What makes a ‘real’ Jew?

After being alive for 16 years, I would think it would be easy to classify myself into a certain category, and that by now I would know what, who and why I am what I am. But as I grow older, it has become more complicated for me to label myself — secular, religious, Jewish American Mexican, Mexican American Jew.

This is probably a result of the fact that the older I get, the more in-depth I learn about my religion and the more I begin to formulate my own thoughts and opinions about it and about myself. While for a long time I have been able to articulate thoughts on certain religious matters, I have to admit that those opinions were, for the most part, strongly or loosely based on those of my parents and teachers. For example, I was a secular Jew because my mother told me that she was a secular Jew. I considered myself to be a Mexican American teenage girl, who happened to be Jewish, as well, because that was the way I was raised. We would celebrate Shabbat when it was convenient to, and would observe only the “famous” Jewish holidays — Chanukah, Pesach, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.

I considered a Jew to be a person who knew about the Torah, kept kosher, celebrated Shabbat and who went to temple every Friday night — and anyone who did not, was, in my eyes, not a “real” Jew. This consequently meant that I was not a “real” Jew. The thought of this not only made me hate the religion’s standards — which I myself had set — but it caused me to feel very confused about myself. I wasn’t sure which temple I liked, how to celebrate each holiday, and even how to eat. Everyone I met seemed to have different views than I did, and no one was able to help me understand where I fit in best.

When I started Milken Community High School’s middle school after finishing the sixth grade at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School, I further realized how unacquainted I was with my own feelings toward my religion. Although we had Judaic studies every year, I felt unable to drift away from my parents’ beliefs and create my own.

Then, in 10th grade this past year, I was accepted into the Tiferet Israel Program, for which I left the comfort of my parents’ home and lived in Israel on my own for four months, along with 38 other Milken 10th- graders.

I was relieved to find that one of my friends, Tali, happened to be in Israel at the same time, on a separate school program. Tali, a girl I met at tennis camp, was one of the only people I knew who shared my beliefs — we both agreed that it was not necessary to follow all of the rituals of the Jewish religion. It was not until we reconnected in Israel that I found out her father is an Orthodox rabbi who works at Chabad. This immediately made me wonder how a rabbi, an Orthodox rabbi, a “real” Jew, could raise a “fake” one. I asked Tali what she considered herself to be, and whether or not she felt comfortable with her decision of moving away from her family’s opinions and creating her own. She answered that she respected her parents’ beliefs but did not completely agree with what they stood for. When I asked her if she felt as Jewish as her father, she responded without any hesitation, “I am just as Jewish as my father and mother and you are just as Jewish as them as well.” Hearing those words finally come out of someone’s mouth besides my own was like lifting the world off my shoulders. From that point on I no longer felt uncomfortable with my beliefs, and I no longer felt out of place.

Every day it became clearer to me that there was not one specific way to define a “real” Jew. By observing the amount of pride and devotion that all the Jewish Israelis felt toward their religion, I began to understand that simply believing in God and being proud of the fact that you are Jewish automatically makes you as Jewish as you can get. I was able to see on many different occasions the variety of Jews, and how I did not have to fit into any one of them in order to be Jewish. When our group went to the Kotel, for example, I was able to see ultra-Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, Modern Orthodox Jews, and Jews that don’t fit into any of the categories praying toward the Wall, and every one of them accepts the other as a member of the Jewish faith.

All of my experiences in Israel made me able to officially classify myself under a category that I fit into. I now consider myself to be a Jewish Mexican American teenage girl, and I am proud to have it be in that order. I no longer feel disconnected from the rest of the Jewish people, and for the first time in my life, I feel as Jewish as any rabbi who works at Chabad — or any Jew in the world.

Rebecca Suchov just completed the 10th grade at Milken Community High School.<BR>

The Path for Growth

Almost 10 years ago to the day, I was interviewing at Adat Ari El for the position of assistant rabbi. The parsha on which I had to speak was Terumah. I wondered if there was any chance I would get the job.

Let me explain.

Some Torah portions lend themselves very easily to sermons. Yitro, which contains the giving of the Ten Commandments has lots of material about which to talk. Others are more challenging, like Tazria-Metzorah, which has extensive discussions about skin diseases, inflammations and rashes.

Terumah focuses on the details of the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle the Israelites were to carry with them through their wilderness sojourn. So we read about the height, width and length of the various items in the Mishkan, like the ark, the menorah, the altars and with what and how these things were to be decorated and covered — a dream for an interior decorator but a nightmare for a fifth-year rabbinical student looking for a job.

However, details communicate to us. They convey messages about our priorities, values and beliefs. Similarly, the details surrounding the Mishkan — whether something was covered in gold or bronze, where it was located and how was it made — contain their own lessons and meanings.

We see an instance of this in the rabbinic commentary on the wood used to build the Mishkan. In this week’s parsha, we read: “You shall make the planks for the Mishkan of acacia wood, upright” (Exodus 26:15).

The rabbis ask the following question: Why does the Torah insist on acacia wood? What is so special about it over and against other wood? Their answer is at once succinct and profound: Because it is not wood from a fruit-bearing tree.

What does this mean? Just as the Mishkan cannot be built by destroying that which gives food and sustenance and provides for the future, so, too, we cannot build our religion on beliefs, practices and attitudes that are destructive to those around us at the same time. God is the source and creator of all life, and it is God that permeates and infuses the entire world around us. Therefore, it is illogical to build a house dedicated to God that destroys that which God has made at the same time.

And what is true for God’s house is also true for us as individuals, for what are we if not portable tabernacles for God’s presence?

When we are little, we learn that what goes up must come down. It is the most basic rule of gravity and the first one we learn as children. But as we grow older, we learn a new twist on this basic law: I can build myself up by putting others down.

However, if we truly want to live life to the fullest and embrace it to the greatest extent possible, we need to find the inner resolve and sense of self-worth to feel good about who we are in a manner that does not put down others.

Hence, be it as religious tradition or an individual, the Torah teaches through a seemingly minor detail a crucial lesson: If we wish to find holiness comparable to the Mishkan and draw closer to God, it can only be done when we create in a way that does not also destroy at the same time. Our own growth can only be sanctified when it does not come at the expense of others.

Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard is a rabbi at Adat Ari El in Valley Village. He can be reached at rabbijjb@adatariel.org.

Longing for the Messiah

When we open our doors at the seder and invite Elijah the Prophet to sip the glass of wine that we have designated for him, we express our longing for

the Messiah. Elijah, in our tradition, will herald the arrival of a ruler who will enable a world of peace. The message of the seder is of hope: God, the Creator, entered history to free us from bondage, providing reason to believe that God will re-enter history to facilitate the final redemption.

Jews believe that the Messiah has not yet come. The test of the authenticity of the Messiah, as we understand our Scripture, is by physical achievement: Is there Jewish independence and universal peace? We have had many who were proclaimed Messiah at one time. Bar Kokhba led a revolt in the year 132 against the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Many Jews, including the beloved Rabbi Akiva who is mentioned in our Passover haggadah, believed that Bar Kokhba was the Messiah. Alas, the revolt failed dismally, Bar Kokhba was killed and Jews kept longing.

The most successful Messiah vis-a-vis the Jewish community arose in the 17th century. According to professor Gershom Scholem, the great historian of Jewish mysticism, close to two out of every three Jews in the world for many months believed that Shabbetai Tzvi (1626-1676) was the man who would bring redemption. It was a time of intense Jewish persecution, marked by massacres in Poland and Russia. Israel was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Shabbetai Tzvi had a prophet, Nathan, who taught that the time had arrived for the return of the Jews to their homeland. Upon arriving in the capital of Constantinople with the hope of visiting the Sultan, he was arrested. In custody he had considerable freedom and to symbolize the messianic era, he sacrificed a paschal lamb at Passover. Soon afterward, he was given a choice: convert to Islam or die. He converted. Some of his followers said that it was only a test of their faith and that Shabbetai had gone over to the dark side to gather holy sparks. Bottom line: Shabbetai never delivered.

In more recent times, many followers of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, believed that he was the Messiah. There was precedent for such belief among Chasidim. For instance, in the 19th century, followers of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav believed that he would unite and elevate holy sparks enabling the messianic era. During Schneerson’s protracted illness his followers held on to belief that he would proclaim his true cosmic role. It was a time of hope, influenced by the recent fall of the Soviet Empire and the possibility of peace in Israel. Once the Rebbe died, close to 10 years ago, many of his Chasidim asserted that he would be resurrected speedily in our day. Some still cling to that faith.

Messianism is dangerous when it leads to false hopes or the need to convert others. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the 20th century theologian, said that when the Messiah comes, he should refrain from announcing his name, thereby allowing Jews and Christians to welcome the Messiah together. We don’t believe in a Second Coming. Our reading of Scripture has only one coming, which is tested by its success. Moreover, Jewish mysticism and modernity have reinforced that each of us is a partner in the crafting of a world of harmony. Each of us has a role as a peacemaker, beginning with our own homes and communities.

In our tradition, history is a spiral. The same seasons return each year, but there is a forward and upward motion. One day we will celebrate the redemption of all of creation. May that day arrive speedily.

Eli Spitz is senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin.

Humanistic Judaism Trods Different Path

Rabbi Sherwin Wine of Birmingham Temple in Detroit founded
Humanistic Judaism in 1963. Today, there are over 30,000 Jews involved with
Humanistic Judaism in North America, including 1,000 in the greater Los Angeles

He was named Humanist of the Year for 2003 by the American
Humanist Association in recognition of 40 years of professional service that
have benefited the Humanist community. Past recipients of the award include
Betty Friedan, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould and Margaret Sanger. He spoke to The
Jewish Journal about Humanism.

Jewish Journal: What is Humanism?

Sherwin Wine: Humanism is a philosophy of life which
believes that the basic power for solving human problems lies within human
beings. And Humanistic Judaism is a philosophy of life which maintains that the
basic power for solving human problems lies within human beings and is enriched
by the history and culture of the Jewish people.

JJ: How does Humanistic Judaism differ from regular Judaism?

SW: On a practical level, it means that our services and
instruction of both adults and children is different. Most of traditional
Judaism and even liberal Judaism is a God-centered Judaism, and we are a
people-centered Judaism. So the conventional prayers that would be said in
traditional synagogues are not part of our services. Our services consist of
different writings, poetry and music that are consistent to a people-centered

JJ: What sort of tenets does Humanistic Judaism have besides
these services?

SW: The heart of a good philosophy of life or religion,
whether it is Orthodoxy or Humanistic Judaism, is ethics. So for us, the
foundation of our teaching is ethical, and those are the same ethical norms
that all the great philosophies of life and religions of the world maintain.
Character training is the most important thing that we can do, and that is the
heart of it. All the other rituals are secondary to ethics. In addition, since
the history and culture of the Jewish people is for us a reinforcement of our
Humanism, we celebrate all the Jewish holidays, but we celebrate them in
accordance with our people-centered philosophy. We do not believe these
holidays were announced on top of a mountain. We believe these holidays were
created by the Jewish people over many centuries, and the themes of the
holidays are not about miraculous power, but the themes are, for us, about
human ethical values.

In addition, we have the full panoply of lifecycle
celebrations, which are birth ceremonies, bar and bat mitzvah, weddings. We
have all of that, and we spend a lot of time studying the history and
literature of the Jewish people. For us, the literature of the Jewish people
includes the Torah, but not only the Torah. It includes all the literature of
the Jews until modern times.

JJ: Was Humanistic Judaism established because traditional
Judaism did not have enough focus on ethics?

SW:  The reason why Humanistic Judaism came into existence
was surveys indicated that close to 47 percent of the Jews in North America
identify themselves as secular, which means that they don’t find any meaning in
a God-oriented Judaism. Their main orientation to Judaism is cultural and

We are trying to reach out to Jews who are not Orthodox,
Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist, but who want to connect themselves
to the Jewish community, but haven’t been successful in doing that, because
they haven’t found a community where their beliefs and their desire to be Jews
come together.

We are not saying that traditional Jews don’t have that [ethical]
emphasis. Rather, we are saying that we don’t want to be part of saying prayers
we don’t believe in and asking for divine power that we don’t believe in.

Our job in life is not to train ourselves to depend on
divine power — for us, our job in life is to make ourselves strong in order to
deal with a difficult world.

JJ: What are the five main points of Humanistic Judaism?

SW: 1. Humanistic Judaism believes that Judaism is the
historic culture and civilization of the Jewish people.

2. It believes that the highest ethical goal of life is the
creation of dignity for all human beings.

3. That the basic source of power for solving human problems
lies within human beings

4. That the culture of the Jewish people — its literature,
its holidays — are the creation of the Jewish people over many centuries

5. That the meaning of Jewish history, given the experience
of the Jews in particular over the last few centuries, means in the end, we
Jews, like all people, have to find the power within ourselves and to develop
our own strength to meet the challenges of life.

Rabbi Wine will address Adat Chaverim on Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Universalist Center, 9550 Haskell Ave., North Hills and will also speak on
Jan. 19 at 11 a.m. at the Skirball Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd.,Los Angeles.
For information, call (818) 623-7363.