Jewish community work continues tradition of mitzvot

In a recent discussion with a good friend, I was reminded of an interesting passage in mystery novelist P.D. James' work "Original Sin."

"…To practice religion wasn't only a matter of intellectual assent. To be seen in the synagogue was to proclaim, `This is where I stand, these are my people, these are the values by which I try to live, this is what generations of my forebears have made me, this is what I am.'"

These words make me think about the relationship between the practice of Judaism and what we do in the Jewish Federation. What James said it meant to be seen in synagogue — to proclaim in the deepest way, "This is who I am and this is what I believe and value," the feeling of being religious — is exactly how I feel when I serve in the Jewish community.

Indeed, it was not too long ago that I began to realize that, in some way, what we do for the Jewish community day in and day out, we do religiously, driven by the same sense of obligation — mitzvah — and meaning that, for generations, has brought Jews to the synagogue.

Like most of us, I was brought up to see philanthropy, politics, rescue and state building as distinctly secular activities. We acted because it was the right thing to do, but not out of some larger framework of religious belief. Being religious, being a good Jew, meant going to synagogue and praying, observing the rituals and practices of our people. Increasingly, however, we struggle with what it means to live in the Jewish way and to be religious.

I am not so sure anymore that the traditional distinction between religious and secular appropriately describes how I experience what I do in the Jewish community.

When I engage in the mitzvah of philanthropy, the re-creation of Jewish society, the restoration of dignity to Jewish life, it is more than simply a secular activity. There is something deeply religious immersed in this effort. It may be hidden, lying a bit below the surface, but it is there. This activity aims primarily to enrich the quality of Jewish living, thereby ennobling both the giver and the beneficiary. What could be more religious? What could God want more?

My grandparents prayed in synagogue, "May God rebuild Jerusalem." When we engage in building our Jewish community and our partnership with Israel, we are making that prayer a reality. What could have more religious meaning?

My forebears prayed in synagogue, as they gathered the four corners of their tallit before reciting the Sh'ma, "May God gather us from the four corners of the earth and bring us to Israel in peace." When we work to bring Jews from across the globe to Israel, where they can live in freedom with food, clothing, housing and jobs that we have helped create, we are making that prayer a reality. Is that not religious activity?

In his book "A Time of Healing: American Jewry Since World War II," Edward Shapiro notes that a revolution has occurred in the way American Jews have defined their identity. No longer can it be assumed that being Jewish is solely a matter of genes. America's Jews have gone from being a chosen people to being a choosing people. To a certain extent, we are all "Jews by choice," a term previously applied only to converts.

The background for this emphas is on choice has been, of course, the dramatic movement of Jews up the social ladder, our entry into the American economic and cultural elite, and our movement out of compact urban Jewish neighborhoods in which Jewish identity was passed on through osmosis.

We are seeing astounding growth in the numbers of Jews intermarriage, with increasing social acceptance. When entrepreneurs are producing greeting cards featuring Santa Claus lighting a Chanukah menorah, no longer are Jews living on the margins of American life. This is a unique situation in the long history of Jews, and one for which we were not prepared. For Jews, America is, as is stated on the great seal, a new order of the ages.

As I travel around the United States, Europe and Israel, I meet people who are searching for meaning in their lives. Perhaps our capacity to inspire people to deeper community commitment — giving and volunteering — needs to begin by explaining what we feel deep inside. Our work is holy, and as we engage in it we discover a religious dimension that underlines what we do.

When I do my community work, I do so proclaiming that this is where I stand, these are my people, these are the values by which I try to live. This is what generations of my forebears have created. This is what I am. Perhaps it is time we try to explain this to others.

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The writer is immediate past president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. The commentary is adapted from his June 6 speech at the federation's 77th annual meeting.