31 Mar Jewish Identity by Rabbi Danny Gold – Interim Head of Jewish Studies
How is your Jewish identity formed and forged? Is it engendered or nurtured? How does our own Jewish journey connect with our collective journey as a People? Did you inherit your identity? Are we able to transmit it to future generations? Is Jewish identity only internalised, or does it have an external expression? Is it cognitive and rational or does it lie outside the realm of reason?
These are some questions I had and was inspired to think about after reading a deeply reflective piece written by Ethan Shnaider in Year 11 as part of his VCE English studies.
Our identity is never static, who we are is constantly evolving
When I think back to the beginning of 2022, I think of change. I thought moving schools wouldn’t affect me in the way that it has. Even just the small lifestyle changes such as waking up earlier for school and finishing an hour later was something that I wasn’t used to. Putting all of that aside, the way that I viewed and felt about my Jewish identity was changed forever.
The first high school I went to before moving to Yavneh was Brighton Secondary College. It was a non-religious public school that had 200 students per year level and was a place where students often had a problem when others wore religious symbols such as kippahs. Although I was never very religious and only wore a kippah when I went to shule for certain holidays, I still believed that my Jewish identity was something that was important to me. Unfortunately, my old school was known for antisemitism and that was the first thing that people thought of when they heard the name “Brighton Secondary College”. That was not the reason that I moved to Yavneh, but it did play a role in considering what school I was going to be moving to. The reason I moved was because the education was poor and the teachers looked like they didn’t want to be there.
My first day of Yavneh felt like a good change in my life. All of the boys in the year level were all friends and it felt as if everyone knew each other. This was an unfamiliar feeling, as before I barely knew half of the students in my class. Although I only met a few of the boys on my orientation day the year before I moved, I felt as if I had been welcomed with open arms. I had the feeling that I had known some of these people my whole life. I still speak to my friends from Brighton but my friendship with some of the boys at Yavneh already felt closer than any of my friendships at Brighton, most likely because of one factor, our Jewish identity.
Ever since my first Tefillah on my first day of Year 10 at Yavneh the connection with my religion and Jewish identity has changed. Compared to my old school where my religion was a small part of my life and wasn’t something that I thought about very often, at Yavneh the Jewish values were instilled in me and my Jewish identity was something that I was proud of. Even just having to wear a kippah to school every day, something that was a big change for me, gave me the feeling every morning of pride that my religion isn’t something that should be hidden but should be embraced and cherished. Although I never did and still don’t understand Hebrew, I still have a feeling of connection just being present while those powerful words are spoken.
Moving schools was something that I never thought would change me in the way that it has. Not just because of the close friendships that I have made or the education, but the way that I view and feel about my religion and Jewish identity. I have learned how important my Jewish identity is and that your identity is never static and can always change of be altered by your setting and the people who you surround yourself with.
Before Hashem took the Jewish People out of Mitzrayim, they were bare of any mitzvot and lacking the requisite merit to be redeemed. To boost their ‘merit-metre’, Hashem gave them two special mitzvot: the commandment to perform a Brit Mila (circumcision) and to offer the Korban Pesach (Pascal Lamb). The blood from each of the two mitzvot were mixed and placed on the doorpost, serving as a protection for the Jewish People as Hashem killed all the firstborn of Mitzrayim in the finale of the Ten Plagues.
These two mitzvot are unique in that they are the only positive mitzvot that carry consequences for not fulfilling them (that of “karet” – being cut off spiritually). Why are these two mitzvot singled out as being the prerequisite to leaving Mitzrayim and carrying consequences for their lack of fulfillment?
The Brit Mila represents the personal commitment to serving Hashem, as was modelled after Avraham, who was the first person to perform this mitzvah. He discovered Hashem amidst a polytheistic culture and sought to bring the world to the recognition of the true God. The Brit Mila made him personally different and distinct and signified his partnership with Hashem. The Korban Pesach was brought at the inception of our forging as a nation and was shared experience. The communal sacrifice of the Egyptian foreign god represented the commitment to core Torah principles and united the people in their service of Hashem. Perhaps the ‘mixing of the bloods’ symbioses how each Jew needs to navigate their individual connection to Hashem, along with their connection to the chain of Jewish history and the entity of the Jewish nation. A person who negates one of these aspects is essentially cutting themselves off from the fabric of the Jewish People which could explain why these two positive mitzvot are the only ones that carry the consequence of ‘karet’ and why it was specifically these two mitzvot that paved the way for the Jewish People to be redeemed from Mitzrayim.
Ethan seems to have come from his own Mitzrayim, a place of constraints and limitations, and experienced a revival of his Jewish identity at Yavneh. The humble kippa, which may have once sought him out for ridicule, now serves as a symbol of personal pride and connection with community. The words of Hebrew resonating in his soul and starting each day with Tefilla sets the tone that we are here for a higher purpose and that the Jewish day and year is filled with so much meaning. We should be blessed that all our students take the time to reflect on the treasure they carry within and how life at Yavneh is able to nurture their Jewish identity.