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Tales of the Lyfter Rebbe, Monday, Feb 25, 2019

From Israel to SE Alaska

I picked up a young man named Joel in the University District who was loaded with gear. As it turned out he was on his way to Southeast Alaska to work as a counselor on a wilderness program for troubled teens. The teens, he told me, were there involuntarily. He knew he was in for an emotionally challenging experience.

When Joel found out that I was a rabbi, he shared with me that he had just gone to Israel on the Taglit-Bitrthrite program. At 32 he had just barely met their new age limit. It was his first time going. He hoped to persuade his sister to go as well.

I asked Joel what led him to go to Israel. It turns out that Joel was the son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. He then told me a story about his upbringing in Texas and the struggle of his parents to decide what would be his religious heritage. Up until 3rd grade he attended an Jewish day school where he learned Hebrew and all things Jewish. During third grade a struggle between his parents led to his moving out of a Jewish day school and to enrollment in a Catholic parochial school. The rest of his childhood was spent in Catholic schools and frequent stints as an altar boy at the church.

I asked him what his religious identity was now as an adult. He said that because of his experience, he was not identified with any religion. His decision to go to Israel was met by his Jewish part of the family with excitement, but the trip did not lead to any clarity about his identity.

I shared with him my experience of being Jewish in Southeast Alaska. He would be spending his time in a remote SE Alaska community. It was unlikely that he would find much Jewish life where he was going. He accepted that with a certain awareness that being Jewish was for the most part a private identity for him. He didn't need a synagogue or a Jewish community to be Jewish. I thought to myself that he would be right at home in Alaska, where many people leave their former identities behind.

Traditional Jewish identity is a "singular identity". Before modern times a Jew was Jewish through and through. His or her Jewishness permeated every aspect of his or her being. A singular identity describes a person whose identity is deep and all encompassing. That's a pretty good description of my Jewish identity. Being a rabbi has intensified my personal Jewish identity. Being Jewish permeates who I am as a person, my outlook, and my personal choices.

In our times we live with multiple identities. If there is a Jewish component it was only one of many identities that shapes us. The purpose of modern Jewish education and Jewish communal effort in our context is to raise the "ranking" of Jewish identity among the many competing identities that make up who we are. (I thank Donniel Hartman for these concepts.)

When I drive a Lyft I don't function as a Jewish educator. But the moment I mention that I am a rabbi, I realize that for some of the people I encounter, that I become a symbol of Jewish identity and commitment. I have discovered that when I reveal that I am a rabbi, the Jewish connection of that person is activated. They open up with all sorts of unexpected connections as well as the contradictions within their personal identity. That is why I seem to have so many interesting encounters in the confines of my Subaru. Joel reminded me of the reality of so many Jews today. Driving a Lyft has opened this world to me.

Note: I always change the names and some features of the story to protect the privacy of my riders. But my tales are always based on real encounters. RDG