Author: Rosenzweig, Michael
Date published: March 10, 2011
The National Museum of American Jewish History recently opened its grand new facility on Independence Mall to great national and local acclaim. American Jews are overwhelmingly proud of the museum and all that its presence on the mall - the very birthplace of American freedom - represents. The museum tells a story told nowhere else - of why and how Jews came to this continent and how they have shaped, and been shaped by, this great nation.
It is an institution that connects American Jews more closely to their heritage, while at the same time inspiring in all Americans, non-Jews and Jews alike, a greater appreciation for the American Jewish experience and the many things all Americans share in common.
Given this focus, one might assume that the Jewish community's embrace of the museum has been entirely enthusiastic and unqualified. The truth, however, is more complicated.
Some have lamented that so much money was spent building the museum, rather than using those resources to support Jewish day schools. While this appears to be a minority view, it is nonetheless expressed with great passion and conviction, and deserves a serious response.
Make no mistake. I am a strong supporter of Jewish day schools, having founded one in Atlanta and sent my children to day school for their entire childhood education. I believe deeply that they best teach our kids to be good human beings and good Jews, and that they transmit the message that there is nothing more important than being a good, knowledgeable, literate Jew. Jewish high schools, in particular, provide our children with a deep and meaningful sense of our tradition and heritage that, in turn, helps create Jewish adults able to navigate the non-Jewish world with an informed, self-assured sense of their Jewishness.
But while I believe that support for day schools should be at the very top of our community's agenda, not everyone agrees. For whatever reason, some are not convinced that they should devote significant resources to supporting such endeavors. We can wish this were not so, we can make impassioned arguments in an effort to convince these individuals that they are wrong, but at the end of the day many of them will remain unpersuaded.
As a community, what are we to do with that reality?
The answer to that question lies in understanding our communal goals. If one such goal is to enhance Jewish education and Jewish continuity, to bring and keep within the "Jewish tent" as many Jews as possible, then we must recognize that in a free society such as ours, there are many paths to meaningful Jewish inclusion.
For some, significant support of their synagogue or Federation or, yes, the museum is more compelling than support of Jewish day school. Rather than criticize those people, we should embrace their desire to support Jewish causes, and applaud their efforts to create and maintain a robust and educated Jewish community.
We must remember that those embarked on a serious Jewish journey may come to see the wisdom of supporting day schools; they should be encouraged in their journey, not criticized for "not getting it."
At a time when we enjoy unprecedented freedom, influence and wealth as a Jewish community, we need not view support of day schools and other Jewish institutions as oppositional; these are not "either-or" choices. We should support both and have the capacity to do so.
We should celebrate the fact that $150 million was raised to build the museum, seeing it as a sign of our community's health, rather than wish that some of that money had been spent on day schools. Someday, many who contributed to that accomplishment may find their Jewish journey leading them to unexpected places.
Michael Rosenzweig is president and CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History. He will be the keynote speaker at Barrack U, a day of learning for the entire community, on Sunday, March 13. For more information, go to: www.jbha.org/barrackU.