By Rabbi Mendel Matusof
Jewish Identity. These two words mean so many different things to different people. However, it has always been that which holds us all together. Despite all our various Jewish flavors, we all share in Jewish Identity.
Or at least we used to.
As a campus rabbi for 15 years, I have seen major changes in Jewish identity. Children born to Jewish parents may no longer identify Jewishly. I think it is time that we, as a community recognize these changes. We must use this time of reflection and judgment to identify that which no longer works and what can be done about it.
One major aspect of Jewish identity has been our connection to the Holocaust. With time and the passing of most survivors, young Jews, unfortunately, feel less connected to the history of our people in Europe. We must strive to educate them, but I don’t believe the Holocaust will be a major impetus for Jewish identity as time passes.
Antisemitism has always been a major factor in Jewish identity. Those older than I, have probably experienced times when their Jewish identity was foisted upon them against their will to ostracize them. In 2020, most young Jews comfortably blend into an Anglo-Saxon white American identity. They rarely, if ever, feel left out. Antisemitism is no longer the catalyst it once was to strengthen Jewish identity.
Additionally, not too long ago, Israel was a source of great pride and Jewish identity. A few million Jews among over one billion people who don’t want them there, have fought numerous battles for survival and miraculously won. One need not look far to see that in the 21st century, this narrative has been flipped on its head, where the few million Jews are always seen as the aggressor for wanting to live in peace and security. With so many Jews sharing in this myopic view, Israel can no longer be counted upon as a source for Jewish identity.
So, then what is it? What can we do for our children and theirs in the future, that they too can share a sense of pride and a feeling of Nachas knowing that they are part of the Jewish people?
I would like to posit that the only way we can foster Jewish identity in ourselves and our future is engagement in uniquely Jewish practices, i.e., Jewish ritual or mitzvot.
I would like to emphasize that it is only mitzvot which are uniquely Jewish that can have this effect. Tzedakah, kindness, care for others, Tikkun Olam, and social activism make you a good person. Our children see no need to be Jewish to fight racial injustice or feed the hungry. Indeed, every morally conscious person cares about these things.
When our door has a Mezuzah, we light candles on Friday night, we refrain from eating pork, we celebrate Rosh Hashanah with the sound of a shofar, and we choose to skip school or work on Yom Kippur while fasting, these actions have one purpose and reason. We are Jewish, and these are things Jews do. We cannot expect our children to have a strong sense of Jewish identity if we do not nourish this identity with positive uniquely-Jewish action.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe is said to have once remarked, “Young Americans cannot be told to do anything, but they can be taught to do anything.”
This Rosh Hashanah 670 students in 140 “pods” are celebrating the new year with a scrumptious brisket dinner provided by Chabad. It is but one way in which we try at the UW Chabad to constantly strengthen Jewish identity among the students, even during this difficult time.
Let us teach our children to have an active Jewish identity, and our grandchildren will be more proudly Jewish than our grandparents were.
This season of judgment let each of us ask ourselves, “what do I do exclusively and solely because I am Jewish?”
Wishing us all as a Jewish people, and us all as people of the earth with a Shanah Tovah Umetukah, a sweet, happy, and much healthier new year.
Rabbi Mendel Matusof, was born and raised in Madison, received his training in France, Canada, Israel and New York. In 2005 he and his wife Henya moved back to Madison to direct the Chabad activities on the UW campus. Under his leadership a new Chabad house on campus was established, UW Chabad at UW-Madison, serving the thousands of students.