The inscription on the Supreme Court building reads “equal justice under law.”
The inscription on the Supreme Court building reads “equal justice under law.” (Jens Grabenstein/Flickr Commons)

The American future and the Jewish future, including that of our Jewish third-graders today and tomorrow, depend on what we do right now.

When I was in third grade in Troy Public Schools, my teacher invited us to join her in a weekly, afterschool Bible study she was to lead. I came home and shared with my parents my desire to join all my friends in this club. The next day we heard from our teacher that afterschool Bible study was canceled.  

I later came to learn that, angered upon hearing my announcement, my mother paid a successful visit to the school principal. In America, she explained, there is a separation between church and state.

There is a good chance that if my third-grade incident occurred in today’s America, the principal would reject my mother’s concerns about her Jewish son feeling excluded from the overtly Christian Bible study group. After all, according to recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, what we as Jews perceive as an American value of separation between church and state amounts for our more conservative neighbors to an attack on their freedom of religion. 

Rabbi Aaron Starr
Rabbi Aaron Starr

We are witnessing the rise of an emboldened and angry Christian right wing backed by a Supreme Court majority. We are living through the re-christening of America and the return of religion to public spaces. Will it be good for Judaism, too? Will our children establish separate prayer sessions and Torah-study groups so as to not succumb to the peer pressure they will inevitably experience to join their Christian friends? Will we as adults likewise pursue the further expression of Jewish particularism in the public square in order to “compete” with increased Christian expressions?

During this re-christening of America, we continue to live through an era of a radicalized left wing that seeks to elevate the oppressed by punishing anyone accused of benefiting from our country’s systems. Antisemitism, masked as anti-Zionism, is celebrated on college campuses, and Jews are seemingly permitted targets for physical violence among those who judge us negatively. 

While many Jews appropriately desire equal rights among all peoples in America, we rightly fear that the downfall of the American meritocracy and the labeling of Jews as oppressors by those with whom we seek to march in defense of others will create a climate of pariahdom for our people. If we Jews are excluded by the right and hated by the left, can this new period in America be as “good for the Jews” as it has been in America over the last 75 years?

We learn, “Find for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a colleague in study, and be in the habit of judging people favorably” (Avot 1:6). As individuals and as families, we are called upon in this moment to strengthen our Judaism by devoting time to learning from our synagogue clergy. 

Each of us must also ensure the security of Jews and the success of America by engaging with and listening genuinely to our neighbors, especially those with whom we disagree, and by assuming the best in each of those around us. 

Moreover, for Jews and for Judaism to thrive, our synagogues and communal institutions need to better educate and inspire children and adults alike for this new period in America. More Jewish knowledge, broader Jewish skillsets and greater Jewish joy are required. We must further elucidate the deep profundity of Judaism’s moral teachings and demonstrate the meaningfulness of robust Jewish living. 

Jews of all backgrounds must intentionally partner together for an America in which morality, compassion and kindness prevail; in which truth, justice and freedom are celebrated; in which Jews and Judaism can thrive. 

The American future and the Jewish future, including that of our Jewish third-graders today and tomorrow, depend on what we do right now. 

Rabbi Aaron Starr, a spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarey Zedek, is studying in Jerusalem at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

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