A synagogue in my neighborhood recently announced it would close its doors. I reflected on the loss this closing represents for the entire community in an op-ed in the local paper, which is reproduced below. People of all faiths can, I think, identify with the experience.
Congregation Bnai Torah of Highland Park
Congregation Bnai Torah of Highland Park, an institution more than 60 years old, will close its doors on June 30th. It is one of several once prominent synagogues across the county facing declining memberships, overwhelming financial burdens and competition from secular institutions.
Every year I lead a session with my confirmation class on “hot topics.” Inevitably someone asks about tattoos. Specifically, they asked me whether it is a true that a Jewish person with a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
A tattoo of the Hebrew word “Shalom,” which means “peace.”
The answer, as is the case with many such questions, is “it depends.” There is no blanket prohibition on tattoos. Such a prohibition would prevent any survivors of Nazi concentration camps—whose arms were branded with a number—from residing in a Jewish cemetery.
The Jewish view of tattoos is more nuanced. It reflects the purposes skin markings filled in ancient culture and the reverence with which we are to treat our bodies.
On Friday night 13 students at my synagogue were confirmed in their Jewish faith. I asked each of them to talk about their beliefs. Yet, I soon began to doubt whether this question was appropriate.
When do we know what we believe? Surely not at 13 or 16.
Mark Twain famously said, “When I was 14, my father knew nothing. I could hardly stand to have him around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
Twain is, of course, referring to himself. He grew immensely during those seven years.
Why, then, do most churches and synagogues have confirmation between ages 14 and 16? Surely, even though we may think we have all the answers, we do not know all we believe at age 16.
The reason is identity. During these mid-teenage years, we struggle to know who we are. We can always change and grow, but as adolescents we are discovering and building the foundation.
The point of confirmation is not to end our religious learning. It is to set it on a life-long direction. Faith is not something fossilized at age 16. It is a eternal wellspring of love, learning and transformation.
The answer may surprise you. The most important Jewish holiday is not one that happens only once a year. It is one we celebrate every week.
It is the Sabbath, known in Hebrew as Shabbat.
Shabbat is at the core of Jewish life. It is built into creation, as we discussed in a previous post. It is part of the Ten Commandments. It has helped keep Judaism alive, and it is a gift adopted in different forms by other religions and cultures around the world.
The Book of Psalms tells us “Number our days so we gain a heart of wisdom.” The Jewish sages took this verse literally. They instructed their communities to count the days between the holiday of Passover and festival of Pentecost.
We count the days by saying a blessing over each of them. This little-known tradition has its roots in the agricultural cycle.
Two days ago the front page of the Wall Street Journal featured a story about Ford Motor Company. It discussed the expected new CEO, Mark Fields.
Predictably, the WSJ is a business publication, the focus of the article was Fields’ experience and likely challenges. It did not mention that he is Jewish.
Why does this detail matter?
Henry Ford, the founder of his eponymous company, was one of America’s most virulent anti-Semites. He despised Jews, publishing a hateful newspaper and blaming them for America’s social and economic problems.
His newspaper even published excerpts of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a horrific document that first appeared in nineteenth century Russia, then reappeared in Nazi Germany and recently has been republished in parts of the Arab world.
While Ford’s immediate successors did not share his hatred, the company did not have a Jewish officer until 1977. The company was—and in some circles still is—associated with an awful period in American Jewish history.
Now it will be led by a proudly Jewish chief executive officer.
At the risk of seeming melodramatic, I think we can all see in this decision the best of America. We are a country that strives, as Martin Luther King dreamed, to judge people not on the color of the skin but by the content of their character. To that we can all say Amen.