Shoftim 2015: Can we go home again?

They say that you can’t go home again. While I am not sure if that is exactly true, one place that we are told we cannot go back to is Egypt. Told to us in the book of  Exodus, and reinforced in this morning’s Torah Reading, Parashat Shoftim, we are told that we will not go that way again. While the Rabbis debate whether this is an instruction or rather a description, my question is whether it is literal or figurative? Is there really a problem with going back to Egypt? Can we not go back and see some of the most beautiful parts of world civilization? Are all of the tours from Israel doing something wrong by going to Egypt? Or should we take this as a figurative instruction-we cannot return to a land where we lived as slaves nor can we live in a community where people feel enslaved. The most modern example of this of course is Germany and Eastern Europe-the epitome of degradation and horror that our people have experienced in recent memory.

As a child I remember hearing that you shouldn’t buy German products and as a teen, I remember my papa, Irving Haberman, a soft spoken man, asking me why I was going to Poland with USY, en route to Israel during high school. As I grew up however, perspective changed. As Israel began to have Mercedes taxi cabs and as I was sent to Germany with AJC and Hillel, on the dime of the German government, it was clear to me that things were beginning to change, both in attitude and in context. Clearly, the horrors of shoah remained strong, but a new generation of Jews, Germans, and more began to become adults, and confront the slavery of the 20th century.

This has been on my mind much more recently over the past few weeks. I have been reading articles about the growth of Jewish life in Europe, especially in Poland and Germany, while I recognize the fear of growing anti-semitism in other communities and so as I approached this parasha, I decided to explore, have our people “gone that way again” back to the Egypt of our day, and is that actually, ok?

So where are we today:

Let us begin with Lodz, Poland, a place a remember going to on our commemorative tour of Poland in 1993.

It was just announced that Lodz is going to have first Jewish kindergarten in decades

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency shared that A Jerusalem-based group announced the opening of the first Jewish kindergarten in decades in the Polish city of Lodz.

Shavei Israel, which tries to bring people with Jewish roots back into the Jewish fold, said Monday that the kindergarten would open in partnership with the city’s Jewish community of a few hundred members. The first class of 10 children will start in September.

“There is a growing Jewish community in Lodz, as well as many Poles with Jewish roots who are becoming more and more interested in reconnecting with their heritage,” said Michael Freund, a New York native who founded Shavei Israel in 2002 after immigrating to Israel.

This is of course incredible. 70 years ago no one could have imagined a kindergarten sprouting up, literally, giving new birth to the Jewish community.

A second example of growth is in Berlin. First, I have shared that my colleague, Rabbi Gesa Ederberg is the rabbi of the Masorti community in Berlin and now, there is a Conservative Rabbinical School in Berlin, paid for by the German government

According to a 2012 JEWISH JOURNAL ARTICLE,

Jewish life in Berlin today is diverse and reflects an admittedly complicated, often a confusing tapestry of social, national and economic fabrics.

Only a relatively small number of Jews resided in Berlin after the war while it was still divided between the East and the West. Once Germany was politically, socially and economically again unified in 1990 things began to change dramatically. First was a wave of thousands of Jews mainly from Russia but other countries of Eastern Europe who came to escape discrimination and who were welcomed by the German government.  Adding to their numbers soon came entrepreneurs from abroad including the U.S. who found in Berlin’s booming economy attractive business opportunities.  Then most recently some 15,000, mostly young, secular Israelis, have moved to Berlin to enjoy what one described as a “better life” where it could be enjoyed a cost of living far less than back in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

After 60 years, live Jewish theater returned to Berlin in 2001 with the opening of the Bimah, Jewish Theater Berlin under its creative director, Israel-born Dan Lahav.. Presented now in its 250-seat theater on the smart Admiralspalast are cabaret acts and original plays, usually satire and comedy, mostly written by Lahav.  In the Bimah’s company is a cast of eight.  Among its recent productions were Shabat Shalom, A Friday Evening in a Jewish Family and Three Lusty Widows and a Dancing Rabbi.

Another quite lively example of the future face of today’s Jewish community in Berlin is the Jewish High School in Grosse Hamburgerstrasse. It reopened behind the usual security fences in 1993 as a co-ed private school offering classes 5th to 12th grade. Initially, it had just 27 students. Today the school has 430 students of whom 70% are Jewish.”

Rabbi Elyse Winick, was in Poland this summer, on a fellowship with Hillel and the Taube foundation, exploring issues of Jewish identity. As I recall her story we are forced to ask ourselves: can we go back, and if so, what does that look like?

Rabbi Winick writes:

“Here in North America we have long been guided by the narrative of that tragedy in the development of post-war educational models. Our quest for continuity, for combatting intermarriage, for staunching the hemorrhage of assimilation, all of these nest in the shadow of what was lost.

At the same time, despite our intensive and extensive efforts to the contrary, affiliation drops, intermarriage rises and the interest in community frays. Our institutions have grown weaker and it is increasingly difficult to know whether their diminished relevance lies in a failure to change with the times or a reduction in the population which desires to be served.

Enter Poland. There, growing from the venerated rubble, a new Jewish community arises. At Shabbat lunch at the JCC of Krakow, three young Poles described discovering their Jewish roots and their subsequent quests for transformation. One young woman, a PhD student at Jagellonian University (she is writing her thesis on the image of Adolf Hitler in pop culture), turned to me on her departure. “Thank you for not asking me any questions about the Holocaust,” she said. “Usually it’s the second thing people ask about. But my life as a Jew isn’t defined by the Holocaust.”

The Jewish community in Poland is small. Or perhaps better stated, the identified Jewish community is small. Prior to World War II, 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland. Today that number is reduced to tens of thousands, some of whom don’t even know the past and the heritage which has been hidden from them. It would be difficult to describe this community without referencing the Holocaust – but describing and defining are two different things. Jews lived in Poland for 800 culturally rich and thriving years before theShoah. To focus exclusively on their destruction in building identity is to ignore the inherent value of those 800 years. We mourn what is lost, without question, but the content and the substance of what was lost is at least as important as the loss itself.

Today Polish Jews celebrate the community they are creating with the glow of those 800 years as a backdrop. There is no hiding from the Holocaust or denying its importance.

Today Polish Jews celebrate the community they are creating with the glow of those 800 years as a backdrop. There is no hiding from the Holocaust or denying its importance – but it is woven into the fabric of community, rather than throbbing from its center.

Might we have erred? Could it be that the framing of Jewish identity in the shadow of the Holocaust for 70 years has resulted in the loss of the very Jews we tried to retain by telling them that it was their responsibility to remain engaged because of the 6 million who perished?

Standing at the Umschlagplatz, the deportation point for the Warsaw Ghetto, we listened to an Israeli guide hammer into his charges the need to pick up the mantle left behind by every deportee. I wondered: “If I were 15, would that make me feel like my Judaism only existed for someone else’s sake, not for mine?”

We must teach about the Holocaust. We must give life to the memories of those who have perished. We must face the reality of the devastation, in Poland and elsewhere. And we must celebrate more than just the fact that Judaism has survived. To celebrate survival defines your identity by loss. We must celebrate Jewish life and practice because it is elevating, transformative and filled with joy.

An identity based on joy, rather than guilt. That strikes me as a magnetic formula for a rich, vibrant and growing Jewish community.”

Like Elyse, I believe that in the future, people will only be connected to the Jewish community out of a sense of meaning. Now, that people can be connected to peoplehood, but I don’t think it will be because of guilt.

So the question is, when we recall the exodus at Passover, do we celebrate our commitment to the Jewish people because we were slaves or because we have a vision of justice to share? If it is the second, I believe we can live in many places and promote that idea.

And so, as we confront this week’s parasha-Did Jews settle in the diaspora as a punishment or reality of something new and what does their growth represent?

It is clear that Egypt was never meant to be a home-they didn’t even want to bury Jacob there and Joseph’s bones were carried out during the exodus-but what is diaspora today? Is it the 2nd choice or is a diaspora a vibrant community that, like Israel, is working to live Torah values? Last week I was at a meeting for the American Zionist Movement as I will be on the Mercaz slate come October at the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem. JTS chancellor, Annie Eisen, gave a compelling talk about Zionism today, and he shared his refletion on what it means to be an American Zionist in 2015, a title I proudly wear. He shared that Yes, Israel remains the single greatest project the Jewish people have going and the most important arena for putting Jewish values to the test and Jewish teaching to the practice (ideas I will explore more come the holidays) but this is clearly not the only community-And that as we grow as a community we need to remember that there is a future for diaspora Judaism as well. And as we explore the re-growth, the re-birth of Jewish communities that we thought were forever lost, we need to build up all of these communities not on fear, and not even on nostalgia, but as Rabbi Winick said, on a joy of being Jewish and if we do that, we can be at home, anywhere.