THESE DAYS IT’S not so uncommon to see Jewish life in our secular world. Everyone knows what a bagel is, and the word “schmear” just rolls off people’s tongues. Adam Sandler’s hit “The Hanukkah Song” has everyone singing along during the winter holiday season. As Jews, we are more integrated into American culture than ever before, and we see Jewish elements in society so often that it’s hard to remember a time when they weren’t so ubiquitous. I had an experience recently where Jewish and secular merged, and in a way that went beyond superficial references in popular culture.
Among the many things I read for pleasure, O Magazine is at the top of my list. I am inspired by the issues Oprah Winfrey brings to the table and how she speaks of values that I cherish. Values that are both distinctively Jewish and universally human. I was truly struck when, in a recent issue, my two worlds came together—literally.
In the December 2017 issue of O, I came across an article about the “Ask Big Questions” initiative. Started by then Hillel Rabbi Josh Feigelson, Ask Big Questions went national in 2011 and has inspired organized discussions among more than 300,000 college students, congregations, and other groups. Josh was my colleague, and we had brought the initiative to Hillel at UCLA when I was the Associate Director there.
During a time when texting and Facebook were beginning to replace face-to-face conversations, it was transformative to think about a simple question like “Where do you feel at home?” and “Who is in your family?” These are timeless and ageless questions. Seeing this movement highlighted in Oprah’s magazine is nothing less than thrilling.
Big Questions have always been a part of the Jewish tradition, and at no time during the Jewish year more so than right now during Passover. Passover revolves around questions—“Why is tonight different from all other nights?” Part of the Seder is even called The Four Questions. And sometimes the questions are even more important than the answers.
We have probably all been taught the wisdom of asking open-ended questions. They inspire conversation, debate and brainstorming. They apply to all of us, young and old. Asking questions offers a way to discover connections with others which might not have occurred to us. In so many situations in life, we find we have more in common than what separates us.
On the Ask Big Questions website
(askbigquestions.org) there is a Big Question for every month, and conversation guides to help facilitate discussion. April’s Big Question is: “When Do You Take a Stand?” I thought about this question in light of Passover. The Passover story (from the Book of Exodus) tells us: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
There are many ways to consider who is a stranger and how we might stand up for them. A stranger can be someone who is new to your country, a newcomer to your community, or even a new colleague at your workplace. When discussing this topic with children, a stranger can be a new kid at school or even a new sibling.
For me, this question makes me consider not only when to take a stand, but also how to take a stand. As Jews we must consider our values in how we treat one another. Values that are both distinctively Jewish and universally human.