As a part of our Rabbi Roundtable series, we brought together leading rabbis from all corners of the Jewish world to offer their thoughts on the big questions. This week, we asked our rabbis, “What makes you proud to be a Jew?” Here are their responses:
Shmuly Yanklowitz, Orthodox, Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice: The timelessness of Jewish wisdom is a beautiful thing, and there is nothing that makes me prouder to be a Jew than when I witness Jews make major contributions to society based on unique Jewish wisdom. These can be intellectual contributions (which are nice). Most inspiring, however, is when these contributions are based on compassion, either through saving or enhancing lives. More so, when I see people unconnected with their Judaism rekindle the sparks in their soul through Jewish learning, I become overwhelmed with pride that the traditions that have survived through millennia are made tangible yet again.
Denise Eger, Reform, Former President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis: I am most proud to be a Jew when I see our community come together to help others, be it in our own community or the larger world. When I see Jews gathering to march for justice in America for equality or against hate, Israelis helping Syrian refugees in Germany through IsrAID, the Jewish community raising funds to help lift up those who have fallen on hard times, or like in our congregation when we go to Guatemala to build houses each year, this reflects the best of what it means to be a Jew: living the value of Love your neighbor as yourself.
Mitchell Wohlberg, Orthodox, Beth Tfiloh Congregation: As a Jew, I always feel a burst of pride whenever I see a Jewish name listed on the wall of a hospital, university, or educational facility. The pride is heightened every year when Jewish names are listed as Nobel Prize winners. “What a people!” I think to myself. Look at the contributions Jews have made over the centuries for the betterment of society — societies which, one after the other, tried to destroy us. “What a people!”
Rachel Barenblat, Renewal, Author of “The Velveteen Rabbi”:The Jewish approach to sacred time makes me proud to be a Jew. I love our rhythms of weekday and Shabbat, festival time and ordinary time. Jewish texts make me proud to be a Jew. I love studying Torah, and I especially love studying Hasidic commentaries that take ancient Torah texts and make them surprising and relevant and new. Jewish social justice work makes me proud to be a Jew. I love the Jewish impetus not only to study how we might make the world a better place, but then to go and do what we have studied — as Rabbi Akiva famously noted, “Which is better, study or action? Study — if it leads to action.”
Gil Student, Orthodox, Editor of TorahMusings.com: Being Jewish in today’s world seems to mean being embarrassed. We have been given the gift of divine guidance, an instruction manual from our Creator. It includes how to live, what to value, eternal truth and insight. Yet so many Jews ignore this opportunity. Instead, many of us take our views from the media, accepting politically correct opinions that invariably change every few years. We eat the fashionable talking points for breakfast and repeat them all day on social media. Torah values and observances should be a source of pride, but instead, many feel embarrassed by them. I am proud of the timeless wisdom we have been given in the Torah.
Jill Jacobs, Conservative, T’ruah: I am proud of our long tradition of living our values in the world, of integrating our ritual and ethical selves, of our rich tradition of learning and intellectual engagement, of our commitment to remembering and acting on our history, of the loving communities we build, and of our resilience in challenging times.
Shmuly Boteach, Orthodox, Author of “Judaism For Everyone”: What makes me proud to be a Jew is to embrace the legacy of Abraham who represented universal kindness; to represent the code of law as brought down by Moses; to represent the love and celebration of G-d as represented by King David’s psalms; to represent the need to be ferocious at times with regards to our opponents as represented by the prophetess Deborah; and to represent the global vision of spreading light of G-d and goodness as articulated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Adina Lewittes, Conservative, Sha’ar Communities: Israeli field hospitals in every natural and humanitarian disaster zone. LGBTQ rabbis. ELAL planes on the tarmac. Jewish theological humility. Jewish gun control advocates. Robust intellectual debate. The ark curtain (parochet) at the Heschel High School embroidered with “Ayeka/Where are you?” inviting students into a journey of self-discovery rather than telling them whom they ought to be. Taking a month each year to do Teshuvah. The variety of Jewish identities and practices. Celebrating Yom Ha’Atzmaut at the Warsaw JCC. Our growing Jewish tent. The oversized Star of David around my neck.
Benjamin Sendrow, Conservative, Congregation Shaarey Tefilla: I’m proud to be a Jew because Judaism makes the world better. It started with Genesis 1:1, introducing the revolutionary idea of an unseen God Who is the sole universal moral authority. The Torah changed the world in many other ways, including with some of its most misunderstood passages. The rebellious son passage (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) did not grant city elders the power to execute a disobedient son; it took that power away from parents. The Isaac & Rebecca story gave a woman the right to say whether she would marry a man. The Torah knew that humanity is neither inherently good nor evil, but that each of us has good and bad impulses. Jump ahead to today, the Israeli company Water-Gen created a machine that makes water out of air, only the latest of the technological advances with which Israel has made the world better. That is our mission, we have been doing it for millennia, and we continue to do it today. Who wouldn’t be proud?
Rebecca W. Sirbu, Post-Denominational, Rabbis Without Borders: I love Judaism. I love reading the stories and history of our people, and I love learning about the intricacies of Jewish law. There are so many different interpretations and loopholes. Most of all, I love to find where the ancient wisdom has meaning for us today. I understand Judaism to be a living tradition that can be reinterpreted and used in different ways depending on the needs of the user. I am proud to be a member of a tradition/peoplehood that can be both old and new at the same time and that includes many different voices from across the millennia to today.
Asher Lopatin, Orthodox, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School: I am proud of the impact the Jewish people has made in every quarter of the world: in saving lives through science, medicine and psychology; in making the world better through morality, ethics, law, technology and art; and in connecting much of humanity to a God of compassion and caring for every person. On a grander level, I am proud that Judaism gave the world the idea of change and hope through the Messianic vision, and empowered humanity with the responsibility to achieve an ever-more perfect world.
Adam Chalom, Humanistic, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism: I am proud of what my extended Jewish family has done to understand and improve the human condition, from Nobel Prize winners to meaningful ethical sayings like “love your neighbor as yourself.” I am proud that rabbinic culture prized learning and debate over violent conflict, though that was historical circumstance as well as values and has been improved recently by broadening what we learn, who may learn, and the range of debate. And I am proud that Jewish identity has always evolved to fit new needs and values, enabling us to be proud of who we are without having to defend everything that was or is Jewish.
Aaron Potek, Pluralist, Gather DC: We’re not afraid of disagreement; in fact, we embrace and encourage it. Our religious texts are interpretive rather than dogmatic. This allows us to seek out and discover the truth, even when it goes against conventional wisdom, and it allows us to speak that truth to power, even when that power is God. Similarly, we’re also not afraid of diversity. An openness to difference is foundational to our religious outlook; we don’t proselytize, which means we don’t have an exclusive claim on truth. The key to tikkun olam is creating the space, within ourselves and within our surroundings, that can contain difference.
Nina H. Mandel, Reconstructionist, Congregation Beth El-Sunbury, PA: I am incredibly proud of being part of a global “nation” of people who identify as Jewish. Although the details may vary, our collective narrative links us to a common past and a shared investment in the future. This identity keeps me from being isolated in my world view and helps me empathize with other global minority populations. And I am especially proud that this sense of connection is integrated into all aspects of the Jewish experience.
Michael P. Sternfield, Reform, Temple Beth El: Although I am not an Israeli, I have tremendous pride in what Israel has accomplished in the 70 years of its formal existence. Especially cognizant that the Jewish people seemed to be literally at death’s door when World War II ended, the rebirth of our people in Israel is, to me, literally miraculous. The heroism, the tenacity, the energy and the desire to create a great nation are almost beyond belief. Who would have imagined in 1945 that the State of Israel could become what it is today, especially considering that it has yet to enjoy even a single day of peace? After the horrors of the Shoah, the Jewish people has regenerated itself as no other country has ever done, and in a very short span of time. And the best part is: this is only the beginning. I feel so proud and so incredibly blessed to witness to and just a small part of the greatest epoch in all of Jewish history.
Yitzchok Adlerstein, Orthodox, Cross-Currents: I am proud to sometimes see the fulfilment of the line in the Deuteronomy, that the non-Jewish nations will say, “What a wise and discerning nation is this great people.” We live in a special country, and special times, where Jews are the most admired religious group in the country. I am proud to be able to actively and directly elicit reactions from non-Jews that they understand our role in bringing a higher consciousness of G-d’s reality to them. We are able today to sanctify G-d’s Name by living according to the Torah, not only by giving our lives as our forebears did.
Shalom Lewis, Conservative, Congregation Etz Chaim: I am proud to be a Jew because of many clichés. We are an indestructible, resilient people and have survived and thrived relentless attempts to destroy us. History’s most vicious barbarians have tried to wipe us out and yet, we walk on their graves and live the stale humor of ‘They came to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.’ I am proud to be a Jew because we have contributed mightily and disproportionately to the betterment of this planet for millennia. I am proud to be a Jew because we applauded Anwar Sadat when he exited his plane in Israel. I am proud to be a Jew because we brought morality and justice to a brutal world. I am proud to be a Jew because we gave the world Jeremiah and Seinfeld, Einstein and Maimonides, Salk and Bernstein, Rickover and Gershwin. The Psalms and Heine. I am proud to be a Jew because we are an astonishing people who have made civilization more civilized and life more livable. I am proud to be a Jew because we know how to cry for others and we know when to throw a punch.
Avram Mlotek, Orthodox, Co-Founder of Base Hillel: The very fact that Judaism exists and lives in its multifaceted diversity is what makes me proud to be a Jew. Despite countless centuries of persecution and terror, Judaism has survived. And by need or by circumstance, Judaism has evolved and it has never ceased innovating. From the destruction of the Temple or attempted destruction of Eastern European Jewry, the Jewish people live. From the written law to the oral law to works of responsa that ask how Jews might adapt to modern societies while adhering to their faith, Jews learned how to embrace newness. To be alive and to thrive in our diverse interpretations of Judaism is inspiring and fills me with pride.
Rachel Timoner, Reform, Congregation Beth Elohim: Our resilience, our brilliance, our conversation with one another for 3,000 years about how to live a good life, our conversation with the Holy Blessed One for 3,000 years about how to fear and how to love and how to serve.
Uri Pilichowski, Orthodox, Yeshivat Migdal Hatorah: When I study Torah and recognize the great wisdom of our heritage, I feel proud to be a Jew. When I see the great kindness Jews practice throughout the world, I am proud to be a Jew. When I see the great philanthropy of the Jewish people, I am proud to be a Jew. When am I most proud to be a Jew? When I see my children and students appreciate all that Judaism has to offer.