a man stands speaking at a podium. a banner in the background reads "A VIBRANT DIASPORA"
Oshman Family JCC CEO Zack Bodner speaking at Zionism 3.0, Dec. 9 2018 (Photo/Courtesy OFJCC)

Excerpt: Let me tell you why I ‘do Jewish’

This essay was adapted from “Why Do Jewish? A Manifesto for 21st Century Jewish Peoplehood,” by Zack Bodner, CEO of the Oshman Family JCC.

I prefer to ask “Why do Jewish?” rather than “Why be Jewish?” because living Jewishly ought to mean more than who your mother was. It ought to mean taking  specific actions, living by specific values, celebrating specific moments, and recognizing you are part of a specific family. Choosing to do Jewish is a conscious choice.

So let me tell you why I do Jewish.

First, because its values are timeless guardrails for how to live a good life. Values like repair the world, be a light unto the nations, take care of the stranger, show gratitude, protect the environment, step away from work every week, remember the past, all people are made in the Divine image, be a mensch, along with so many others.

Second, because our heritage is filled with wonderful wisdom that speaks to me. Our ancient texts are filled with incredible stories, customs, and laws that the rabbis in each generation make relevant for modern times. The folktales similarly have so much to teach, while also entertaining us.

Third, because the rituals, customs, and holidays provide a framework to how I live my weeks, months, and years. The Jewish calendar honors the cycles of nature while also acknowledging human nature. Our need to unplug, recharge, and rest every week is why I respect Shabbat. Our need to self-reflect is part of the cheshbon hanefesh I do during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt during the Passover Seder in the first person allows me to think about what I must liberate myself from in that very moment and connects me to my ancestors in a tangible way.

Fourth, because so much of the culture fills me with joy. I enjoy the wordplays by Jewish authors. I appreciate the symbolism in Jewish art. I savor the Jewish food, even if my arteries don’t. I love the holidays and the rituals. I love dancing the hora and lifting people on chairs at every celebratory rite of passage.

Fifth, because it makes me feel connected to a larger family. When Jews in other parts of the world experience troubles, I empathize deeply with them. Similarly, when Jews excel and receive accolades, I feel a sense of pride. When I meet strangers and we get to know each other, if I learn that they are Jewish I immediately feel a deeper connection. And when I travel, I visit the local synagogue or JCC to understand what’s happening there to my people.

Finally, I do Jewish because it gives my life meaning. There are three big questions we must answer in life. The first is, “Who am I?” The second is, “Why am I here?” And the third is, “What is my task?” Judaism answers those questions for me. And at the end of the day, living a meaningful, purpose-driven life is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Zack Bodner
Zack Bodner

Zack Bodner is Chief Executive Officer of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.