The seared tuna at the opening lunch would have been worth the trip to Columbus, where Zev and I joined over 1,200 Wexner “fellows” from around the world last Sunday. Although we were officially there to celebrate thirty years of philanthropist Leslie Wexner’s generosity, we really came to reconnect with old friends. Those of us from Pittsburgh were among the original participants in a two-year, intensive course to educate Jewish “leaders” for the future.
“The only people you’ll know are the old ones,” laughed our friend Michael from Detroit, one of the few whose name and face I put together immediately. I hadn’t seen his wife Marcy in years, but within minutes of our hello hug, she was telling me about an organization that helps formerly observant Jews assimilate into the secular world.
“Hey, life’s a journey,” I answered with the sigh of someone who traveled in the opposite direction since joining the Wexner program.
Later in the day, my husband introduced me to Steve Cohen, the demographic expert, calling him, “the man who can tell you everything you want to know about Jewish trends.”
“So how are we doing?” I asked Steve, expecting an optimistic answer or at least a positive spin.
He shook his head and answered matter-of-factly, “not good.”
Pausing for a moment, he qualified, “Except for the frummies.” (A frum person is someone committed to Torah observance.)
“Why do you think we became frum?” I gushed, feeling like a student with the right answer. (Actually, it was Zev who was more concerned with Jewish continuity: I was looking for G-d.)
I remembered that saving the Jewish people was not Mr. Wexner’s agenda, but it was hard not to be disturbed by the seeming acceptance of the trend away from Judaism.
The next day, I shared my concern with someone I could say anything to: my mother.
“Was being Jewish this important to you growing up?” she asked when the conversation turned to intermarriage.
“Of course not,” I answered, quite sure she already knew the answer to her question. “But I had no knowledge of what being Jewish meant.”
By way of worldly analogy, I just read a true story of the difference knowledge can make:
In 1995, Sotheby’s in London estimated a certain painting to sell for no more than $24,000. It was called, “The Sack of Carthage,” attributed to the 17th-century artist Pietro Testa. But a gallery bought it for $244,135, over ten times its estimated value. Why? The directors suspected the painting was something else entirely, something far more valuable, and they took a gamble. After extensive research, (undoubtedly prompted by seeing a menorah in the painting and wondering what a menorah was doing in Carthage), they discovered the piece was, in fact, the far more famous Nicolas Poussin’s “The Destruction and Sack of Jerusalem.” Scholars and art historians knew this valuable painting existed, but it had been missing for 320 years. Today, the painting hangs in the Israel Museum, thanks to philanthropist Jacob Rothschild, whose foundation bought the piece and donated it there.
The purchase price was $7.2 million, over 450 times its originally estimated value.
Through scholarship and effort (and, of course, help from Above), a masterpiece was correctly identified.
Life itself is not as clear as these paintings. Until Moshiach comes, the Artist of the world has not revealed Himself. The value of different “works,” even the artist Himself, can be contested. But without knowledge, how accurate is our appraisal?
Some people disagree with the Torah precept that every Jewish soul is a priceless piece of the Infinite Creator, that by refining ourselves through learning Torah and doing mitzvos, we become “holy,” like G-d Himself. No thanks, they say, even though statistics show that living any other way is not good for the Jews.
But here’s the good news: Jewish observance doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
My friend Marcy said it best: she was happy to learn that Chabad considers all Jews to be equally Jewish, that its objective is simply to get one Jew to do one mitzvah.
On that we agreed completely.