Functional Judaism: Being Jewish IRL

By Beth Finger

I was at the gym recently and distracted myself from the boredom of the stairmaster by reading the helpful tips presented on the monitor hanging from the ceiling. One of these fitness tips caught my eye:

Functional Training – exercise which involves training the body for the activities performed in daily life.

For example, strengthen the leg muscles that are used for sitting down and standing up from a chair; strengthen the back muscles that we use for lifting grocery bags. Makes sense.

Since I had another twenty minutes on the stairmaster, I began to think about how this fitness strategy is actually the way that I think about my Judaism. I realized that I practice what I would call, Functional Judaism.

Functional Judaism – a practice that uses the values and traditions of Judaism to inform and elevate my every day life.

I am not kosher and Saturday is usually filled with running errands and driving my kids to where they need to be. Yet, when I see a backlit cloud formation in the sky or a scenic mountain view, my mind wanders to B’reishit, when the heavens and the earth were formed in the creation story that opens the Torah. I am reminded that we are commanded with the responsibility to take care of the earth. When I hear of one person helping another in need, my Jewish spirit soars. I think of the value from the Talmud: “Kol Yisrael Arevim zeh la’zeh,” that we are all responsible for one another. And Leviticus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As these values echo through my head, the beautiful scene or the story of human kindness make sense to me in a deeper way as they are rooted in my ancient story. I am humbled by the big picture that I am neither the first nor the last to appreciate these things, and my experience has been elevated by seeing it through a Jewish lens.

My neighbor recently hung a confederate flag from his porch. I had a visceral reaction to it and knew immediately that I would have to go over there to talk to him. I dreaded it but knew that as a Jew, I had no choice. A lifetime of seders teaching me to be kind to the stranger, a lifetime of knowing about the Holocaust and what happens when you don’t stand up to hatred, and the pride I have that the Jewish community – my people – played a prominent role in the Civil Rights Movement, compelled me to walk over to my neighbor’s house and speak up.

This is Functional Judaism – a Judaism that is useful every day, not just on Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays. Our very own Judaism (no need to look further) is the marrow that can fill our lives with human necessities: friends, built-in family time, delicious foods, answers to our deepest questions, wisdom on how to parent and how to grieve, opportunities to celebrate and get together with friends and family, feeling rooted, a moral compass, permission to slow down and appreciate life around you, and so much more.

Jewish Without Walls (JWOW), an independent start-up in Suffolk County Long Island, shifted our efforts this year from Jewish holiday programs to those focused on values that we can use every day. Through a grant from PJ Library, our new JWOW Around Town initiative takes families to places that they enjoy spending time, and we experience it through a Jewish lens. For example, we met at an equestrian center where the children groomed, fed and cared for the horses. We taught them about tza’ar ba’alei chayim (preventing suffering in animals) and that respecting animals is actually a Jewish commandment. Once they were inspired, we encouraged them to take care of their pets at home and to be kind to all animals. JWOW has another event scheduled for a fire house, where we will get a tour, speak to the fire fighters and learn about pikuach nefesh, that saving a life is the most important Jewish value.

All too often, I hear people describe themselves as “bad Jews.” This is typically a shorthand to say that they are not halachically or religiously observant. By integrating Judaism into our every day lives through Functional Judaism, we will have many more secular and not traditionally observant Jews thinking of themselves as Jewish in the positive – by all of the things that they do that are Jewish. The question, “Why Be Jewish” will become easy to answer and Judaism will truly nurture people and help them to flourish.

Beth Finger is the Founder and Executive Director of Jewish Without Walls (JWOW).