followed by myself and three of my brothers remains a common one today. The more a person identifies with the Jewish people and makes his Jewish identity primary, the more likely he is to ask at some point: Why is it important that the Jewish people continues to exist? Of what does our peoplehood consist? About 20 years ago, I received a call from a woman who identified herself as a resident of the same Chicago suburb in which I grew up. She told me that she reads my op-eds in one of the Anglo haredi (ultra-Orthodox) publications every week. I informed her that I was not born yesterday, and I was quite confident that no one living in Highland Park read the English Yated Ne’eman. But I was wrong. She had been a leader of one of the national Soviet Jewry organizations for more than a decade, and that round-the-clock involvement in a Jewish cause eventually led her to intense Torah study.
Recently a new acquaintance was telling me about his college activism at the University of Toronto, at the head of an alternative organization to the sedate Hillel. His group harassed Nazi war criminals living in Toronto, played a lead role in breaking the story of Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past and was involved with Soviet Jews. He had a crisis when three Jewish families whom his group had helped to emigrate joined Jews for Jesus. after arriving in North America. He asked himself: What is the point of saving Jews if there is no Judaism? At a meeting with Edgar Bronfman, then head of the World Jewish Congress, he asked, “What would be so bad if we just disappeared?” Today, he teaches Torah in Jerusalem and continues his Jewish activism in projects around the world.
Obviously, activism on behalf of the Jewish people does not necessarily lead to religious observance.
And no doubt there are other answers to the questions that such activism is likely to trigger than commitment to a Torah life. But the questions open one up to possibilities not previously considered.
Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the seminal figure of the modern ba’al teshuva movement, viewed getting young Jews to identify with the Jewish people as a crucial first step. “Would you give up your life for the Jewish people?” was often one of his first questions to the backpackers who wandered into Aish HaTorah from the Western Wall. If they answered affirmatively, his likely follow-up would be, “Well then, let us show you how to live for the Jewish people.”
Involving young Jews in fighting for the Jewish people has been a key part of Aish HaTorah’s mission.
One of those I interviewed for an upcoming biography of Rabbi Weinberg commented, “Reb Noah convinced me to devote my life to fighting assimilation and intermarriage, even before I decided that I wanted to be religious.”
Much of that involvement centers around pro- Israel activity. Thus, Aish students set up Hasbara Fellowships over a decade ago to provide materials and training to university students advocating for Israel on their campuses. Aish graduates created Honest Reporting, an important media monitoring organization on Middle East issues.
Raphael Shore, who commenced his Torah studies at Aish HaTorah, went on to create the Clarion Fund, which has produced four documentaries on the threat of radical Islam to the West. Those documentaries have been viewed by millions. Most recently, the Clarion Fund produced Inside Israel, which has been widely screened in North America and which makes almost no mention of the Arab- Israel conflict. Instead, it focuses on Israel’s role as by far the greatest contributor to the well-being of humanity on a per-capita basis: its role as a hi-tech superpower; its bio-tech and medical innovations, curing disease and even offering quadriplegics the ability to walk under their own guidance; and its role as a provider of humanitarian aid.
The key insight behind the film is that it is crucial for young North American Jews to view Israel not just as locked in perpetual war with its enemies, but to identify positively with its energy, innovation and the simple goodness of its people.
Though Weinberg viewed identification with the Jewish people as a crucial first step toward a Torah life, none of the above projects were first and foremost designed for kiruv (bringing Jews closer to Judaism). Defending the physical security of Jews – in Israel and around the globe – was for him a vital goal in and of itself; indeed the most urgent goal, for if there are no Jews, there can be no Judaism. His final years were largely devoted to arousing the world to the Iranian nuclear threat. And he could be scathing about those who failed to mobilize on behalf of the Jews in Sderot. He personally gave the seed money for the Sderot Media Center.
Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, one of the leaders of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (council of Torah sages) of America, once said at an Agudath Israel convention that but for the birth of the State of Israel most nonreligious Jews would have fallen into such despair after the Holocaust that their connection with the Jewish people would have been severed forever. I see myself and so many of my friends and family as proof that this insight was true.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.