When I was young, the Jewish community of southern New Jersey was beginning to move out of Camden. Rabbi Albert Lewis of Temple Beth Shalom once told me that they established the synagogue in Haddon Heights hoping that as Jews moved out of Camden, they would settle around the synagogue. However, that did not happen.
Today, the synagogues and the Jewish Community Center have relocated to be close to the people they serve. They have moved to the east side of Cherry Hill and to Voorhees.
When my wife and I chose where to buy our home, the primary factor was the nearby synagogue and community. That may sound funny living in Jerusalem, but there are many types of Jews and many types of synagogues. We chose a cradle of observance and pluralism in Southeast Jerusalem. We could have chosen to buy outside of the city, in the new city of Modiin and had a larger apartment for the same money. We joke that if we had wanted a bigger house, we would have stayed in America. We moved to Israel to be part of a community in a place where we feel we belong. We often comment that we did not buy an apartment, rather we bought into a unique community and it was worth every cent.
There are many advantages to living in a community filled with many Jews. Hanukkah is a time when we remember the Maccabees’ fight for national liberation and against Hellenization. Their story illustrates that to preserve Jewish identity and peoplehood, we require more than just a community of Jews.
Living in America, I experienced many small battles against discrimination, assimilation and exclusion. I did not grow up in the heavily Jewish township of Cherry Hill, rather in Gloucester Township which had a very sparse Jewish community. One of my earliest memories in our battles for inclusiveness was when my mother sought to change the name of the winter vacation on the school calendar from Christmas Vacation to Winter Recess through the PTA. She succeeded, but to me the calendar continues to be the most obvious and telling sign that living in America is living in Christendom.
This year Cherry Hill public schools (as well as those in Gloucester Township) will have early dismissal on Wednesday December 23 and continue “Winter Recess” through January 3. In Jerusalem, my children will be off December 12 – 19, the week of Hanukkah. December 25 is a regular school day for them, just as Hanukkah will be regular school day for the children in New Jersey’s public schools. The name may have changed to be more inclusive, but the timing is still just as telling.
One need not look at the holiday seasons to feel the penetration of the dominate culture in the calendar. The pulse of our life is set by the flow of the week.
In Israel we work Sunday through Thursday. Friday is a day off so that we can prepare for Shabbat and of course Saturday is our day of rest no matter how one chooses to observe.
Last week, I was walking on Saturday with my four-year-old. As we approached people walking in the opposite direction coming towards us he spouted out “Shabbat Shalom.” The calendar being his own, living in a Jewish country, he has internalized a natural pride, confidence and comfort with his identity as a Jew living at home.
In Israel, as we celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah, we spin dreidles with the letters for the words “A Great Miracle Happened Here.” The Maccabees are our minutemen, the Temple in Jerusalem our Independence Hall. We are a continuation of their victory centuries ago.
As the holiday season in America begins, new immigrants to Israel comment how nice it is not to hear the Christmas songs everywhere they go. Tourists marvel that December 25 comes and goes like any normal day while Hanukkah is marked by candles in every window.
There are many challenges we face in the decisions we make in determining the priorities in our lives and the way we choose to raise our families. Growing up I was raised to think that moving to Israel would entail many sacrifices. However, as an adult I am appreciative of all the sacrifices that my peers in America have to make when raising a family with Jewish values. Many speak of the growing costs of Jewish education, synagogue membership, summer camps and affiliation. While my children are immersed in Jewish culture and history, their peers in America are continuing the ongoing battle in the next generation of the Maccabees’s struggle against assimilation inundated by the surrounding culture on a daily basis. To me, that is much more of a hardship and has a much more lasting effect than the other hardships of raising a Jewish family in America and it is just as serious a threat to Jewish survival as the physical threats facing us in Israel.
We all chose which battles we fight. I am grateful that the battle against assimilation is one I no longer have wage and that my children are not part of that battlefield. Instead I celebrate the success of the Maccabees’ victory with my children each and every day.
Originally published in the Jewish Community Voice of Southern New Jersey [edited version]