What America Is and Can Be

July 4th is a day to celebrate everything the United States is and everything it is meant to be. That may not be obvious at this moment in our history when some of our most valued institutions show serious cracks and when people are experiencing what seems like an all-time high in cynicism.

Of course, we’ve experienced our share of exceptional times: from the pessimism surrounding the country’s founding to the bloodiest years of self-slaughter in the civil war to the fights for legislative equality for all citizens, many of which remain unwon. The world, too, has faced times of more clear, unadulterated evil, chiefly in World War II and the Holocaust.  

In times like these, there are those whose moral compass remains straight as an arrow. They know the actions and ideologies required today, even in a world severely lacking in discourse and open encounters with others. Many of us, though, find that we are seeking a true north. We know the names of our values, but we seek direction as to how to live most authentically by them.  

For me, Dr. Eugene Schoenfeld was the person whose moral compass I could trust. Gene was an incredible man who saw the very worst of what humanity could be and yet lived his 93 years teaching that kindness was the core of being human. One of the greatest privileges of my 16 years at my synagogue, Gesher L’Torah, is having had Gene as a friend, a teacher, and a member of our congregation.  

Here’s what Gene taught me about the United States of America: Pray for our country out of both gratitude and aspiration. 

Once, when we were saying the special prayers following the Torah reading during services, the family celebrating a Simcha that day forgot to give out all the honors. So, we included the prayers for Israel and for our congregation and for peace, but we omitted the prayer for our government – a prayer that is not only in our siddur but that has traditionally been part of the liturgy since the dawn of Rabbinic Judaism. Gene said to me afterward that if we include any one of our special readings, we must also include the Prayer for Our Country. Not because of Jewish tradition but because Jews have never had the opportunity to pray for a nation like the United States of America. This may seem like an exaggeration, but Gene meant it. He thought not only of Hungary’s ruling parties that turned his old country into fire and ash but of other Golden Eras when Jews lived at the pleasure of the monarch or executive and no rights could be counted on. In the U.S., there is admittedly no guarantee. Still, Gene was direct and definitive. Experiencing such a disastrous loss made him appreciate what the U.S. is and believe in what it aspires to be. 

All who knew Gene knew he did not live in the past, nor did he long for the bygone America he first encountered after escaping the hell of Europe. He also did not dig a trench to defend the Judaism of old. He dug a deep well, so he could draw from his past and our traditions to help a new future grow. He was building a vital and transformative Judaism that would both elevate the soul and mend brokenness in the world. Today, I turn to this well and the one who dug it, not to hide from these difficult days but to be nourished. And, according to his wise teaching, I pray for the United States of America – both in gratitude and in dedication to mending what is broken here and in our broken world.

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