For many people, growing up Jewish meant being a passive consumer of something that felt beyond our grasp. Knowledge of Jewish texts, history and tradition remained the purview of rabbis and Hebrew school teachers. And though we were told that the Torah and its teachings belonged to each of us, it often felt distant and inaccessible.
Author and former White House speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz knows this feeling well. Hurwitz came to know Judaism as an annual tradition of attending two “boring” High Holiday services and one “boring” seder. It wasn’t until decades later that she turned to Judaism on a whim and discovered a rich and deeply meaningful wealth of knowledge that had, indeed, been there all along.
Hurwitz’s story illustrates what so many of us are experiencing. We are proud Jews who are just now starting to reckon with our own lack of knowledge and uncover what Jewish wisdom has to offer.
Ultimately, learning is a step that we must take for ourselves. It is up to each of us to avail ourselves of the classes that are out there and cultivate our knowledge and understanding of Jewish teachings. And I am proud to say that here in Greater Washington, we have a broad range of options to choose from. Our local JCCs, Sixth & I and other synagogues, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, Haberman Institute, the Melton School, Hadar DC, Aish, Chabad and many others offer ways to learn about Jewish text, spirituality and values.
Innovative groups like The Den Collective, GatherDC and The Jewish Studio are also helping forge a new culture of conversation and exploration.
This renaissance in Jewish learning is driven by a confluence of factors, some of which are unique to our time. Whether we are alarmed by the hatred and division we see in the news, reminded of our own mortality after the loss of a sports legend or simply growing as individuals, many of us are asking big, important questions about how to lead a meaningful life. How can we make a difference in a rapidly changing world? How do we instill good values in our kids? How do we turn off the noise in favor of inner peace? In what ways can we become kinder, more patient and more loving with those around us?
These are questions to which Judaism has a multitude of answers. But it is also the learning process itself that has made Judaism what it is today. As an article on Torah from My Jewish Learning describes, “The tradition of Torah study has built up a tradition of questioning and clarifying which is simply an incomparably rich skill to cultivate.”
Our tradition differs from others in this regard. Rather than take the Torah or any other text at its word, we are meant to interact with it, to draw on our own perspective and experience to both question and imbue meaning in the text. In doing so, we not only preserve Jewish wisdom, we enhance it.
I hope, therefore, that as we further define and strengthen our unique Jewish identities, we do so by learning what it is we have inherited. If Jewish knowledge is a gift, my agency, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is committed to helping everyone feel inspired to unwrap it. Register for a class you have had your eye on. Join a friend at their study group. Take that first step toward exploring answers to your questions and see where the journey takes you.
Gil Preuss is CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.