This Jewish-American Life: Notes on the Fourth of July

This past Shabbat, I was excited to attend services at my home congregation with our Machon Kaplan program participants. During the sermon remarks, Rabbi Danny Zemel (who I’m lucky to call my dad) reflected on a piece of Temple Micah’s mission statement as part of a discussion about events this past week in Charleston, SC and the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality: “[at Temple Micah] we attempt to answer the question of what it means to live a fully American and a fully Jewish life.” Growing up within a congregation and a home that strives to do this, is, in part, what led me to embrace my work at the RAC. Professionally, I can aspire to help create an American Judaism that is meaningful and relevant in the year 2015  

Every winter, I have the pleasure and honor of bringing nearly 2,000 young Reform Jews to the Jefferson Memorial for havdalah (separation) during our L’Taken Social Justice Seminars. Even growing up here in our nation’s capital, no moments of my life have encapsulated the idea of a “fully American and fully Jewish life” more than when we say goodbye to Shabbat and usher in a new week at Jefferson’s memorial– our complicated founding figure, but the nonetheless genius about whom John F. Kennedy once noted to a room full of Nobel Prize winners dining at the White House: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Participating in this ancient Jewish ritual of havdalah at an American landmark that evokes the best of American values and ideals–freedom, church/state separation, democracy, equality: that is living a fully American and fully Jewish life. But, the stately memorial also reminds us that Jefferson was not perfect. As a slaveholder, he reminds us of our country’s dark past and its ingrained racism. Yet, this is again why I love doing havdalah at this site during L’Taken: Jefferson was not perfect; our country is not perfect; the world is not always the just place we want it to be and part of our responsibility is to engage in the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world.

Two years ago, my father and I wrote a blessing in honor of Thanksgivukkah– the unique moment when Hannukah fell on Thanksgiving. Everyone was abuzz about how Thanksgivukkah was a once in a millennium celebration– and while yes, that was cool in its own right, the thing that seemed the most cool for us was that this was a uniquely Jewish American moment. How many of those happen?

This year, with the Fourth of July falling on Shabbat, it seemed like another opportunity for my dad and me to write a special blessing. Below is what we have crafted. I hope that you might enjoy it this weekend as you enter Shabbat and this sacred American day of independence.

A Blessing for Shabbat/Fourth of July
(to be shared before the lighting of the Shabbat candles on July 3, 2015)

This Shabbat, with these candles, we simultaneously begin our Fourth of July celebration.

Shabbat, as we recite each week, is a reminder of the wondrous doings of creation: Zichrono l’ma-aseh beresheit. Jefferson’s great Declaration of Independence tells us that “all men are created equal”, endowed by their creator with inalienable rights. Shabbat and July 4th are one.

Shabbat, as we recite each week, is a reminder of our people’s liberation from Egyptian slavery: Zecher yetziat Mitzrayim. The light that glowed in the bush that would not be consumed was rekindled on these shores as America became a beacon of freedom that glows from sea to shining sea. Again, Shabbat and July 4th are one.

We end Shabbat with a flame just as July 4th peaks in wondrous flames throughout the sky. On July 4th we dedicate ourselves that these eternal flames shine brightly both at home and across the globe.

Dear God, we ask your blessing on our nation as we enter Shabbat and this sacred American day.

By Shira M. Zemel and Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel

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Shira M. Zemel

About Shira M. Zemel

Shira M. Zemel is the RAC's Assistant Program Director. She holds a master's degree in education from SUNY University at Buffalo. Shira is from Arlington, Virginia and is a member of Temple Micah in Washington, DC.

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