A recent front page New York Times story entitled “The Assimilating Bagel” told this tale about the crisis: Once a hard, round roll with a big hole in the center, the renowned bagel was a Jewish specialty which when eaten with cream cheese and lox allowed one to momentarily forget their worldly troubles. But the bagel is rapidly changing. Its crust is getting softer, the hole is getting smaller and little by little, the once unique bagel is turning into a bun.
Replace “bagel” with “Jewry” and the metaphor is obvious. We are assimilating with frightening speed.
As a Rabbi at Stanford University, I’m occasionally called by distraught parents devastated by the impending intermarriage of their son or daughter. I always agree to meet the student, and in most cases the story is the same: Mom and Dad sent me to Hebrew school, and gave me a bar or bat mitzvah. But they always sent me mixed messages. When I neglected my secular education, they were angry, but when I missed Hebrew lessons, they didn’t mind. I learned about the laws of Jewish life, but they did not seem to keep them, or if they did, they did so selectively. At my bar/bat mitzvah, they were more concerned about the catering than if I understood the words I recited in synagogue. As I grew older, they were more interested in which college I went to and which career I pursued than whether I was continuing to study and practice Judaism. They wanted me to marry a Jewish person, but gave me no real reason why.
The Vital Fourth Generation
It is said that inherited wealth lasts for three generations. The same applies to inherited Judaism. Today’s young Jews are by and large of the fourth generation. In the fourth generation, Jewish identity is either renewed, or it vanishes.
The Haggadah speaks of the famous “Four Children” at the Seder table. These, one may suggest, represent four successive generations. The wise son symbolizes the immigrant generation who received a good Jewish education and still lived Jewishly. The rebellious son is the second generation, who lacking a meaningful Jewish education, abandoned Jewish identity for social integration. The “simple” child is the third generation, confused by the mixed messages of religious grandparents and nonreligious parents. The child who cannot even ask the question is the fourth generation, who no longer has a memory or context of Jewish life.
Today’s youth are the fourth generation. They do not take for granted that they will marry another Jew or establish a Jewish home, or will raise Jewish children. Nothing can be taken for granted in the fourth generation, especially in an open society with its huge marketplace of competing ideologies.
The fourth generation will choose to be Jewish for one reason only: knowing the sacred history of our people, sensing the richness of Jewish life, understanding the profundity of Judaism.
The Cure to the Common Bun
Therefore we need a kind of nationwide “Manhattan Project” of education, so that all Jewish children can experience, learn and live their heritage and know that to be a Jew is to inherit a legacy which has shaped moral civilization and earned universal admiration for its strong community life, its love of family, its commitment to education, its passion for charity and social justice, and its infinitely loyal dedication to G-d and the values of Torah and Mitzvot.
No child who has been touched by Judaism’s spirit of eternity would willingly snap the link between the past and the future.
As we celebrate Passover, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we stand as if on a mountain peak surveying the majestic landscape of Jewish history. We know that those who sought to annihilate the Jewish people, from Pharaoh to Hitler, collect dust in museum exhibits, while Am Yisrael Chai, the people of Israel, live. If we would only remember the extraordinary miracles it took to get us to this day, we would joyfully do our task to ensure that the next generation’s Yiddishkeit is strong. This is the greatest gift we can give to the Jewish past and the Jewish future.
(Rabbi Dov Greenberg is executive director of Rohr Chabad House at Stanford University and lectures regularly throughout the United States. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)