Making Jewish Choices

January 20, 2023

“What’s the last Jewish choice you made?” 

This was the first question posed by Dr. Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath, the Senior Director of Knowledge, Ideas and Learning at The Jewish Education Project, author of #antisemitism: Coming of Age During the Resurgence of Hate, and the facilitator of the lunch-and-learn I attended the other day on empowering learners (primarily children, but applicable to all ages!) to continue to make Jewish choices amid the marked rise in antisemitic acts and anti-Jewish hate in recent years. 

Dr. Vinokor-Meinrath went on to cite startling (and, sadly, unsurprising) statistics from the Anti-Defamation League, including that 39% of American Jews have changed their behavior, like wearing Jewish jewelry, reading a Jewish book in public, or disclosing their Jewish identity, in response to rising antisemitism. But interestingly, Dr. Vinokor-Meinrath pointed out the change in these Jewish choices was not one-directional as one might assume. She said, “All people, especially young people, are reacting in a variety of ways” to the rise in antisemitism. Some are shying away from public displays of Judaism for fear of social stigma or even physical harm, and then for others, anti-Jewish hate is a catalyst for various displays of identity, like wearing a “Jewish star the size of a hubcap,” per one example provided during the talk. Dr. Vinokor-Meinrath went on to affirm that either of these responses – and every possible response in between – is valid, however, brandishing one’s Judaism as a reaction to antisemitism, rather than as proactive Jewish identity-building, is simply unsustainable. Our Jewish identities must be rooted, not as anti-antisemitism, but rather in what Judaism IS, and in who you are, in who we are.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vaera, and specifically the following two verses, contain some of the very foundational elements of Jewish identity. When God speaks to Moses through the burning bush, tasking him with confronting Pharaoh in order to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God makes the following promises:

וְלָקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ אֱלֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם הַמּוֹצִ֣יא אֶתְכֶ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת סִבְל֥וֹת מִצְרָֽיִם.

“And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, יהוה, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you […]” (Exodus 6:7-8)

These verses allude to the uniquely Jewish relationship with God, the collective memory of freedom from Egypt and the Exodus, the promise of a Promised Land, and the connection to a chain of tradition, passed through the generations. But, as the next verse continues, “When Moses told this to the Israelites…

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר מֹשֶׁ֛ה כֵּ֖ן אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל…

…וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה׃

… they would not listen to Moses; their spirits crushed by cruel bondage” (Exodus 6:9).

This notion of kotzer ruach, the Israelites’ crushed spirits, resonates deeply at this moment of rising hate. And yet, the Israelites were able to see the possibility of something better, and mustered the courage to leave Egypt, as the midrash explains, “because they did not change their names.” The Israelites, even after generations of oppression, even though their spirits were crushed, made the choice to hold onto their names that identified them as Israelites, and it was in choosing to hold onto this piece of their identities, their humanity, that enabled them to see a way out. 

I wish I had the answer to how we might solve the recent rise in anti-semitism and hate toward Jews, and toward anyone and everyone… But for now, I pray that each of us may be blessed with the courage of our ancestors – that even in the darkest of moments and bleakest of circumstances, we may continue to make Jewish choices, not in spite of those who hate us, but because of the joy, the beauty, the meaning and the deep connection to our collective past, present and future that can be found within Judaism. 

Rabbi Jennifer Queen