As we approach the holiday season, about to celebrate the metaphorical birthday of the world, Hayom Harat Olam, my mind wandered to another holiday season and another birthday celebration. I mean, of course, the Fourth of July, the birthday of the United States of America.
I made this connection easily enough because, as Mordecai Kaplan put it, I live in two civilizations, one Jewish and one American. An unaffiliated or purely secular Jew may not. A resident of Kiryas Joel in New York may not. As one who feels blessed to be Jewish and privileged to be American, I do.
And come July 4, 2012, I want to march in the great celebratory parade down Central Street in Evanston. And I want to do so with others from my Jewish community at Beth Emet.
Not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable for Jews to march as Jews in the parade. Evanston abided, if not encouraged, restrictions against Jews. The neighborhood into which my family and I moved over forty years ago had very few Jews. And the land we purchased was, as I recall, encumbered by a restrictive covenant barring transfer to Jews. The restriction, by then, was unenforceable, but there it was.
Though Beth Emet has been an Evanston institution for over sixty-one years, it has never marched in the parade. Other faith based organizations have. Another Jewish congregation (JRC) has. But not Beth Emet, not the oldest, largest Jewish congregation in Evanston.
There are at least four reasons why Beth Emet should march.
1. Because we can. My grandparents could not move freely in the Old Country. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives us the freedom to do so here, in particular to assemble, to speak and to exercise our religion. We all know that if we fail to exercise our bodies, our muscles atrophy. The same is true of our political and religious freedoms. We must use them, and teach them diligently to our children, or they will wither.
2. Because we should. We are taught not to separate ourselves from the community and we are also taught to repair the world. Those two teachings conflate here because repairing the world begins with helping to make our home community a better place in which to live. But we cannot help repair Evanston if we have no credibility on the street, if we are not visible, if we do not, literally as well as figuratively, walk the walk. One way to get street cred is to walk as a community.
3. Because it is good for Beth Emet. Joining in this open celebration of freedom shows that the Free Synagogue really believes in its name. It is a community that honors freedom. And it also shows that we know how to have fun. What a great way to publicize the congregation and its values.
4. Because it is good for the Jews. The time has long passed when Jews had to, or thought they had to, change their names to survive or, perhaps, to succeed. And so has the time passed when Jewish life in America could sustain itself on the twin pillars of building Eretz Yisrael and remembering the Shoah, as important as those tasks are. By marching in this parade as Jews we enrich our lives as Jews and have a chance to present a positive image of a modern Jewish community, sufficiently self-confident to assert itself publicly. This is important for ourselves, for unaffiliated Jews, and for the general community who, when they see Jews in the public square, normally only see them in black hats and long coats.
As individuals we may not agree on how to resolve or even address the public issues of the day, but we all ought to be able to agree that on this day, at least this one day, we can all join together in public to express our gratitude for this country and the freedoms it affords us. If my grandparents could suffer in steerage to cross the Atlantic, I can walk a mile or so to honor the choice they made to come here and the country which received them and provides me and my family with unparalleled opportunities. I hope others can as well.
A long time ago, according to tradition, it took one brave man to take one courageous step to open a path for freedom for his people. Let us be like Nachson. Let’s take that first step, and then a few more. Let’s march together on July 4th.
Rabbi London, President Ephraim, members of the Board of Trustees, fellow congregants: let’s make it so!