Graduation season is now upon us. High school seniors will soon move on to college and college graduates are starting the next chapter in their lives. And, let’s not forget transitions from pre-school to elementary school, elementary school to middle school and middle school to high school. All exciting times.
As I thought about graduation time, I reflected on my own experiences. One highlight is the graduation ceremony, including the commencement speakers. In high school, Dave Thomas of Wendy’s came to speak to my graduating class. In college, we were fortunate to have Mikhail Gorbachev. This was 1992, right after glasnost. I have no recollection of what he said, because he spoke in Russian and then a translator would repeat in English – thus making his speech twice as long (it was long enough without the translation). And all this while sitting outside in my black cap and gown in 100+ degree temperatures and 100% humidity in Atlanta. And for my two master’s degree programs, one had the Governor of Maryland and the other, famed Jewish author Chaim Potok.
Rabbi Dr. Chaim Potok spoke at my graduation from the Baltimore Hebrew University. It was one of those evenings one never forgets –the celebration, humor and the message. The evening started with a beautiful welcome from the President of the University. Next was the CEO of the Jewish Federation to bring remarks. Following him was the volunteer Chairman of the Jewish Federation, a very special gentleman. What you need to know is that the Federation Chairman had a photographic memory and would memorize speeches – he never used notes. As the CEO was speaking you could see panic in the Chairman’s eyes. It was then his turn. Well, it turned out his remarks were exactly the same as the CEO. He had been given, and memorized, the wrong speech. My heart went out to him (as I laughed on the inside).
The highlight of the evening, however, was hearing Rabbi Potok. I am sure many of you have read his books, including The Chosen, The Promise, and My Name is Asher Lev, to name a few.
Rabbi Potok was the son of Polish immigrants who had strong ties to Hasidism and was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home. He eventually graduated from Yeshiva University, received his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative movement), and later received his Ph.D in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. Interestingly, besides writing, he served as Director of Camp Ramah in Ojai, California and later as the Editor-in-Chief at the Jewish Publication of Society of America.
I remember him telling us that his interest in writing started after reading Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited as a teenager. He was riveted by the world of upper-class British Catholics that Waugh brings to life in the novel. This made him realize that writing would allow him “to create worlds out of words on paper.” His seven novels each dealt extensively with the theme of culture clashes, of people who are raised in one world and must confront the values of another.
Rabbi Potok talked about his first novel, The Chosen. It was a story about the friendship between the son of a Hasidic rabbi and a more secularly-minded Jewish boy in Brooklyn. The book was vivid it its depiction of the closed Hasidic community, but in many ways it was an allegory about the survival of Judaism. He shared that the heroes in his novels, mostly adolescents on the brink of adulthood, felt both sustained and, increasingly, suffocated by their traditional communities. Though they never considered abandoning Judaism, they agonized over whether they dare seek lives in the larger world, knowing full well that if they do, they will be branded as people who turned their back on their religion and people.
Rabbi Potok repeatedly explored the tension between faith and secularity. This allowed him to explore a range of additional questions about familial obligation and the role of religion in contemporary society. ''While this tension is exhausting,'' Rabbi Potok once said, ''it is fuel for me. Without it, I would have nothing to say.''
Rabbi Potok successfully weaved Jewish civilization into the tapestry of American literature where he helped the Jewish world begin to examine the role of religion in a secular age. This leads us to today and our graduates. Our young people are living in a world where this tension continues to exist, yet in a different way. Instead of the tension being traditional versus less traditional or even secular Judaism – today, for too many (and this may be too dramatic), the tension is between Judaism at any level and why be Jewish. How do we get to a place where Judaism and being Jewish matter? This is something Rabbi Potok’s novels never considered.
I wish we had all the answers. We do not. The Jewish Federation, synagogues, and the multitude of Jewish organizations in our community, however, are working towards them. We do this by providing a variety of Jewish experiences and educational opportunities done in a welcoming and engaging way. Of course, there is more that we can and should be doing – and together as a community we will meet this challenge.
Mazel tov to all the graduates (at all levels) and their families. May you all continue your Jewish journey in the next stages of your life.
Shabbat shalom and I hope to see you next Tuesday at the Jewish Federation’s 95th Annual Meeting.
PS – This past week, the local NCSY (Jewish teen group) presented the “Community Builder Award” to the Jewish Federation at their leadership night (a very impressive group of teens). It was certainly a nice surprise (thank you!). As you may know, this past year was the first year the Jewish Federation provided direct funding to the four Jewish groups in our community (NCSY, BBYO, USY, and NFTY). These funds were used to provide financial assistance for teens to attend various conventions, etc. and we saw a dramatic increase in the number of participants.