Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A Tale of Two Menorah Lightings

This appeared in the CJN, January 13th, 2016

It turned out to be a farce. Our community Menorah was vandalized on the first night of Chanukah, hours after the annual Menorah lighting. In the course of an afternoon, a special Menorah lighting for the second night was organized. Hundreds arrived in solidarity, and Mayor DeBlasio and political leaders attended. The message on the second night was clear: New York City will not tolerate intolerance.  This evening of solidarity was wonderful, except for one problem: the vandalism had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. A few days later, a 14 year old was arrested; he said he had vandalized the Menorah because he was “bored”. In retrospect, it was much ado about nothing, a rally against an anti-Semitic act that never was.

This phantom hate crime brings up a complicated subject: anti-Semitism. It’s hard for many to recognize that anti-Semitism is no longer an existential threat for North American Jews. (The situation is very different for European Jews). To be clear, anti-Semitism is a serious issue for all Canadians and Americans, just like any act of racism; democracies must react forcefully, to prevent prejudice from spreading. But anti-Semitism is no longer the primary challenge facing North American Jews. George Washington hoped that “the children of the Stock of Abraham” would “merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants”; that is certainly the case in 2015. Jews in North America are established, admired and affluent; yet despite all the good news, our community is shrinking rapidly.

Today, the greatest threat to Jewish life is assimilation. The people who show the least enthusiasm for Judaism are the ones who matter most: young Jews. The Pew report of 2013 reports that 32% of Jews 35 and younger identify themselves as Jews “with no religion”. Exactly at the moment when we’ve overcome historic struggles with discrimination and hatred, we find ourselves facing an even greater test: acceptance.  

Acceptance is the achilles heel of the Jewish community. In medieval Europe, Jews in Northern European countries experienced greater persecution than their peers in Spain, yet the Spanish Jews were more likely to convert out of Judaism. Paradoxically, Jews have found it easier to keep their Jewish identity when when it was difficult to be a Jew.To paraphrase Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, success is a test as well. And for American Jews, success is turning out to be a greater challenge to Jewish identity than persecution.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks jokes that the one way to fill up synagogues would be by putting up large signs outside declaring “no Jews allowed,” because contemporary Jews would be certain to join any institution that would refuse them membership. He’s absolutely correct. We have made our way into restricted country clubs, and now thrive in once-restricted neighbourhoods. But what are we going to do about assimilation?

While there are no quick fixes for assimilation, the annual Menorah lighting is part of the solution. This program, sponsored by Chabad and the KJ Beginner’s program, has one simple assumption: that even one Chanukah candle can open the door to a meaningful Jewish identity. And engagement initiatives like this have had a wide-ranging effect on American Jews.

American Jewish history is the tale of these two menorah lightings. One story is the 350 year battle against anti-Semitic prejudices, a heartwarming story of refugees from other countries finding full acceptance in the United States and Canada; that was on full display when the Mayor attended the second Menorah lighting. But the story of the 21st century Jewish community, one that remains to be written, is whether Judaism can continue to compete for the hearts and minds of young Jews. While it’s wonderful that the Mayor lit the Menorah on the second night of Chanukah, our future depends on whether we will be able to inspire the next generation of Jews to light the Menorah all eight nights of Chanukah.

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