Testimonies What Does it Mean to be a Jew?


As a twenty-something living in a society whose twists and turns down the path of peace and prosperity are full of missteps and miscalculations, to me being Jewish means Tikkun Olam. Being Jewish means doing my best to repair the world at every turn and thanking G-D for bestowing on me such a blessing. For truly, to have in your heart the compassion and spirit for changing the world is the greatest blessing. One of Judaism’s greatest gifts to mankind is the concept of the mitzvah.

Being Jewish means so many other things

It means lighting candles on Friday evenings and basking in the glow of the Shabbas Queen. It means going to Synagogue on Saturday mornings and pouring forth the same prayers that have emanated from the fervent hearts of my people for thousands of years. The same praise for G-d, the same lament for our exile, the same hope for a return to Eretz Yisrael. Being Jewish means Jerusalem on the horizon and Heaven above, the Shema in your heart and a soul full of love.

Mark Twain once wrote, “Other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, is now what he always wasAll things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

Not ten years later, Leo Tolstoy gave an answer. The Jew “is the one who for so long had guarded the prophetic message and transmitted it to all mankind. People such as this can never disappear. The Jew is eternal.” What is the “prophetic message” Tolstoy speaks of? It is our call to the peoples of the world to be morally upright, to care for each other and the universe we live in, and to keep the future bright.

Being Jewish means, above all, helping the stranger, feeding the poor, the widow, and the orphan; Fighting for the rights of everyone everywhere. It means remembering that because our ancestors were once slaves in Egypt because we were made in the image of a compassionate and forgiving G-D, a G-D of liberation, that it is our duty as Jews to carry the mantle of freedom, of social justice, to be as G-D wanted us; a light unto nations. As Deuteronomy 16:20 tells us, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

Embracing Judaism

Recently, I have embraced Judaism much more fully. I follow the laws of Kashrut. I observe the Sabbath. The decisions to do so were ethical, born out of a desire to live my everyday life in acknowledgment of the sanctity of all life. As well, there is another very important way in which I have more fully embraced what it means for me to be a Jew.

I have decided to go back to school to become a teacher. By this time next year, I will be licensed to teach literature in the High Schools. In my classroom, my students will learn to be critical thinkers and social activists, two values I hold to be, if not uniquely Jewish, very much integral to my idea of being a Jew. As Einstein said, “the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and an almost fanatical love of justice. These are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my lucky stars that I belong to it.”

Being Jewish is not about being better, or being chosen. It is about choosing to do good, to be compassionate, and to teach others to be compassionate. As Elie Weisel so poignantly expressed, “The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human”.


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