Just by showing up, those attending Erica Brown’s talk in Scotch Plains on April 1 earned an extra check on her “ways of being Jewish” list.
It could have fitted in the “behavior” category — for showing up at a Jewish community event — or the “emotional” — for being anxious about Jewish survival — or the “intellectual” — wanting to explore the concepts she covered.
Put all three together, said Brown — who serves as scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and is a prolific writer and speaker — and you improve the odds of having a “thick, positive” Jewish identity, one that persists through all circumstances.
The alternative, she suggested, is a “thin” identity, or one that factors into your life at certain times and not at others, or only emerges when faced with anti-Semitism or when Israel is endangered.
Brown’s presentation, at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus, drew a close-to-capacity audience of almost 150 people. It was funded by the Jerry Waldor Institute of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, an education series in memory of the philanthropist and federation stalwart who died in 2005.
Brown, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., is the author of a number of popular books of Jewish wisdom, including Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death.
Abandoning the lectern and working without a text, Brown strode about, drawing in the audience with questions, eliciting laughter and eager answers.
Her purpose — as an educator, writer, and mother of four — is to inspire those with “thick, positive” Jewish identity to get vocal about their passion and spread their enthusiasm.
“Our job, if you take Jewish leadership seriously, is to take the silent Jews and bring them to song,” she said. “It’s incredibly do-able. If your own Jewishness is compelling and meaningful and joyful, and you share that with others, you guarantee the engagement of the next generation.”
Brown, who coauthored the book The Case for Jewish Peoplehood, told the Scotch Plains crowd that “peoplehood” has turned out to be a questionable word when it comes to appealing to the masses. Brown acknowledged the danger of assimilation underlined by the recent Pew survey, but, she declared, “much has been made of it and frankly, I’m a little tired of it.”
Instead, she said, the most powerful way to keep Jews Jewish is through “multiple immersion experiences,” including summer camp, Birthright trips, and Israel and overseas missions combined with goal-directed, purposeful activities on behalf of the community.
“We have to make it our business to be good ambassadors for Jewish life,” she said.
Leslie Dannin Rosenthal, the UJA Campaign chair for the Jewish federation, said she had traveled on a mission with Brown to Minsk, Belarus, this past summer.
“She’s one of those who the more she does, the more she does,” said Rosenthal. “I’ve had the pleasure of studying with her, and I’ve read her book Inspired Jewish Leadership over and over.”