People make inconceivable numbers of choices each day, Louis Plung said, from what to eat for breakfast to what to wear to work or which detour might avoid rush hour traffic.
Americans cherish the right to choose how to live their lives, he said, and it is this way of thinking that has many people wondering what the future holds for the Jewish community in Pittsburgh and nationwide.
“I think the question we have to ask is what type of Jewish community will we leave for the next generation,” said Plung, who chairs the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Plung addressed a packed auditorium as part of the Conversations for a Jewish Future Speaker Series before introducing the keynote speaker, Rabbi J.J. Schacter. Schacter’s presentation was focused around one fundamental issue: Will there be a Jewish religion in the future of our community?
“If you would ask me how Jewish life is in Pittsburgh, I would say it’s fine, everything is great,” Schacter said. “I believe there will be a future for our Jewish community that will not only be around, but it will be vibrant.”
Schacter, a professor of Jewish history and thought at Yeshiva University, cited the concept of choice as a main factor in preserving a thriving Jewish community. In a time where people can be overwhelmed by the amount of variety in daily life, having the ability to follow one’s own path is the only way to maintain the lifestyle of choice.
“The core of our challenge for a greater Pittsburgh and to have Jews engaged in the community is to inspire people to choose to accept Judaism,” Schacter said.
Schacter placed the onus to provide future generations with a compelling argument for keeping the Jewish faith on the current generation. The Harvard graduate explained that if a Jewish child does not practice the religion with the same vigor as Schacter himself, then it is Schacter’s responsibility to show why keeping the faith to the letter of the law is an admirable decision.
One question future generations must be asking, the rabbi said, is why will Jewish religion mean something to them? If children can provide answers to these questions, then they will be able embrace the religion.
Sitting to the left of Schacter, taking up almost an entire section of the auditorium, were a group of Jewish teenagers who seemed fixated on every word he spoke. Schacter pointed to those teens, citing them as prime examples of individuals embracing their role in preserving the Jewish community.
Using excerpts from Maimonides’ writings, Schacter illustrated God’s promise that the Jewish people will stand the test of time.
“The fact is, Jews have faced crude discrimination and brute physical annihilation,” he said. “Somehow we have survived. It tells me we will continue to survive.”
He reiterated his speech was not to assure people that the Jewish religion itself will continue for generations, but to show how future generations could ensure that Jewish leadership and pride will be present for generations to come.
(Brandt Gelman can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.)