The Jewish Story Doesn’t Fit on a Smartphone: We Must Reclaim It

We must write our story. Because if we don’t, others will continue to write it for us.
February 22, 2024
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Antisemitism is everywhere. Jewish communities are targeted. Israel is “villainous.”

 The prevailing winds of the world appear to be against us. It seems impossible to open the newspaper without reading about another tragedy in Israel or a burgeoning threat to the Diasporic Jewish community. 

 There are many ways to combat these in the public square. But how? And, what exactly can we do? For ourselves, for our children, for our children’s children? There is but one answer. We must educate ourselves and our children. We must reinforce the next generation’s Judaism. Bolster their heritage. Deepen their faith. And solidify their trust, knowledge, and confidence in who we are as a people.

We must write our story. Because if we don’t, others will continue to write it for us.

Children, teenagers, and even college students are learning a “Judaism” and an Israel that only exists on smartphone screens.

 But our story does not fit on a screen, our history is not 75 years old. Our story is millennia. Our children deserve the wisdom and teachings of their grandparents. And the resilience of collective Jewish ancestors. 

Only when our children are filled with the knowledge, conviction, and poise to push against narratives that don’t hold water, will we be able to breathe easy.

What do Jewish teenagers learn about our history in public and secular independent schools across the country? That Israel is to blame for Oct. 7. Or that Israel doesn’t even exist. And even with the best of intentions, they’ll learn about tragedy, the Holocaust, pogroms, and oppression. These are events worth learning, no doubt. But is that all there is to learn about the Jewish people? With this as the sole story of Judaism, it’s no wonder that young Jewish Americans often have a distorted view, not only of Israel, but also of Judaism. We’re greater than our oppression, we cannot frame our story through the lens of victimhood, and it’s time to reimagine the impact of the story we tell about ourselves. 

In the same way that Zionist founders created a new version of the “Hebrew Man” and a modern Hebrew language, we need a new version of the educated “Jew.”

We are a diverse people. We are a people born of tragedy, as well as triumph. In this age, when it seems that everywhere we look, others are working to define who we are, who we aren’t, what Israel is, what it isn’t … our children must be prepared and confident in their own Judaism. In their own Zionism. In the objective history of the Jewish people. Only then will the loud, critical voices dissipate and disappear. 

Judaism is family. And it’s tradition. And it’s religion and culture.  And it’s pride, happiness, and a love of life.  And it’s generosity, and justice, and strength, and peace, and autonomy. We are a people of the word “and.”

The pressures facing the next generation of American Jews are not new. Assimilation. Secularization. Intermarriage. Politics. For decades, rabbis and Jewish leaders have warned that “this will be the last Jewish generation in America.” While this warning has proved, at this point, to be feckless, our goals should be grander. Our vision bolder.

We must think about what we want the next generation of Jews in America to look like, to know, and to value.

We must think about what we want the next generation of Jews in America to look like, to know, and to value. How they should be prepared, equipped with Jewish wisdom, learned in our history, steeped in custom, and comfortable in ritual. 

The tides are against us. Social media, disinformation, the 24-hour news cycle, domineering political trends, and peer pressure on Israel all pose threats to young Jews in America. 

So, what does a robust Jewish education look like?

It tells our story.

At de Toledo High School, we validate the merits of tradition in a modern world. The ever-present internal struggle between tradition and progress is a defining element of Judaism. Within religion and culture, our people have grappled with this paradox for centuries. We must grapple with it once again. We’ve ceded too much for the sake of modern expedience and acceptance. It’s not that we can’t change. It’s that there’s an inherent and vital value to the way we’ve done things for centuries. The world moves faster than ever. And without our feet on the ground and roots deep into the earth, we feel unmoored. The next generation deserves a binding element to their lives. A Jewish education creates that security.

It builds community.

We live in an era of social atomization. Smartphones, news feeds, algorithms, emails, and text messages. We have more ways to communicate than ever before. Yet we’re also lonelier than we’ve ever been. This paradox of choice comes at a cost. It impedes the power of intimate conversation — with a parent, a friend, a teacher, a rabbi, a mentor. A Jewish education and a Jewish life provide the infrastructure to solve this epidemic of loneliness. Do we regularly invite friends for Shabbat? Do we offer strangers a seat at our Seder table? Are we personally grappling with the world’s challenges … or do we merely post our thoughts into the algorithmic abyss? Our tradition offers myriad ways of connecting and creating community. Is the next generation being given the tools to see the depth and breadth of our communities? A firm footing in Jewish community will help guide the next generation. Its connectivity and its timelessness help mitigate the pressures to live lives “online” instead of in-person. 

It imparts our forebears values, wisdom, and insight on navigating adversity.

We should not be naïve. Since Oct. 7, the challenge for American Jews has never been clearer. We are no longer on solid footing in America. Despite the magnitude of this challenge, the opportunity is great. Jewish wisdom, deeply rooted in centuries of tradition, provides a compass for navigating this tumultuous sea change. In a world where values feel transient, the teachings of Judaism offer a stabilizing force, grounding individuals in principles that have withstood the test of time. By preserving and passing down this wisdom, we ensure the continued impact of a legacy that has shaped ethical minds and compassionate hearts for generations.

At the core of Jewish wisdom lies a commitment to compassion, tolerance and understanding. In a world marked by division, the teachings of Judaism emphasize the inherent dignity of every individual. By embracing these values, we foster an environment where diverse perspectives are not only acknowledged but celebrated. Jewish wisdom encourages dialogue, learning, and a genuine appreciation for the richness that diversity brings to our collective human experience.

Throughout history, the Jewish people have faced adversity with remarkable resilience. This resilience is not solely a product of circumstance but is deeply rooted in the wisdom derived from centuries of overcoming challenges. By tapping into this reservoir of fortitude and teaching it to our children, we can find inspiration and strength and foster a spirit of resilience that transcends our modern world.

 Mark Shpall is Head of School of de Toledo High school.

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