Originally published in The Jewish Journal (August 29, 2013)
This year I went to Israel with the Diller Teen Fellows Boston-Haifa Cohort of 2013-2014. This trip is no average teen tour. Diller is an international pluralistic fellowship for Jewish teens focused on leadership, Jewish identity, community service and Israel. At the International Diller Congress, we talked about what it means to be a leader, and what it means to be a Jew.
As a Reform Jew, I do not keep a kosher home, or keep Shabbat. I hug boys who aren’t related to me. Some might even venture to say that I am not Jewish at all. There have been times I have doubted my own connection to the Tribe.
Avraham Infeld, president emeritus of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, spoke to us about Judaism. He discussed the five “legs” in the table of Judaism — family, memory, Israel, Hebrew and the covenant with God. He said that if each Jew connects with at least three legs, there will always be a connection between each and every Jew.
Immediately, I understood family as the first leg of my table. My connection to Judaism has never been about what I eat or how I spend my Saturdays. It’s about the places I lovingly call my second homes, the friends I see there, and the feeling of always being welcome within a community. Infeld explained that Jews are like a family because despite constant arguing (a common trait of families), they are always connected to each other simply because they come from the same people.
The next leg of my table is memory. Even though I feel that events that happened 5,000 years ago happened a long time ago and I live in a very different world today, I truly believe I am a product of all the hardships and struggles the Jewish people have had to endure. It might not be my personal history, but it is part of my history. Those struggles are unique to the Jewish people, and something that keeps us connected to each other and to our heritage.
The hard part was figuring out my table’s third leg. I am a Diaspora Jew living in Newton. The extent of my Hebrew knowledge is limited to a few phrases and prayers. I hope one day that I will learn the language but, for now, Hebrew is out. What about Israel? As a Zionist Jew, that one should make perfect sense. Yet, something stopped me from saying yes. I love being in Israel. But I am not Israeli, and the connection I feel to the country comes from my friends and the history, but not Israel itself. So I knocked that one out, too. At Mount Sinai the Jewish people received the Ten Commandments as part of our “deal” with God that in exchange “He will never sleep, and He will never slumber, protector of Israel (Psalm 121:4).” While I fully believe in the importance of those commandments, I do not keep all of them, which made me wonder: If we choose not to keep all of the Ten Commandments, are we breaking the covenant with God? Not keeping the commandments or following all the laws left me feeling that covenant wasn’t the third leg of my table.
In that moment, I doubted myself more than I ever have before. Judaism is my life. Unable to find three legs to connect me to the Jewish people, and the thought that I might not be Jewish enough to be a part of the nation, scared me.
My terrified confusion was calmed the next day in a program entitled “The Sixth Leg.” In the group discussion, I found myself drawn toward halacha, Jewish law, which I came to understand as something that outlined a way of life. It roughly translates to “way to walk through life.” In other words, I don’t have to wear a skirt to be a good person. The laws are there to give us guidance to lead lives of which we are proud, ones where we work hard, lead honest lives and give something back. I realized what matters is the feeling of being Jewish; being part of the Peoplehood. I am me, and I am part of the Jewish nation.
Hannah Elbaum is a junior at Newton South High School, and a Diller Teen Fellow in the Boston Cohort of 2013. She also participates in the North American Federation of Temple Youth, and holds various leadership roles at her synagogue, Temple Beth Elohim of Wellesley.