The American Jewish community buzzword is continuity. It’s understandable in this great republic, where assimilation approaches 60 percent. Perhaps we can inspire continuity, in part, by spending more time teaching about Jewish heroes and modern Jewish history. Young people need leaders who resonate with them.
This week, on the day of what would have been the 100th birthday of Menachem Begin, Daniel Gordis wrote a thought provoking article about the Jewish hero. As Gordis noted, “Begin is still disparaged by many of the very same Jews who see in the American revolution a cause for genuine pride.” Gordis asked, “Why is George Washington, who conducted a violent, fierce, and bloody campaign against the British, a hero, while for many, Begin remains a villain or, at the very least, a Jewish leader with a compromised background?” Proud Jews should remember this history.
Indeed, Begin is a role model Jews should learn from and teach about. At his core, Begin was a proud Jew who devoted his life to our people. As he said clearly, we, the Jewish people, have been through so much and have so much to learn about ourselves. He was a proud Zionist – and refused to apologize for our people. How do we enable this fire to burn within the hearts of young Jews? How do we inspire the next generation to think about future generations of Jews?
Indeed, in American Jewish educational programs, we need to find a way for every Jewish child to know the names of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Yoni Netanyahu, Elie Weisel, and Joseph Trumpeldor. Even many people with Jewish educations do not learn enough about these great heroes. The parashat shavua (weekly Torah reading) is vital in synagogue services – but so too are the many other aspects of Judaism.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a man who had a tremendously positive influence on so many in the Jewish world, replied in response to an interviewer’s question about assimilation:
“Let me quote Rav Kook, one of our greatest prophets. He says the world always thinks that religious people are the ones who are close to religion, and non-religious ones don’t care about religion. But it is often the case that the non religious people are yearning for something so deep and they look at the religious people and they don’t find that there.”
“People who are announcing themselves as messengers of God are often very mediocre people and they don’t even sense the yearning of those unbelieving people. I see it all the time in Israel: All those secular soldiers in the Israeli army want something deeper than what they see among the religious. I once went to visit our Israeli troops in Lebanon during the Lebanese War, and I met the IDF chaplain and asked him, ‘How is everything?’ And he responded, ‘Fine. The meat is kosher.’ So I said, ‘If I want good salami, I wouldn’t come to Lebanon for it. How are the soldiers doing? Are you talking to them?’ He said, ‘Oh, they aren’t religious, they aren’t interested.’
“So I said to him, ‘I’ll bet you ten dollars that if you offer to teach these soldiers something deep, like Rav Kook, that they’ll respond.’ So I went out to the unit, and walked up to the most coarse-looking soldier, and you could see on his face that he ate on Yom Kippur not three times but five times just to show you, and I walked up to him and I said, ‘Would you like to study Rav Kook, something for your soul?’ His eyes lit up. He didn’t even know that Jewish people talk about the soul. He thought all we talk about is kosher meat and a yarmulke and other religious rituals. Unbelievable.”
Menachem Begin, Shlomo Carlebach, and so many others had an unwavering commitment to a love of the Jewish people. We need to find other ways today to relate to Jewish youth and inspire the wonderful nature of Judaism to burn within them. This devotion is something that goes beyond praying in a synagogue, or going on a Birthright trip. This devotion and love for the Jewish people is one that we must strive to continue with for the good of the Jewish people worldwide.