Wednesday, January 20, 2021

An Open Letter to Jewish Parents About ‘Opting Out’

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An open letter to Jewish parents, worldwide:

In my July 24 Bisl Torah piece, I wrote on a subject that struck a nerve: the Jewish commitment to community within the pandemic, when so many of our interactions have become virtual. With the approaching High Holy Days, this is so vital to the survival of Judaism that I am expanding on that thought.

When we are forced to be separated, the choice of “opting out” of community becomes tempting. Not seeing one another understandably dissolves some of the attachment that comes with being physically present. But when temptation leads us away from strengthening the Jewish spirit, that is the exact moment we should sprint in the opposite direction. 

Many parents wonder how to teach their children the value of community. They ask how children will understand what it means to be something bigger than themselves — part of a greater cause —  and feel the essence of being Jewish. There is no greater way of imparting this lesson than with the following:

Show them. Your actions pave the way for every decision they will make in the future.

There are terms that are thrown around in an unfortunate way: opting out or taking a break. In choosing whether or not to belong to a synagogue or support nonprofit institutions, many of us are deciding to take a “year off.” Jewish professionals across the world are reaching out to colleagues and peers, understanding that if enough people decide to opt out, the Jewish world will never look the same. It will not have a solid foundation to rebuild and reconstruct in the innovative, vibrant, spiritually uplifting ways we so desperately need. Every person who decides to “sit this one out” means chipping away at the Jewish homes thousands rely upon for comfort, solace, celebration, companionship and connection.

Jewish professionals across the world are reaching out to colleagues and peers, understanding that if enough people decide to opt out, the Jewish world will never look the same.

The COVID-19 era has devastated the world. It has taken away lives. It has left others stricken financially, mentally and emotionally and impaired people’s health. Many cannot afford to rejoin our communities, and these are the members who  must hear our support and feel our love. Fellow Jews who need our emotional and financial help.  But for those who question the spiritual nourishment of online services, feel disconnected without in-person gathering and have the means to continue to join sacred communities, my plea is to you. Parents who show their children that the value of the Jewish community relies on whether or not religious school will be in-person or online don’t teach their children the value of being a link in the chain of thousands of years of Jewish history. Will you place your child before a screen every single day? Perhaps. But choosing to remain active in your synagogue, day school, religious school or camp community models for our children that when a family experiences a difficult time, we choose to hold one  another’s hands instead of fade away into the silence of resignation. A real community is one that upholds those who have fallen. A true community exists even when times are difficult and scary. A sincere community chooses to remain active when the world falls apart.

This is a beautiful opportunity to teach our children why being Jewish is so important. We learn, “All of Israel is responsible for each other.” The midrash reminds us of the story of a group of people sitting in a boat. One man drills a hole under his seat. Everyone screams. The man simply replies, “Why are you worried? I am only drilling under my own seat.” To which the passengers reply, “But you will flood the boat for us all.” When we choose to drill a hole only under our seat, thinking that we are merely separating just ourselves, we begin to puncture the ark of Judaism. Even just one hole in the ark has the potential to drown us all.

Phrases like “opting out” or “taking a break” don’t exist when you see yourself as a spark of a greater light that penetrates the darkest corners of this world. Staying a member of a community is a covenant; a promise that God can count on you to step up when your unique voice is needed. And if you find yourself not currently in a community, we welcome you to join one, strengthening all of our souls during these moments of great uncertainly and fear.

Hillel wisely said, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” Look deep inside your soul. We need you. We need one another. Next year and years after, may we look back at this time when we saw humanity join hand-in-hand, lifting up one another and letting our fellow Jews know that together we are not alone. This is the narrative I pray we share with our children, grandchildren and generations to come.

We question what our children will remember about this time, when faces are masked, parks are closed and friendships maneuvered within a social distance of six feet. But we have a choice as to what our children will remember about our own roles in  the Jewish community. May our children watch our actions, knowing that their families supported other Jews in need. May our children follow our examples, understanding that to be a Jew is to strengthen our community when the world feels bleak.

May our children be proud.

Rabbi Nicole Guzik is a rabbi at Sinai Temple. She can be reached at her Facebook page at Rabbi Nicole Guzik.

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