Two Chasidim from Odessa travelled to see Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch. The first entered for his audience and the Rebbe asked him: “How are things in Odessa?”
Still seated in the waiting area, Chasid B could overhear their conversation.
“Thank God, Jewish life is growing in the city. Of course, there are challenges, but on balance, things are good,” Chasid A replied.
Chasid B was dismayed at the sugar-coated version of reality in Odessa: Why had he failed to mention the rampant licentiousness in the city, not to mention the many other problems?
He heard the Rebbe give Chasid A two roubles, in gratitude for supporting his work and in appreciation of the good report.
When Chasid B entered, the Rebbe asked him too: “How are things in Odessa?” Determined to tell the truth and set the record straight, he went on to describe the bleak state of Odessa Jewry, particularly the young people who had become corrupted by the worst that big city life had to offer.
The Rebbe thanked the Chasid for his report. But he did not offer two roubles or even one. Shocked, the Chasid exclaimed: “The Rebbe asked ‘How are things in Odessa?’ I told the truth. I am rebuffed, while another is rewarded?”
“Do you think I don’t know how things are in Odessa?” the Rebbe responded. “That’s not why I asked. The purpose of my question was to see in which Odessa do you live?”
Twice in the Torah, the Israelites become a “nation”, transforming from bnei, children of Israel to am, the nation of Israel. First, when Pharaoh claimed: “Behold! The nation of the children of Israel is growing stronger than us — let us devise a plan to rid ourselves of them, initiating the hard labour and death.”
Then, 200 or so hundred years later, as the Israelites stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses relayed God’s word: “You shall become to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”.
Some suggest this twofold peoplehood-initiation represents an identity crisis. What makes you Jewish? What is the commonality uniting all Jews?
There is the Pharaoh definition, that you are a Jew because of antisemitism. Such a definition recently brought together Jews, of all denominations and none, to demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament against antisemitism in this country.
It is a sense of identity which unites Jews but one which is often defensive or survivalist. On a personal level, a similar mentality may be shown by parents who, while not necessarily observant, still expect their child to marry someone Jewish.
Along with a defensive state of mind, our Judaism appears often compartmentalised — the term psychologists use for how we separate dissonant realities so that they co-exist. We may go to shul on Shabbat but our Jewish life is lived out in a kind of private weekend bubble that rarely intrudes on the rest of our lives.
But this compartmentalised attitude does not work for the modern, less engaged young Jews I meet. Jeremy Corbyn may be a bête noire for the Jewish establishment but for some of these youngsters, at least until recently, he appeared a positive force of idealism and a welcome prospect as Prime Minister.
By contrast, however, their view of Judaism is less positive, something limited to communal duty and family responsibility, which they see as only necessary to even contemplate when it comes to thinking about marriage.
Much of the Torah often seems to them out of date and inconsistent with the modern world. Mitzvot and shul rituals may help preserve identity but they do not see these as a source of spiritual experience. Belief is a term few relate to.
Sadly, advancing in Judaism is rarely part of their journey. Yet their identity is still in the process of forming. They retain an innate desire for a spiritual sanctum away from the hectic materialistic world.
When the Jewish people were called at Sinai to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, we didn’t receive a manual of survival tactics to sustain a small tribe, but instead, entered into a spiritual relationship — an invitation to sanctify and elevate all of our daily experiences as we travel on life’s journey.
At the Saatchi Shul, we have tried to introduce initiatives for young people to learn and experience Judaism as something that connects with all elements of their existence. Not restricted to the synagogue but accessible at a workplace in central London or a rented flat in Maida Vale.
We do monthly tefilin workouts, where we have a ten-minute prayer or meditation before work: and a monthly 15-minute “power study” where we do some learning during the busy day. In June, we’re planning our first Kabbalat Shabbat in the park, combining a sense of nature with God’s song.
The demonstration against antisemitism before Pesach adopted the cry, “Dayenu”, “Enough!” But let us now restore Dayenu to its original context, in the Haggadah, where it recalls the favours God bestowed on us as we journeyed from Egypt to Israel via Sinai, to be His holy nation.
Which Britain should we prepare our youth for, and how? And which organisation is worthy of our two roubles?
Mendel Cohen is rabbi of the Saatchi Shul