How does one define themselves in 2022?
Through their nationality? Gender? Sexual identity? Religious (or non-religious) practice? Profession? A combination of everything?
While these weren’t questions that I focused on in any meaningful way when I was a child, I knew (and know) that I grew up female in a suburb of Washington D.C. And, though raised as a proud American, my identity that was most present, especially as I became older, was Jewish.
It was Judaism and its practices that defined how I spent my Friday nights, what food I would choose to eat, how and where I would pray, and how I would look at the world. The prism of Jewish tradition became an important frame for me, and for much of my life so far.
I have felt proud through my choices, as I could simultaneously live as a proud Jewish woman in America and live out my feminism and belief in the American experiment, even as a member of a religious minority in a majority non-Jewish culture.
I felt that I could take the best of the vision and values for America that I had been taught and live an integrated life where I could often see glimmers of my own tradition reflected in the “sacred” documents of our nation’s history.
And yet, as I have gotten older and have taken a more honest look at the history of our country, I have come to a few conclusions.
The first is that, despite many moments in American history that are troubling, I am still proud of the ideas on which this country was founded.
But I believe strongly that what makes America, America, is its potential to be incredible when the vision and values of our Founding Fathers are expanded – and, yes, critiqued – to include many voices.
An honest assessment of our founding doesn’t necessarily negate the positives of what we can dream we want to create.
Second, that as much as I have always felt “at home,” it is not my experience or my interests that are considered in much of this country when decisions are made.
Living according to my religious values as a minority in a non-Jewish majority culture is not necessarily the given that I thought it was anymore – though living in New York City certainly makes it easier than many other places in our country.
Whether it is the overturning of Roe Vs Wade which, to me infringes on Jewish women’s ability to live religious lives (where Judaism permits a termination of a pregnancy for the health and safety of a woman), or the knowledge that prayer at a sporting event will most likely not be recited in the language of my ancestors or the language of other sacred religious voices, I am concerned that the America that I ask God to bless, isn’t always a blessing to everyone.
Yet, I refuse to give up. As a Jew, the notion of dreaming for a better tomorrow has been embedded in my psyche and, as a Jew, it is imperative that I not only dream, but wake up and get to work.
And so, I use my Jewish values and traditions to motivate me to live and work and raise children in a country that works to be the best of what it can be.
This doesn’t mean a pollyannish version of a “white-washed’ version of history, but a messy engagement with the experiment of America. It means that we need to call out things when we believe they are wrong, which is one of the most patriotic ways to be.
And we must build up institutions (or strengthen existing ones) that can advocate for our ideals that we believe are a proper juxtaposition of our faith, where appropriate, and our citizenship.
It means that we need to understand that faith, as an expression of our individual identities, doesn’t need to be hidden to be a proud American, but it also means that my faith doesn’t need to trump others when decisions are made for the greater public.
And it means that I don’t need to be afraid to use my voice to share who I am.
If there is a community sporting event where a prayer is being recited, instead of recoiling, let us consider how our voices too can be a part of such a blessing when appropriate. As biblical Esau said to his father Isaac, “Have you more than one blessing?”
How we work through these questions isn’t easy, but the great American experiment holds multiples truths that, when realized, can create the great society that we all deserve to live in. This necessitates our engagement, not our disengagement.
Yes, there will be conflicts. But as I recently learned from Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, if we accept that a dream has reached its limit and we haven’t engaged in what can be next, it means we might not have dreamt big enough in the first place.
It is time to know what we believe in, wake up and get to work.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week focused on faith and citizenship. The previous articles in the series are:
What Is a Christian Who Wants to Be a Citizen to Do? | Paul Lewis
Focus on Conversation, Not Conversion | Kira Dewey
(Don’t Get) Stuck on a Feelin’ | Kali Cawthon-Freels
What Young People Can Teach Us About Faith-Based Advocacy | Jaziah Masters
Rabbi at Sutton Place Synagogue in midtown Manhattan, New York.