Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, I had lunch with an elderly cousin because I was interested in the history of our family – why we fled Europe, how we ended up in Cleveland, and what it was like growing up in a home of immigrants. What began initially as an earnest inquiry into family roots resulted in reflective consideration about what constitutes Jewish identity and the bearing that has on Jewish education.
My great uncle, Charlie, in his early twenties, moved the family from Poland to escape pogroms. Many Jews in Cleveland at the time were in the same boat – immigrants starting over because of anti-Semitism with little money, no connections and poor English. Existence was hard and Jewish life was sparse. Bonded by a common plight, they pooled their meager resources and did what Jews do. They built. They extended hands to Holocaust survivors, erected synagogues, and established the robust communal infrastructure of which we are the beneficiaries.
I’m always amazed, humbled really, by these stories of resilience – brave souls uprooting everything and rebuilding their lives in strange lands. But the truth is, Jews have been starting over and succeeding at it since our inception as a people. “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” Churchill said. Jews never do. We’re at our best, galvanized and resourceful, in times of crisis. Less so perhaps in times of tranquility.
The state of Israel, however, stands as a totem to the contrary. While it was founded on the heels of the worst atrocity in Jewish history, its abounding growth and success over the ensuing 70 years affirm that Jewish ingenuity stems from something other than crisis. It wells from a spring native to Jewish identity. Early Zionist thinkers knew this. Though they disagreed on a lot, they did agree that the goal of a Jewish homeland wasn’t safety and security alone, merely sanctuary from crisis. Sovereignty would finally permit the long-fettered Jewish spirit to organically unfurl and flourish, to build and be built. They were right.
Thus, it’s our tradition itself, not merely hardship, that spurs our inclination to build and create. Not by accident have Jews reached the pinnacle of nearly every discipline- science, medicine, the arts. Hard work and curiosity are fundamental to who we are and what our tradition prescribes. Adverse times didn’t define my Uncle Charlie. He and his compatriots defined their times by utilizing an ancient blueprint for building, the same one referenced for over 3,000 years. The travails of Jewish history contribute context to our collective identity, but don’t lie at its heart where the hard, abiding work of Jewish continuity resides.
The distinction between teaching students about our history and charging them with the responsibility of writing it has classroom implications. The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks analogized the work of Jewish continuity to contributing a letter to an evolving scroll. I love this metaphoric image because it ascribes agency to individuals and alludes to Judaism’s adaptive capacity. While the new letters of the scroll must derive in style and content from those preceding, the blank rows and columns that follow require creative, faithful input from those who take up the quill. But someone must take up the quill. Familiarity with the past is necessary but not sufficient. Action to secure our future is required by each successive generation.
From the vantage of a pediatrician, I think it’s harder than it has ever been for a child to form their identity. Bombarded by emotive, addictive, and self-affirming content of social media, they can barely hear themselves. I often strain to capture their attention in the exam room and wonder how educators compete in the classroom. Against the deluge of alluring content, education that is passive, immersive and exposure-based alone, will fall short.
But, if I learned anything from the story of my Uncle Charlie it’s that ours is a tradition of active engaging and not passive imbibing. Historical events give dimension but don’t define the fundamental nature of who we are. In good times or bad, we are authors mining our rich history, pivoting around its unassailable truths, in order to interpret unique modern predicaments. The response to an intellectual assault on the minds of our youth should be reflexive. It should awaken the doers we inherently are. Students will choose to contribute prose to a 3,700-year-old narrative over posting on TikTok when the burden of authorship is impressed upon them early and often.
Dr. David Shafran is a Beachwood resident and a member of Oheb Zedek Cedar Sinai Synagogue in Lyndhurst.