Thursday, October 14, 2010

(This article is the continuation of a previous, bleaker article found here.)

What Are The Odds?

“What are the odds?” should be the motto of the Jewish people. Amidst all of the highs and lows of Jewish history, Jews have become afficianados of “mazel”, acutely aware of life’s possibilities and vulnerabilities. We cherish good luck, and at every Simcha we wish “mazel tov”, praying that the young couple, the new baby, the Bar-Bat Mitzvah child have good luck. And we certainly know what bad luck looks like; I don’t need to recite the encyclopedia of Jewish suffering, from Nebuchanezar to Titus to Hitler to Ahmadinejad, to remind you of Jewish bad luck.

But there is one type of luck that Jews overlook: bad luck that looks like good luck.

Today we live in era of deceptive luck. There is no doubt that the American dream has been a Jewish dream too. We have prospered and excelled. For the first time in our history we have moved mainstream, and we are accepted as both Americans and Jews. An exchange during the confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan underlines just how comfortable Jews are. Senator Lindsey Graham was asking Kagan about the Christmas Day bomber in Detroit, and started by asking “Where were you on Christmas Day?”. After a short aside, Kagan answered with a laugh “You know, like all Jews, I was probably in a Chinese restaurant.” The Senate filled with laughter. Jews are very much at home in North America.

But as I pointed out in my last column, Jewish success has brought with it bad luck. We are assimilating like never before; in the United States, there are fewer Jews today than there were in 1960. The Jewish American experience is truly a mixed blessing. What are the odds that the best time in Jewish history would also be the worst time in Jewish history?

But it would be a mistake to give up on the Jewish future. The Jews are what Simon Rawidowicz called “an ever-dying people.” Every time we’re down, we beat the odds.

We beat the odds because it only takes one committed person to ensure a Jewish future.

Rabbi Akiva understood this lesson. He had 24,000 students who perished, disappearing in a month’s time. Yet Rabbi Akiva continued on, and gathered five students with whom he rebuilt the Jewish tradition.

I’ve always wondered what it must have been like for Rabbi Akiva. Here’s a man used to lecturing in packed auditoriums, now reduced to lecturing a handful of survivors in a broom closet. How do you not lose your faith in the future?

But Rabbi Akiva perseveres because he understands that there are odds, and there are Jewish odds. Numbers and statistics don’t matter; because if they did, Jews would have disappeared a long time ago. For the Jewish mission to continue, all you need is commitment, all you need is one devoted teacher.

Judaism has defied the rules of statistics because in each generation there were people like Rabbi Akiva, and people like a little old lady by the name of Yitta Schwartz.

When Yitta died last year at 93, she left behind 2,000 living descendants. What are the odds of that happening?

But that’s precisely the point. Yitta was a survivor who lost two children during the Holocaust. But like Rabbi Akiva, she understood that one committed person can change the odds dramatically.

The Jews should have disappeared many times in the last 2,500 years; and we face major challenges in our future. But Jewish survival is not about statistics and demographic studies, it’s about committed people.

And if you ask Rabbi Akiva and Yitta Schwartz, the odds for Jewish survival are very good indeed.

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