The View From 18
Tue, 01/24/2012
Mark Podwal. Next Year in Jerusalem (c) 2012, from Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the  Contemporary Family (CCAR Press).
Mark Podwal. Next Year in Jerusalem (c) 2012, from Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family (CCAR Press).

I am the grandson of Holocaust survivors and the great-grandson of Holocaust victims, and while I don’t dwell on my ancestors’ significant losses, I am all too aware that their tragic experiences are part of my heritage, and it is important to me to make my life meaningful. For the past 18 years, I have lived in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, a predominantly Orthodox neighborhood. I have always attended Orthodox day schools and graduated from SAR High School in Riverdale this past June. I am currently studying at Yeshivat Har Etzion, a hesder (combination of Torah learning and army service) yeshiva in Alon Shvut, Israel and I plan to attend college in America next September. As I embark on my journey of life, I have given some thought about my place in this world, specifically my role as a Jew, and how it is affected by changes in my environment.

While I am in Israel I spend some time contemplating what career path to choose. While I am a little envious of kids my age who know exactly what they want to do “when they grow up,” I feel fortunate to have so many options open to me. I don’t feel that simply because I am Jewish I must choose one of the professions that nice Jewish boys pursue, such as medicine, law or accounting. On the contrary, in the current environment, there are so many other options open to me. I’m seeing Jewish boxers, gardeners and high-ranking politicians — something that didn’t exist as often before. Though engagement in certain professions may raise eyebrows, simply pursuing fields of interest as opposed to disciplines required to obtain a conventional degree has become mainstream. Perhaps because of the financial uncertainty associated with so many of the traditional vocations, people are following their dreams and engaging in activities they might not have previously considered. I am still exploring my alternatives. Although I may have some restrictions as an Orthodox Jew, I don't believe that I need to rule out any one field of study due to a fear of openly practicing Judaism.

Personally, I have never been afraid to wear my kipah anywhere. The spontaneous minyanim that materialize at ball games, ski slopes and water parks are a far cry from the time Orthodox Jews would enter a phone booth and pretend to be speaking on the phone, while actually davening Mincha. While I carry a small siddur in my wallet, many of my contemporaries simply whip out their iPhone and pull up the davening on the screen. I am impressed with the number of ways Jews use each new technological development to enhance their religious observance. A lit screen is a lot easier to read in venues with poor lighting than a small print siddur.

Not only does technology give my friends easy access to prayer, but there are websites and apps that can provide the exact prayer times and also locate the nearest minyan at any time. During my years at SAR, SmartBoards assisted my peers and me in better understanding Talmud and Tanach (bible), especially when the lesson involved the analysis of a specific text. Furthermore, instead of carrying multiple books, it is now possible to open a Tanach app or Bar Ilan University responsa app on a smartphone and have all the requisite texts literally, in the palm of one’s hand. While these technological advancements are very helpful to all of us, I contend that, as new inventions enter this world, so will new halachic questions. These questions will cause contemporary rabbis to look at classical texts and apply the rules and laws found within those texts, to modern technology.

My own relationship with rabbinic authority is evolving. With the increasing number of websites providing reliable halachic answers to an assortment of modern-day issues, I am able to find many answers to my own questions. I find this very empowering. To be sure, this does not mean that I have no use for rabbis; I simply find that I can answer many of my own questions and can come as an educated consumer when approaching the rabbi for additional insight.

It would not surprise me if certain factions of Jews try to use artificial intelligence to answer halachic questions in the future. I expect that even if it were possible to execute this feat, the halachic decisions rendered would not be universally accepted, thus causing an additional rift between those who accept such decisions, and those who don’t.

The technological revolution has also put a new spin on Shabbat observance. I understand that the pull to communicate via Facebook or other digital device is so great that some adolescents have adopted “half-Shabbat,” where they observe Shabbat in public but engage in texting in the privacy of their own room. This way of life doesn’t appeal to me at all. I see Shabbat as an opportunity to take a break from everything digital and electronic, a time to get in touch with my spiritual self, a time to spend with friends and family. Six days a week is enough for me to be connected; I relish the down time.

As I look toward the future, I also consider my past. Although I grew up in a fairly insular community, I had the privilege of attending a progressive, open-minded high school. I have always been curious about other cultures and religions, and therefore chose to carry out a comparative religion study for my senior exploration project, a requirement for graduation at SAR. During my visits to the Al Iman Muslim school, the Greater New York Seventh Day Adventist Academy and the Catholic Archbishop Molloy High School, I found that the students in all three religious schools held serious misconceptions about Judaism and the tenets of Modern Orthodox Jews, in particular. Their misconceptions ranged from assuming kosher food meant that a rabbi blessed it, to not understanding what the little string they have around their neighborhood, known as an eruv, is about. Actually, when a teacher at Archbishop Molloy asked me if I belong to the group with the strings, I thought he meant tzitzit. I was just about to show him my tzitzit when he clarified the matter.

While I found it interesting to explore the differences between my religion and the collective “theirs,” I became more appreciative than ever of my own religion, its rituals and its philosophy. 

When I look around, my own religion, however, often seems like a variety of different religions. Each denomination is convinced that its particular precepts are the correct ones. I have learned that each one of us has something to contribute to society and it would be more worthwhile for us to unify than to emphasize our differences. In my small neighborhood, there are over 30 shuls. Many of them are breakaways from more established synagogues. Bukharians, Yemenites, Ashkenazim, chasidishe, yeshivish, all feel the need to have their own community. I, too, choose to enter only a select few of these shuls, but I think taking a wide-ranging view of the community would serve all of us better. I am bothered by the extremism that has recently sprouted within the Jewish community. Its polarizing effects do not bode well for the Jewish community. There was a time in the not too distant past that a Jew was a Jew was a Jew. That was also a time of great anti-Semitism. My friends and I are fortunate to be living at a time of great opportunity for Jews. As the great-grandson of Holocaust victims, this reality has great significance to me.

As the role of religion and its observance in this world evolves, Judaism will not be spared. I imagine that Jews of all denominations pushing the limits of what is currently accepted will bring a new set of challenges for the Jewish community. For now, I stand at the threshold of adulthood, and cherish the possibilities.

Daniel Kaplan lives in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens. He graduated from SAR High School in June 2011 and is  currently studying at Yeshivat Har Etzion. He wrote for Fresh Ink, The Jewish Week’s high school publication.