Like many people of my generation ? the sandwich generation ? I recently found myself cleaning out the contents of my father?s apartment in Florida. During those five days, my sister and I relived our family?s life as we waded through countless photo albums and papers. We saw images of great relatives long gone, found love letters written during WW2, and every report card I had ever gotten during grade school, each boasting a prominent C- in physical education.
Buried deep in the back of a closet was a small, yellowed box that we had never seen before. In it was a child?s tallis, old, rather ordinary and in need of repair. This, we learned, was our father?s Bar Mitzvah tallis. In and of itself, still pretty ordinary. Except that in the hundreds of stories we had heard about our father?s youth, never once did he mention going to Hebrew school or being a Bar Mitzvah.
No memory of my youth would be complete without recalling my father?s seeming indifference to Judaism. I never saw him enter a synagogue. He observed no holidays and dismissed life cycle events, especially for girls, as frivolous and unnecessary. My father?s strong Jewish identity was not perpetuated by participation in ritual practice or synagogue life, but was the direct result of the cultural and geographic phenomena of his time. He was one of many "nice Jewish boys" in a neighborhood of nice Jewish boys, all sons of immigrants, whose time and energy were focused on the economic struggle of the Depression. His Jewish pride blossomed from playing basketball for the Beth Israel Royals in Burrow Park, not because of a Torah portion he read one day in 1935. He was, as were my grandparents and great grandparents, an assimilated Jew ? by choice.
Reform Jewish acculturation occurred at record breaking speed in America, producing 4 generations with distinct Jewish patterns and identities. The assimilation of my grandparent?s era, necessitated by fear of rejection in a new country, produced insulated, homogenous communities. As each generation became more acclimated, the boundaries of the community progressively infused into modern society. The result produced an increased comfort level, a rising intermarriage rate and the ability for others to willing join US as Jews ? by ? Choice, infusing our communities with a new passion.
I recall discussing my position as Outreach Director for the PA Council with my father. He had only to look at our immediate neighborhood to understand how and why young adults intermarry. But the concept that someone would choose Judaism was inconceivable to him. "It?s a new world", he shrugged and smiled. In truth, it is the same world, but in different times and with different sensibilities. It is the world of Ruth the Moabite. It is the world of congregations comprised of intermarried and multi-cultural families. It is the world of young children in Reform religious schools, 50% of whom have one parent that was not born Jewish. It is a world of studying the past so that we may heed Rabbi Alexander Schindler?s words and remember the obligation to welcome the future.
If there is a common bond in Reform Judaism, it is that we are all first generation Outreach immigrants, who, as adults are responsible for claiming informed ownership of our Judaism and creating what it means to live a Jewish life? now, here, today. Our father?s tallis was a symbol of his Judaism, even though it remained hidden away for 66 years. My sister and I realized, as we sat amongst our memorabilia, was that it was neither our admission ticket to an exclusive club nor a statement of entitlement. We had to earn our Judaism just as our father had.