Rabbi’s Corner

Making Jewish, American identities meaningful

As I enter my seventh decade of life, I often reflect on my family: Where we came from and where we are going. Each year, I gain a greater appreciation for how Judaism has made such a difference in my life and my family.

At my great-grandfather’s funeral in 1945, Rabbi Louis Wolsey, D.D., spoke of Congregation Rodef Sholom as Jerome Louchheim’s “holy place … his monument.” He went on to say, “He was an earnest-minded Jew, who was proud of his faith and who conceived of religion as the paramount description and objective to the Jew. Secular and nationalistic definitions were abhorrent to him, for he was an American of Jewish faith. He was one of Philadelphia’s noblest and most liberal philanthropists. The cause of the sick, the orphaned, the dependent, the underprivileged, was his cause and he was a guardian angel to the poor of all sects and creeds.”

Judaism calls my family to make the world a better place, as my great-grandfather did in his day; but the practice of it must also make sense. There is a story I love to share about my grandfather:

Bill Louchheim, among other things, served on the building committee for my rabbinic seminary. There was a need to replace the heating and cooling system in the building. As a result, engineers would parade their products before this committee. One of these engineers, who was so proud of his product, said to the committee members, “This is the state of the art system.” My grandfather chuckled. The man inquired what he found so funny.

“What does that mean?” my grandfather asked.

The man straightened up proudly and said, “This is the most modern technology for this kind of system.”

To which my grandfather responded, “That’s nice, but the real question we are here to answer is does your system work in this building and not?”

To me, this is a metaphor for Judaism. If your practice of Judaism does not ennoble your spirit, help you evolve as a better human being, and provide a calling to improve our world, then of what use is it?

Additionally, our faith ought to work within the American culture in which we reside. There ought to be a positive fusion of being a Jew and being an American. The values of Judaism linked with the values of America lead to us being a better person, one who cares for family, culture, and country.

Just prior to every bar or bat mitzvah, I present my students with two documents: one, their bar/bat mitzvah certificate, and the other, a poem, “I Stood with Abraham” by Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, teaching this child that they are connected to 4,000 years of Jewish history and that they are responsible American citizens. It includes these verses:

Then I saw the night lift and the dawn break / And into the new world, blessed with liberty and freedom

I saw the radiance of their emancipated minds and hearts. / I saw them enrich every land that gave them opportunity.

I was with them when they landed at Ellis Island / And fell in love with the land that stood for liberty.

In two years, my family will have been in America for 200 years! Judaism has played an important role in making us better people and better citizens. Can you say the same?