Can building a temporary shelter repair what ails American Judaism?

Can building a temporary shelter repair what ails American Judaism?

In a previous Raffel’s Riffs, I affirmed the basic value of utilizing the 10-day Taglit Birthright trips for young Jews to foster a loving connection to Israel (“What’s the story with Birthright?” Aug. 14). In addition, I suggested that the trips could help participants gain a greater appreciation for the complex dilemmas facing Israel, including the vexing Palestinian issue. 

A subsequent edition of NJJN featured a response by Stephen Flatow, a prominent Israel activist and a fellow Long Branch resident, “It’s not Birthright that’s in need of repair, it’s American Judaism” (Sept. 4). But my truth and his are not mutually exclusive.

A leader in the modern Orthodox community, Flatow laments that “we” — here I assume he means non-Orthodox Jews — have failed to raise a generation of young Jews to appreciate the “joys of Yiddishkeit,” which include observing a meaningful Shabbat and understanding the underlying messages of our holidays, such as Purim and Chanukah. He decries that American Judaism places far too much emphasis on tikkun olam, literally “repairing the world,” a phrase that he points out does not appear in the Bible and which he says boils down to “just being a nice person.”

The concept of tikkun olam, of course, means so much more than that. For many Jews, it represents a fundamental commitment to work toward peace and justice in the world. One can legitimately argue that the non-Orthodox movements have fallen short in transmitting our heritage, culture, and religious values to the next generation, while also acknowledging that a robust commitment to social justice and human rights are core Jewish values. There is no contradiction.

Is American Judaism in need of repair? Yes. I have long believed that our community has focused far too heavily on the “oys” of Jewish life and not enough on the “joys.” It’s not that countering the forces seeking Israel’s destruction, fighting anti-Semitism, and promoting Holocaust education are unimportant. To the contrary, they are essential, and I personally devoted my entire professional career to those objectives. But, in the effort to nurture Jewish identity and commitments, it’s a matter of balance, and sequence. Young Jews first need to discover compelling reasons why their Jewish identity can provide the bridge to an affirmative, meaningful, and beautiful lives, and then move on to the aforementioned “oys.”

Building on that theme, I come now in praise of Sukkot, a holiday that some may regard as anticlimactic as it follows the “Days of Awe,” Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Of all the Jewish holidays, Sukkot, often referred to as “zman simchatenu” (time of our joy), could provide the best pathway to a Jewish child’s heart.

Reflecting on my own childhood experience, I think nostalgically of the sukkah hopping I did with friends after synagogue services. My parents, although deeply committed to Jewish life, never erected a sukkah of their own, but with each sukkah I visited — and we spent hours roaming the neighborhood — there would be some new tasty morsel. Truth be told, around that age I also enjoyed Halloween, but we considered sukkah hopping a Jewish-sanctioned form of trick-or-treating.

When we sent our children to the Solomon Schechter Day School of the Raritan Valley in East Brunswick, my wife and I decided that having a sukkah came with the territory. Our sukkah on the deck was a modest one, the modular kind that can be put up in a matter of a couple of hours. Recently I asked my now-adult children their recollections of our sukkah.

“It was really cozy, and I loved decorating it,” said my daughter, 31. “Sukkot was the most connected I felt as a Jew because I was doing what my ancestors did,” my son, 28, said. “I loved the camaraderie of building the sukkah and having people come over to chill in it.” All these years later the two of them are discussing the possibility of putting up a sukkah on the roof of my son’s apartment building in Philadelphia’s Center City area. 

Yet, it would be wrong to suggest the enjoyment that comes from observing Sukkot is only for kids. A dear friend, a devotee of the 18th-century chasidic scholar Reb Nachman of Breslov, suggested that I look at Sukkot and Simchat Torah, which immediately follows Sukkot, as part of a continuum. We ought to think about the series of holidays bunched together this time of year, my friend explained, as an opportunity to fulfill our responsibility to do teshuvah, or repentance.

The literal translation of teshuvah is return, a word that conveys taking stock of our lives and coming back to the most desired versions of ourselves. The observances of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are intended to provoke solemn introspective connection to God through prayer and fasting. Sukkot and Simchat Torah, on the other hand, offer opportunities to connect with God through celebration and joy. Furthermore, gazing at the stars through the schach, the sukkah’s porous roof, we are invited to reflect not only on our relationship with the Divine, but also on our own place in the natural world.

Maybe it’s because I am less than a year away from turning 70, but at least for me, the concept of hitting the pause button — to take stock and to consider what to do with whatever time I have left — seems to resonate most deeply. Whether as children or as adults, we Jews should be grateful for the precious gift of our holidays. Let’s embrace the opportunities they present for both joy and meaning.

While I have no illusions that the observance of Sukkot, or of any other holiday or of Shabbat, are panaceas for what ails American Judaism, for those of us dedicated to a vibrant future for our community, they can be the first step toward a cure.

Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

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