If I had kept my eye on the calendar, it would not have been that much of a surprise; pulling into the J’s very full parking lot for a morning meeting should also have given it away. But it took walking into the JCC that morning, where I had to dodge a phalanx of eager campers and only slightly anxious parents (you can always spot the first-timers), for it to dawn on me: this was the first day of summer camp. As someone who spent ten exceptionally important summers in camp (as counselor, “unit head,” and ultimately as Camp Director), I can’t help but break into a smile when I see any camp’s opening day.
How extraordinarily fortunate are we to live in a time and a place where these types of experiences are available for our children. For all the challenges confronting our community, there is more potential to live engaged Jewish lives today, in this country, than any time in our 3,500-year-old history.
We have, at our actual and virtual fingertips, a world of Jewish scholarship open to us; there are seminars and workshops and formal and non-formal classes for every age group. There are clearly some for whom financial or other impediments are in the way of accessing all this knowledge, but for the vast majority, in cities large and small, if someone is bereft of the treasure trove of Jewish wisdom, it’s only because the choice was made not to avail himself of all that is so readily available. Jewish books, Jewish-themed films, adult learning opportunities – we’ve never had it so good.
For our children, from early childhood through high school and into university, it’s the same. So much out there, for nearly every area of interest and every level of knowledge. I’ve worked with parents for… a long time – and I can’t remember any telling me that their son or daughter “knew enough” or had “learned enough” when it came to math, science or literature. If Mom or Dad had a good background in Subject X, they wanted their child to go further, to learn more than they did.
Yet for too many, the it’s-enough rule does come into play in a Jewish context. If we believe that Judaism has much to offer, not just to Jews themselves, but to humanity – then we should want our children to learn more, appreciate more, become personally engaged more. Was our Hebrew good enough to de-code the siddur (the prayer book)? That’s not a small thing and it should be celebrated and embraced – but wouldn’t we want our children, not only to be able read those prayers, but to be able to read Yehuda Amichai’s exquisite poetry as well?
If we were fortunate to have taken an amazing seminar from an equally amazing teacher who brought Jewish history to life for us, wouldn’t we want our son or daughter to have more than that – to learn more, with greater depth, and to continue learning into adulthood? If our children are becoming familiar with writers and thinkers and society’s leaders – if they have been exposed to John Locke and Rousseau, and Lincoln and Washington, and Jane Austin and George Orwell and Mark Twain – do we not want them to also lay claim to Maimonides and Buber and Mordecai Kaplan; to Ben Gurion and Achad Ha’am; to Amos Oz and Saul Bellow?
To those who are reading this, I realize that it comes perilously close to berating those who never show up to The Meeting – to those who chose to attend. Pretty much by definition, if you’ve signed onto a column like this, if you’ve expressed interest in a vibrant, exciting Jewish High School, then you are well ahead of the curve.
At the same time, we – all of us – need to continue to push ourselves, our families and our communities, to do more, learn more, to engage more. If we still indulge ourselves with that quaint habit called reading (tweets and texts and emails do not count), then think about that Great American Jewish novel you haven’t read yet, or choose a decade of Israel with which you’re not that familiar and select one of the hundreds of books written about that era – a novel, a non-fiction history, a biography.
Thumbing through your go-to platform, see if there is an Israeli-produced series you haven’t seen yet – or just as good, watch it again with some friends and stop/start and critique, as you compare notes of when you were there.
With so much within easy reach, we have only ourselves to blame when we say, I don’t know that… or, I never learned that. In the late Seventies, I traveled to the former Soviet Union to meet and speak with dissidents and refuseniks in Moscow, Kishinev, Kharkiv, Keev and Minsk. It was an unforgettable experience and has continued to stay with me. The Cold War, Brezhnev, the KGB – everything that you could imagine. But the observation that hit me hardest was an image I had in every city, with every refusenik I met. In those days, it was “anti-Soviet” (akin to a Federal crime) to possess a Hebrew book, much less anything explicitly about Israel or Zionism. Yet, under genuine threat of imprisonment or worse, nearly all the people I met had Hebrew books hidden in their apartments, and while some of my conversations were in English, some in broken Yiddish and some with a lot of hand gestures and a few words in Russian, most were in Hebrew. Astounding – on their own, with the one who knew a few more words than the others, “teaching” the rest, and all while they were huddling in a tiny, cramped apartment with the lights turned down.
The thought I had when I returned to the States (to the relief of my mother), to a vibrant, open and free American Jewish community, was that, They do so much with so little, and we do so little with so much.
We owe it, to those refuseniks and to our history, to our children and to our future – to honor and cherish and embrace our heritage. It’s an inheritance in which we all share.