Elaborating on this theme Mr. A. posed the following questions: "What does Jewish nationalism mean if it is not founded on the principles of the Torah, and conversely, what does Torah observance mean if it does not result in pride, dignity, and a sense of collective responsibility? Don't we both know ardent Zionists whose children couldn't care less about being Jewish? And don't we also know some orthodox Jews whose children only worship worshipping, neglecting its application?" Listening to these questions I felt I had arrived at a more or less complete understanding of Mr. A's core views on the subject of Jewish identity and its importance to his therapeutic relationship with the foster children. Reflecting on these ideas I began to feel that they might be equally relevant to the situations of the allegedly "normal" children of suburban, Jewish families. Didn't they too experience considerable conflict stemming from a lack of knowledge and pride in their identity as Jews? Wasn't the situation of the foster children living in the A's home only a more extreme form of a more universal problem facing the Jewish community in general? Over a period of several months, in addition to the former group home residents whose comments have already been quoted, I had the opportunity to meet with about fifteen others who had similar experiences and observations. Without exception these young men and women (many of whom were now in their late twenties to early thirties) were living successful lives. Many were married and raising families; all were holding responsible jobs and supporting themselves. They had many fascinating and important stories to tell about their years living in the group home. Without exception these were individuals who had developed integrity and a sense of self-worth. They spoke articulately and with great conviction about their Jewishness. Some had "graduated" from the home and gone on to study in yeshivas, or went to live in Israel. One had even become an orthodox rabbi. It was hard to imagine that these proud, intelligent, and committed Jews were at one time recalcitrant, embittered, and rebellious youth, many of whom had been written off as being incorrigible. And without exception, these former group home residents expressed gratitude and appreciation to Mr. and Mrs. A. and the Jewish Children's Bureau for helping them to become responsible adults and prideful Jews.
While most of my efforts to understand the operation of the group home came about through discussions with Mr. A, it was clear that the role and contribution of his wife were equally important in the children's development. Certainly she and Mr. A were partners in this remarkable venture. This dedicated and compassionate woman had spent over 40 years as a mother not only to her own children but also to the nearly one hundred foster children who had lived in her home. She washed the clothes, prepared the daily meals, shopped, kept a kosher home, took the children to the doctor when they were sick, nursed them, met with teachers and school officials when the need arose, and consulted with agency personnel in planning and carrying out the therapeutic program. Her constant attention and concern did more than any words to prove to these children that there was someone who cared about them. She made the home a place where they felt secure and wanted, a place where they felt a sense of importance and belonging.
In describing her views about the group home, Mrs. A. noted the importance of a mother's presence at home when the children return from school. She could see from the looks on their faces whether they'd had a good day or not. Walking through the door and being greeted by Mrs. A, the children knew that whatever difficulties or problems they had faced at school or with other children, there was a warm and caring "mother" waiting to greet them and to listen patiently to whatever they had to say. Mrs. A lamented the fact that due to economic circumstances, so many children today return from school to empty homes, with no one to greet them or listen to their concerns. She believes that this sad fact is indicative of the current bleak condition of the American family in general and the Jewish family as well.
While not as "political" as her husband, Mrs. A had strong feelings about the importance of a Jewish home and family. She, too, was proudly Jewish and emphasized the importance of a proper Jewish education to enhance a child's self-esteem and self- respect. This was particularly true, she noted, in a world where the Jew had often become divorced from any meaningful connection with his or her own Jewishness. She lamented the escalating rate of assimilation that has seen so many Jews intermarrying or otherwise casting off the remaining traces of their Jewish identity. She echoed her husband's belief that Jews can never be successful by abandoning their Jewishness in an attempt to become indistinguishable from others, which invariably results in frustration and disillusionment. "On the other hand, why should one even want to try," she remarked, "considering the richness of his own heritage and history as a Jew?" I was both angered and saddened in listening to Mrs. A's commentary on the plight of the Jewish family. If her statements were true, then the Jewish people were choosing to phase themselves out of existence through assimilation. This was hardly an encouraging prospect for anyone who cared at all about Jewish survival.
At the same time, however, I found no signs of resignation or despair within the A's home. On the contrary, both Mr. and Mrs. A. faced the problems and crises that arose in the home with a spirit of confidence and resolve, committed to enhancing the integrity of Jewish identity. Somehow this seemed like a characteristically Jewish response. After all, hadn't Jews throughout history faced the most calamitous situations and tragedies with an almost militant determination not to capitulate or compromise their values even in the face of seemingly hopeless odds? I thought of Rabbi Akiva who willingly suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Romans rather than compromise his Jewishness. If the contemporary onslaught of rampant assimilation was decimating the ranks of Jewry, then the A's were facing this crisis in a spirit of confidence and good faith--faith in the existence of a healthy Jewish future. And nowhere was this spirit more evident than during the Friday evening Shabbos meal at the A's home.
In his commentary on the book of Genesis, Rabbi Avigdor Miller (1987) quotes the Talmud (Hullin, 4b) saying that: "Persuasion is solely by means of food and drink." Rabbi Miller goes on to explain that, "Even to be persuaded to serve G-d more enthusiastically, the Torah uses the means of food and drink." (p. 422) In various places the Torah describes festive meals as occasions that evoke gratitude toward one's benefactor and, indeed, toward the "Great Benefactor," (G-d) for the blessings He has bestowed upon man. This was certainly true in the A's home, where the Friday night meal was an occasion worth waiting an entire week to enjoy.
At the Sabbath dinner table there were generally no less than fifteen to twenty people, including the A's children, grandchildren, foster children, and guests. After singing the traditional Shabbos songs, Mr. A. recited Kiddush (blessing) over a glass of wine. Then everyone moved into the kitchen for the ritual washing of hands, before returning to the table where the blessing over the two loaves of challah preceded the meal. The meal itself was a sumptuous feast consisting of six or seven courses. First came a plate of fish, followed by soup, two kinds of chicken, or another entree such as barbecued ribs or roast beef--all glatt kosher, of course. There were also vegetable dishes, rice dishes, two or three salads, and side dishes of barley and potatoes. At times it was difficult to choose from the variety of options. And every selection was as delicious as the next, for Mrs. A was a wonderfully creative cook.
It was at this Sabbath meal, perhaps more than anywhere else, that the foster children began to experience a feeling of gratitude and pride about their Jewishness, for the celebration of the Sabbath brought with it an intense awareness of the importance of one's Jewishness. Even more than the meal itself, the conversation and companionship around the huge table created bonds of friendship and unity among those who were present. This communal act of honoring the Sabbath became an important step in the process of honoring one's identity as a Jew and in honoring the eternal laws of the Torah that have guided Jewish life for thousands of years. Even those of us from assimilated backgrounds realized that not very many generations ago our own grandparents or great-grandparents, too, had unfailingly and lovingly participated in the observance of the Sabbath. The fact that over the years so many of us had become separated from Jewish observance warranted serious consideration.
After the meal, family and guests moved into the living room where conversations often lasted well into the night. The foster children took advantage of this opportunity to discuss personal concerns ranging from problems with family, friends, or school to questions about Jewish identity, history, or religion. Frequently, the conversation turned to recent events in Israel or elsewhere in the Diaspora. And invariably, each event was discussed with a scrupulous consideration for Jewish national and religious interests.
On Saturday mornings Mr. A. walked to one of the local orthodox congregations for morning services, and generally all the foster children went with him. For many this proved to be a powerful and pivotal experience in the development of their Jewish identity.
Participating in the communal worship as part of the congregation brought an immediate and palpable sense of connection and membership in the Jewish community. The very sound of the Hebrew prayers being chanted by the Rabbi or Chazan (cantor) evoked long dormant memories and feelings. Mr. A. advised each child to close his eyes and imagine that he was hearing the voice of his own grandfather or his great-grandfather, who had indeed uttered these same prayers and melodies throughout the ages of Jewish life. This suggestion made the experience of the service more comprehensible for the children. Each one felt himself to be personally connected with a living tradition that was infinitely larger than himself, something remarkable and sacred that had endured over thousands of years. Even if he did not understand the language in which the prayers were recited, he became humble and reverent at the spirit and faith that had been kept alive throughout so many generations.
Of course this new awareness of the connection to Jewish tradition was only possible because of the groundwork that the A's had carefully laid in preparing these young Jews to understand their own heritage and to feel a healthy sense of pride in their national identity. With this background they began to think seriously and to reflect on the meaning of their own relationship to the timeless expanse of Jewish history.
Walking home from the synagogue on Saturday, in anticipation of the meal awaiting them there, the foster children would often discuss their personal observations and concerns. One talked excitedly about plans to live and study in Israel after finishing high school. He wanted one day to serve in the Israeli government and contribute to the continued development of the Jewish state. Another spoke with sadness of the tragedies occurring in Israel as Jews continued to be victimized by Arab terrorists. He planned on joining the Israeli army. Yet another spoke of misguided efforts by some American Jewish leaders whose positions are dictated by the need for gentile approval rather than for the best interest of the Jewish community. As they approached the A's home on the walk back from the synagogue, conversation turned to more mundane matters, namely to food, in anticipation of the Sabbath afternoon meal, and the merits of Mrs. A's incomparable cholent. After the Sabbath meal, there was plenty of time to relax, visit with family and friends, or discuss personal concerns. And it was during these informal conversations, guided by Mr. A's promptings, that many of the foster children began to develop a serious and ongoing interest in their own Jewishness. They began to study, to take classes, to join Jewish youth groups. Many became Bar Mitzvah at an age well beyond their thirteenth year, studied in Israel, or went on to learn in yeshivas.
Judaism was no longer some archaic remnant from an antiquated past, something to hide away in the closet like outgrown clothes. Stories of the Jewish patriarchs, prophets, and historical leaders came alive. They were as relevant and meaningful now as they were thousands of years ago. The Torah was not some book to be shelved or infantilized as a collection of Sunday school stories. It was an authoritative guide to living an authentically Jewish life. Its teachings were the vital essence of everything Jewish, something worth living and sacrificing for. And this is why many of the foster children grew up, married, and started families, dedicated to the perpetuation of authentic Jewish ideals and practice.
As I observed the remarkable transformations that had occurred in the lives of these prideful young people, I began to think about their peers, about the thousands of young Jews who had never had the chance to enjoy a Sabbath meal, to learn Torah, or to study the magnificence of Jewish history. Where were they today, these young Jews, and how were they spending their Sabbath? Many, no doubt, had become completely alienated from any meaningful connection with Jewish life. To a large extent, this was also true for those of my own generation. Most had become completely assimilated, intermarried, or otherwise lost to even the remotest connection with their own identity as Jews. Many had become absorbed in hedonistic pursuits of pleasure, wealth, careers, drugs, or oblivion. Some had attached themselves to ideologies having nothing to do with Judaism or Jews. Others became adherents of social movements that were in fact hostile toward Judaism. Why had so many Jews in recent generations become so alienated from their own heritage and from their own people?
Reflecting on this question I began to understand why many Jewish leaders today lament over the increasing rates of assimilation and intermarriage. They are rightly concerned about the future survival and "continuity" of Jewish life. I asked the A's to what degree they experienced the support of Jewish leadership and Jewish communal professionals in their effort to provide the children with a meaningful Jewish experience.
Mr. A. answered that, "Beyond the many services offered by the Jewish Children's Bureau, every request we ever made on behalf of the children was honored. Somehow the community, the agency, or the auxiliary, someone always provided the funds, be it for a Bar Mitzvah, studies at a yeshiva, a trip to Israel, a book, a tallis, whatever would encourage and enhance a meaningful Jewish experience for the children."
Mrs. A. added that, "In addition, the community set up a fund in our name to provide children with an opportunity for furthering their Jewish education."
"But most important, they were present." Mr. A. continued. "Many board members and communal professionals not only came to the Bar Mitzvas, but they also came to the home, often with their own families, to spend a Shabbos evening with the children. And this had great importance for the kids."
Rare as they may be, programs like those offered by the Jewish Children's Bureau in the A's group home engender a true sense of self-worth based on an abiding commitment to the inseparable values of Torah observance and Jewish national pride. In the past, when Jewish life was threatened, the faithful adherence to these eternal values has proven to be an effective solution to the problem of Jewish survival. It is likely that only such faithful and dedicated adherence will effectively address the problems of the Jewish present and future.