When I lived in Detroit, I would often lament with a friend, mentor, and teacher about the deep divisions among the Jewish people. As a child of survivors, he would say, “What the Jewish community needs is a little pogrom to remind them of who we are and why we need to stick together.” It bothered me when he said that because I knew there was a seed of truth in that line of thought.
Thank God, we have not experienced anything close to a “little pogrom.” Recent violent attacks against Jews in the New York area, however, have reignited a sense of unity as witnessed during last week’s 25,000-strong rally in Brooklyn. External hate and violence bring us Jews together because we know that an attack against one of us is an attack against all of us.
This kind of unity and vigilance against baseless hatred are of course important and needed, but they are not enough. We Jews have to expend more effort in building Jewish unity within our communities at all times – not just in times of crisis. Our children must be able to see Judaism and the Jewish people as a unifying way to celebrate traditions and milestones; to share values, and to support one another beyond trying times.
In an increasingly polarized world that is intolerant of others’ views and beliefs, our goal at Schechter Bergen is to help our children grow into knowledgeable, action-oriented Jews who treat others with respect and understanding.
These kinds of attitudes and behaviors must begin in the home and then be reinforced at school. Children learn through what we say and do. We must respect our fellow Jews who choose to live and practice Judaism differently; this is the only way to combat the divisiveness among us.
At SSDS we strive to foster an environment in which Jewish children and families come together to celebrate our shared values and traditions, and learn to accept our differences in a non-threatening, respectful way. We also want to foster an understanding of different approaches to practicing Judaism and a respect for an individual Jew to choose his or her way of creating a meaningful relationship with God and the Jewish people.
As a school community, we fully embrace a Halakhic, egalitarian approach to Jewish life and ritual. Our school’s commitment to Halakha helps ensure that every member of our diverse Jewish community feels both respected and included. An important way SSDS parents make that happen is through a commitment to Kashrut at all parties and celebrations that include Schechter students and families, and that parties are never scheduled on Shabbat or Jewish holidays.
Embracing such communal norms is what builds Jewish unity. We do not have to unilaterally embrace a particular approach to ritual; however, it is important, as Jews, to acknowledge and respect the rights of others to do so. We want to be respected for our choices, and we have an obligation to afford others the same respect. This goes for our political attitudes toward Israel as well. We may not always agree about the choices the Israeli government makes, but we can still agree on the necessity for the State of Israel to exist, thrive, and serve as the home and safe-haven of the Jewish people.
The school environment is the perfect place to have these discussions and to explore our collective stories and our sometimes different approaches to God, Judaism, and the Jewish people. The home is where we clarify with our children, our family’s personal beliefs and practices and guide our children on how we approach God, Israel, and Jewish practices.
Creating a diverse yet respectful Jewish learning community at SSDS is both exciting and challenging. By offering different Jewish experiences and encouraging our children to ask probing questions, we remain steadfast in our commitment to help our students grow into committed, knowledgeable, and joyful Jews.
Jewish uniformity is neither a goal nor even possible. Our vision is one of Jewish unity. We want SSDS to be a place where each of us feels at home, whole with our fellow Jews – celebrating our commonalities, which are squarely built upon our common heritage and destiny. So, let’s continue to fight anti-Semitism and hatred against all people and with equal vigor. Let’s build bridges and promote unity within our own communities – in good times and in times of need.