By Rachel Cyrulnik
One of the first dilemmas that any student of both science and Jewish tradition encounters is the seeming dissonance between the scientific and Jewish understandings of prehistoric days on Earth. Specifically, according to our Jewish calendar, our planet is only 5,774 years old, but radiogenetic testing indicates that it has existed for 4.54 billion years. One of the suggestions taught to Jewish students is that the seven days of creation were actually a much longer period of time. It was termed “week” in the Torah, but it actually stretched beyond the limits of seven 24-hour periods to billions of years.
I raise this explanation not to comment on its merits, but because I’ve identified with this concept of time stretching past its natural bounds in recent weeks. This year, the twenty-five hours of Tisha B’Av have engulfed the entire summer, beginning when our boys went missing.
The date reserved for memorializing the calamities that have befallen the Jewish people are tragically easy to observe this year; we’ve been observing them for six weeks already. We watched our phones and computer screens with concern ever since Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali disappeared. Our concern grew to grief as we learned of their deaths. Our grief turned to solidarity as thousands of rockets began to rain down on Israel. Our solidarity made way for fear as we discovered concrete tunnels veining Gaza, built for the purpose of unthinkable murder, and that fear turned to alarm and outrage as we read about surreal and ugly instances of anti-Semitism around the world.
But these worrisome and frightening events have had another effect on our feelings and behavior. Paradoxically, in the face of discrimination and hatred, Jews are emboldened to recognize themselves as Semites. Facebook news feeds have been overtaken by posts supporting Israel and taking a stand against anti-Semitism, tens of thousands have turned out for rallies across the globe, millions of dollars have been pouring into Israel from the Diaspora, and dozens of missions to Israel were quickly filled to capacity. These signs all point to the reality that, in a foxhole, Jews identify as Jews. A raw and deep identity still permeates Jewish souls – and I would venture to guess even those who checked the “Jew of no religion” box in the Pew Report. From the depths of despair, Jews feel a magnetic pull to their homeland and an intrinsic sense of “Jew” as their essence.
The existential nature of this summer’s events make the areas in which we try to achieve progress as a Jewish community seem almost like luxuries: questions of improving Jewish education, engaging next-gen Jews, squaring Judaism with contemporary social justice, art or environmentalism seem like the Jewish equivalent “white people’s problems” because – important as they may be – none of them matter if anti-Semitism threatens our very survival. And the effect of all our efforts to strengthen Jewish identity and engagement – the most innovative programs, the biggest grants, and the most cutting-edge research – cannot compare to the immediate impact that some plain, old-fashioned anti-Semitism has on our ability to identify as Jews.
Although the summer has been that of Tisha B’Av to date, our Jewish calendar provides us with a reprieve of sorts: On the Shabbat immediately following Tisha B’Av, we read the message God relayed to the newly bereft Jewish people – “Take comfort, take comfort, my people.” God encourages the Jewish nation to look toward the future – life will continue, even as we are forced to carry with us horrific memories. When we move forward from this difficult time, I won’t be so naïve as to think that the powerful sense of Jewish identity of these moments is sustainable – no matter how strong our programs, benchmarks and logic models are.
But the confirmation that this most basic and raw sense of identifying as a Jew still exists in 2014 is a genuine source of comfort for me. And it serves as reassurance that all our communal efforts are worthwhile and necessary: A Jewish people exists, so we need to do all we can to engage and renew it. Am Yisrael Chai.
Rachel Cyrulnik serves as Strategic Development Director for Altruicity, Inc. and Senior Consultant for the Hirsh Consulting Group. She draws on a decade of experience raising funds for venerable Jewish communal institutions. Follow Rachel on Twitter.