View from the President

“Let us celebrate our true selves”
A message from Stuart Ratzan
President, Temple Beth Am

As I sat down to write this month’s column, the Thanksgiving holiday was right around the corner. But this issue was published after Chanukah. Both holidays mark the end of the year and both have great significance to the principle of freedom, and in particular religious freedom. What a joyous and special time it is!

The myth of Thanksgiving is rooted deeply in the ideas of religious freedom and acceptance of the other. As most of us learned in elementary school, the Thanksgiving holiday evokes the idea of the Pilgrims — religious refugees from England — sitting down to dine with an indigenous tribe on the shores of Massachusetts. In this way, the holiday’s myth promotes acceptance, diversity and understanding among different types of people. But the holiday also evokes symbols and references near and dear to our hearts as Jews.

The Pilgrims were well versed in the Bible and, according to many historians, they drew on the holiday of Sukkot for the religious inspiration for Thanksgiving. Both holidays are celebrations of the harvest, but more than that, the Pilgrims saw themselves as modern incarnations of the Jewish people, fleeing persecution in search of the promised land. America was their land of milk and honey where they would be free to practice and believe as they saw fit.

And so it was that the enduring American principle of religious freedom and acceptance of the other grew roots in American culture. This is America at its best, its best angels shining on us all. This is not to say that we have perfected these concepts in America (there is lots of work to do!), but it is a potent reminder that the great American experiment is rooted in great principles, and what’s more the earliest Americans proudly gathered those roots from the tradition and teachings of the Jewish people.

Chanukah is a much older religious holiday than Thanksgiving, but it espouses the same principle: religious liberty. At the time of the Chanukah story, the Jews were being forced into assimilation, as Hellenism disrespected the difference and peculiar customs of the Jewish people. Jews who did not assimilate were castigated, not celebrated. And so it was that the Maccabees stood firm against those who would deprive them of their freedom, they fought for the right to be their true selves and to express themselves as they saw fit: as Jews with a tradition, culture, and identity all their own.

They, like the Pilgrims 1,800 years later, fought to live their lives and practice their religion as they saw fit. The Chanukah celebration is a celebration of freedom, for the Jewish people for sure, but for all people because in times and places where Jews are free to be their true selves, the rest of society is likewise free. That’s the thing about freedom, if it is restricted for some, it is only a mirage for the rest. But when freedom is abundant, it breathes life into the entire society.

So, as we turn the pages of the calendar from Thanksgiving into Chanukah and then into 2020, let us all remember the weight that freedom lifts off of the shoulders of our society. Let us remember that our freedom to be our true selves goes to the very essence of these holidays, and that it goes to the essence of our teachings and traditions as Jews.

At Temple Beth Am and beyond, let us celebrate our true selves, loud and proud, full of love and respect for ourselves and our fellow men and women of all faiths, colors, ethnicities and sexual orientations. Let’s also give thanks to the promise of America, and never forget her best angels are on our side, the side of freedom.


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