May 18, 2011

Jewish Meaning and American History
© 2011 Rabbi Menachem Creditor
in celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month

It is perhaps fitting that on journeys to and from Washington, D.C. for the celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month I found myself reading Viktor Frankl's Man in Search of Meaning. Frankl z"l, a Holocaust survivor, created the school of pychology known today as "logotherapy" which suggests that a person's primary motivational fource is her/his search for meaning. My experience as a guest of the President of the Unites States yesterday, which Frankl's wildest dreams in the camps could never have imagined, is all the more meaningful for being the experience of a Jew in a circumstance so very different from his.

Frankl suggested three stages as a framework to conduct what he so beautifully called "the art of living." These stages are, sequentially: 1) the shock that all one truly possesses is their naked existence, 2) the recognition of the reality one inhabits, and finally 3) the development of one's inner life.

To the outside eye, the line of well-dressed Jews outside the White House was just like any other honored gathering. But to this Jew the line was intensely shocking. I know of a friend whose survivor father would never let his family wait on line (not for amusement park rides, restaurants, nothing). The resonance of Jews waiting in line is simply too painful to communicate. The shock, then, of being a Jew in line, presenting my credentials, only to be greeted with, "Welcome, Rabbi, to the White House!" undid me. I stood, under my umbrella in a brief D.C. rainshower, suddenly and overpoweringly relieved that my wife was (still) with me, and was stunned into an awareness that this was a moment of safety, of affirmation, and ultimately one of tremendous Jewish pride. Pride in being an American, pride in being an American Jew, pride in representing my precious Berkeley Jewish community as a guest in the heart of our Nation. I suddenly felt the eyes of my ancestors, Eastern European Jewish immigrants 4 and 5 generations back, tearfully watching me from the Heavens as I entered the White House.

Photographs of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z"l and Martin Luther King Jr. z"l adorned the lobby where I encountered Elie Wiesel and Deborah Schultz and hundreds of our sisters and brothers, leaders and artists, Supreme Court Justices, Jewish college a cappella singers and social activists, congress-people and philanthropists. Rabbinic colleagues of varying Jewish streams strolled wide-eyed through rooms of exquisite elegance and rich Americana. Cameras and phones were ever-present, as if capturing these scenes and spreading them through infinite social networks could make what Frankl called our 'provisional existence' just a bit more permanent than Jewish history has ever allowed.

And then the President of the United States, a person whose face represents such a treasured dream for millions, took his place in a room full of American Jews. He spoke of the unbreakable partnership the United States shares with Israel, the deep gifts the Jewish community has brought to America, and his personal commitments to both. How can a Jew not be moved to know the steadfast commitment of the United States and its leader to his or her safety and right to 'simply' be a Jew and a full citizen. Standing so close to the living face of our noble American dream reminded me of the Jewish blessing traditionally recited upon seeing royalty: "Blessed are You, God, for giving a portion of your Glory to a creature of flesh and blood." I recited it with trembling lips, gazing in admiration at a person trying his best to fulfill the sacred covenant these shores have represented for over two-hundred and fifty years, to my family, and to so many countless others.

May President Obama, our elected officials, and every American citizen be strengthened and courageous, proud and determined to see to it that the prayers of both those who call the United States their home, as well as those who seek its safety, be answered, soon and in our days.

I am humbled beyond words to have been included in this moment of Jewish American history.

May our story as a nation gain in meaning, in depth, and in health.

May the Jewish People continue to work to strengthen, and be blessed in return by, the worthy dream of the United States of America.


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