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PAGE 14A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, JUNE 27, 2014 By Jack Botwinikr, Aish Hatorah Resources A Chinese girl forced me to confront what it means to be Jewish. "What are we waiting for?" my Chinese girlfriend asked, somewhat confused, as we sat facing each other in the privacy of my apartmer t. For week.s we'd been talking about the prospect of getting married. I held back. I was not sup- posed to marry a Gentile, I thought. Itwould be a betrayal of my family, my ancestors, my tradition. Yet it would sound racist if I told her that. Then I realized: It would sound racist to me as well. I was raised with a lox-and- bagels Judaism replete with misconceptions and negative stereotypes about the reli- gious life. The few laws that we kept - such as not eating pork-we did because of habit or tradition. Confronted with an an= cient, fascinating Chinese tradition, I was challenged to identify with my Jewishness. Like many of my peers, I had an affinity for Jewish culture, and that's where it ended. And like many young Jews, I became interested in philosophy and spirituality. -In college I studied Marxism, Platonism, socialism, hu- manism, feminism. I wanted to know if any of them was the key to fixing the world. I delved into the teachings of Christianity and Buddhism. I travelled to the arctic for a month hoping to taste native spirituality. In the process, I became disillusioned with one "ism" "after another. And Judaism is an "ism" that was never even on my radar. Until I met Belinda. Interdating Questions At first it was exotic and exciting: I was expanding my horizons. But soon the guilt and the doubts started pour- ing in. Were any of the Bud- dhist practices idol worship? Did it matter whether our future children ate pork and shrimp? Orwas my discomfort with these issues the result of years of conditioning and guilt induced by my parents, synagogue and community? Whatever the case, I couldn't just snap my fingers and make my upbringing disappear. And not only that: As I was confronted with an ancient, rich and fascinating Chinese tradition that I knew nothing about, I was challenged to identify what was unique and special about my Jewishness. When you're forced to ex- plain and justify your Jewish beliefs, values or practices to a foreign audience, something interesting happen.s: the con- versations become very stimu- lating. My Chinese girlfriend would ask me questions about Judaism and I'd run and dig up answers- and not just any answers, they had to be the most satisfying answers pos- sible, so that she'd find Juda- ism appealing In the process of sharing my heritage with her, I discovered more and more of its treasures. In "the space of four years, from not having a mezuzah at my front door, I became a kippah-clad, Shabbat observant, tefillin- donning Jew. Go figure. Meanwhile, Belinda herself became increasingly drawn to Jewish values and beliefs - while also investigating other religions = and came to see the divine nature of Torah. Since Gentiles are not required to be Jewish to merit a portion in the afterlife, her decision to embrace Judaism came only after months of introspection, further learning, and immer- sion in Jewish life. Once she converted, I didn't wait long before proposing to her at a kosher Chinese restaurant! But it doesn't always work that way. Interdating more often than not leads to in- termarriage, no~-Jewish children and further disaffec- tion from our heritage. In my case, thank God the opposite happened. What accounts for the difference? Judaism: Culture or Mean- ing? Most non-religious Jews who date only other Jews do so because of family and community expectations. Or because of the Holocaust. Or because of antisemitism. But these reasons are rather tenuous, tainted with .guilt. Jews to 99 Many cultures exert pressure to marry one's one kind, but why give in to it -especially in a multicultural society? Falling in love can over- ride all these considerations. And here, I think, is the key. It all boils down to the bifur- cation of Judaism into those who abide by it as a religion (and by religion I mean an all encompassing sacred and meaningful way of life, something one believes is areligiousJew, the boundaries actually real and true), and are more clearly defined. those who identify with it So if we want to curb in- as a culture, termarriage, we need to get TherecentPewstudyonthe young Jews to identify with state of Judaism in America Judaism as a religion that asked respondents to iden- is relevant and meaning- tify what is essential to their ful, rather than simply as a Jewish identity. 14% replied culture. "eating traditional Jewish DiscoveringtheRelevance foods" and42% replied,,hav- of Judaism ing a good sense ofhumour." I believe interdating is If that's what Judaism is to a symptom of a problem, them, there is not much to namely, JeWish ignorance. be lost in marrying a Gentile. My interdatingjourney forced In the same vein, Belinda and me to dive into learninganew, I realized that culturally we unlearnwhatIbelievedJewish could take the best of both religion was,-and relearn it worlds. We can celebrate with depth and authenticity Rosh Hashanah and we can that fundamentally changed .celebrate Chinese New Year. my identity as a Jew. We can eat matzah ball soup- I believe a big part of Jewish one day andwon-ton another, education today must consist We can exchange Jackie Ma- of unlearning what we as- son jokes and dabble in the sume Judaism is all about. wisdom of Confucius. We'd Is Judaism about refraining. both be enriched, from eating pork because of To curb intermarriage, we habit or tradition, or is itabout need young Jews to identify observing the kosher laws withaJudaismthatisrelevant because that's one of God's and meaningful, ways of ensuring we remain a But if Judaism is more than holy nation? Is Judaism about just a tradition, it is built on cultivating a sense of humor, the revelation at Sinai when or is it about cultivating a God gave the Jewish people relationshipwiththeCreator? His Torah, the Divineinstruc- In short, we need to dis- tion manual for living, then tinguish between authentic the ramifications are vastly Torah Judaism and its myriad different. It's not something cultural echos. I can blithely ignore. They're Only then can we appreci- commandments; not sug- ate what it truly-means to be gestions. And included in Jewish. the Torah is the prohibition Jack (Ydnkl) Botwinik is against intermarriage, a freelance writer and the When you identify as a cul- author of Chicken Soup With tural Jew, seeking diversity in Chopsticks: A Jew's Struggle your relationship may be ap- for Truth in an Interfaith pealing. When you identify as Relationship. From page 1A the teens' families and hoped "Doall thatmustbedoneso it would provide them with 'thatrelief, rescue, andlifemay hundreds of people represent- some measure of comfort and be the lot of the young men, ing multiple Orthodox syna- strength. Ya'akov Naftali ben Rahel goguesand organizations. The Orthodox Union or-(Frenkel), Gil-adMicha'elben Chavie Kahn, the school ganized a round-the-clock Bat-Galim (Shaar)*and Eyal parentandboardmemberwho "virtual vigil" for members ben Iris Teshura (Yifrach)," organized the event, praised of O.U.-affiliated programs to the prayer says. "Act on their RachelFrenkel, the mother of sign up for 30 minute slots to - behalf, Lord, take up their one of the missing teens, for learn Torah, pray and perform cause without delay, and may the grace she has displayed mitzvahs to merit the safe You grant them life and bless- under the international media return of the boys. ing forevermore." spotlight as well as for her The Conservative rfiove- Meanwhile, a social media pioneeringworkas a"yoetzet ment's Rabbinical Assembly campaign with the hashtag halachah," an Orthodox Jew- releasedaprayerforthewelfare #BringBackOurBoys has gone ish religious adviser, oftheteenscomposedbyRabbi viral, generating voluminous Kahn said a video of the Tamar Elad Appelbaum of Je- tweets and shares. The effort service would be shared with rusalem's Zion congregation, was inspired by the #Bring- BackOurGirls online cam- apubliccampaigntonegotiate left-wing Tikkun magazine, paign demanding the return with Hamas for his release, condemned efforts to ratio- of the some 200 Nigerian The government eventually nalize the kidnapping. schoolgirls kidnapped inApril cut a deal; agreeing to release "We reject any attempt to bytheIslamistterroristgroup more than 1,000 Palestinian imply that somehow these Boko Haram. prisoners in exchange Sha- acts are understandable given American Jews mobilized lit's freedom in October 2011. the oppressive conditions during the long captivity of In the case of the teens, at faced by the perpetrators," Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier this point it's not clear who he wrote. who was held by Hamas for kidnapped them or whether The teens, Lerner contin- more than five years after a they are still alive, ued,"werenottheperpetrators Palestinian attack on his post Some commentators haveor the creators of the Occupa- along the Israel-Gaza border suggested that Israeli poli- tion.Theywerechildrendoing in June 2006. cies are to blame for the whattheirparentshadbrought In Shalit's case, it became kidnapping, noting that the them up to do and to be." clearrelativelyearlyonthathe teens studied at a yeshiva JTA's Miriam Moster and was alive, and the Israeli gov- in a settlement. But Rabbi AmiEden contributed to this ernmentbecamethetargetof Michael Lerner, editor of the report. Rosenblatt From page 5A said that the federations' Butwith Ruskay, an outspo- best days were behind them," - ken and sometimes lonely became viewed as old-school, he remembered. Today, that defender of the traditional passgandwaning, withtheal- holds true in many com- system, New York has not ternative -- direct, hands-on munities, as younger Jews only held the line but ad- giving-- on the ascendancy, have shown a preference for vanced the cause. "Our 1998 campaign wassmaller organizations and "I was a voice countering in decline, and every pundit more direct involvement, the concept of 'boutique giv- ing,' even in this building," he said. "I argued that donors 943 7. 6 1 the recession -- highlighted the speed and depth that only a major federation could ac- complish. 'It's hard to love a federa- tion' Among the other achieve- ments during his tenure that Ruskay notedwere transform- ing federation's relationship 2 1 6 5 7 8 don't need us to just pass the with synagogues from corn- money along." Federation's petition for donors to true role, he said, was to "move partnership in strengthening 9 8 5 4 3 2 the agenda" in caring for Jewish identity; creating a Jews anywhere they are in Jewish hospice system in 2 5 8 7 4 3 9 6 1 need. Thatwas done in part New York; providing seed through partnership with money to a wide range of 6 7 9 8 3 2 1 5 4 the governmentoflsrael, start-up projects here and in the Jewish Agency for Israel Israel; and warming up the and the Joint Distribution culture within "59th Street," " 4 3 2 1 5 7 6 8. 9 Committee, which address as the building is known, by overseas needs, improving work conditions and morale. But he acknowledged disap- pointments as well. He said it has been "very difficult to move the philan- thropic needle in areas like Jewish education and identity. It remains far easier to raise funds in response to poverty and crisis." 8: 1 5 4 6 9 7 2 3 UJA-Federation'smobili- zation in response to crises from Hurricane Katrina 1 2 6 5 9 8 3 4 7 in New Orleans to Hurricane Sandy in New York, and from 3 9 7 6 2 4 8 1 5 Israeli militaryengagements with Hamas, to Iaunching ConnectTo Care programs, an 5 8 ,4 3 7 1 2 96 elaborate socialservicepro- gram launched in responsefo Similarly, Ruskay said that indicate a growth among he is "not sure we moved the the extremes on the left and needle on heart'share," sug-: right--namely'noaffiliation' gesting that while the federa- andfundamentalistOrthodox tion is committed to "chesed -- and a decline within the [charitable acts[, chinuch center, the core constituency [JewiSh learning] and Clal of federation. Yisrael [Jewish peoplehood], But in the end Ruskay it's hard to love a federation," remains an optimist. He is whose image is often one of a convinced that caring com- sprawling bureaucracy more munitieswill attract caring focused on big dollars than Jews, and feels blessed to good deeds, have been in his post, which He compared the situation he describes as "energiz- to Americans loving beauti- ing, mostly inspiring, and ful sites like Yosemite and only limited by hours, and Yellowstone, but feeling little at times, exhaustion." As passion' for the Department for his time spent soliciting of Interior -- even though donors, he says: "I may be the department manages the delusionalbutI haveviewed" nationalparks, that aspect as "less about "What keeps me up at asking people for funds night," Ruskay said, "is the than enabling them to do status quo in theMiddle East," mitzvot." which he sees as a dangerous It's what he believes, arid is proposition for Jerusalem; the no doubt a key to his success. level of "poverty among the Gary Rosenblatt is editor affluenceinourcommunity;" and publisher of the New and the findings of surveys York Jewish Week, www." like the Pew Research Center jewishweek.com, from which and the federation's own New this column is reprinted with York population study that permission.