On Our Way Back Home

The Journey to the End of the Earth by paolosdala, on Flickr. Used under creative commons license.

I had thought this column would be on gun violence, or greed in the age of billionaires, or maybe Jewish dispute resolution. Then I attended my 50th college reunion at Cornell, reunited with old friends, some of whom I had not seen since graduation, and decided we needed a different column. I promise I will get to all those other subjects, but not today.

Some background. Cornell was always a center of activism. Michael Schwerner, one of the civil rights workers killed in Mississippi in 1964 was a Cornell student. I arrived on campus in 1968, with antiwar and civil rights activities in full force. In April, the student union building was occupied by armed black students. My father called me, but I was one of the students outside of the building, so I could not answer the phone in the dorm hallway. When he couldn’t reach me, he threatened to cut off support. I told my sister she had to talk to him because he was acting crazy. I now realize he thought the same of me.

The following (1969–70) year, we had regularly scheduled demonstrations: On October 15, we had major campus demonstrations as part of the Mobilization to End the War. On November 15 we had a march on Washington. Teargas was shot into the house where we were staying, and we had drive back to Ithaca with all the windows open because the gas stayed on our clothing and sleeping bags. In April, we had a the America Is Hard To Find Weekend in Ithaca. It included a Freedom Seder, created by a young writer at Ramparts magazine, who is now Reb Arthur (Waskow). It was attended by Father Dan Berrigan, who was on the run from the FBI. Sneaking him in and out of the Seder was so much fun. Ahh, the naiveté of youth, thinking dangerous things are fun.

The next (my junior) year, I was at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The group I went with was not particularly religious. Many of us were running from what we saw as the increasing violence in the antiwar movement. Before living in Israel, I had no major commitment to Judaism or the Jewish community. Neither did most of my Jewish fraternity brothers at Cornell. As I recall our major religious practices were singing antiwar songs and smoking marijuana. Shabbat was not on our register, and our alternative services on the high holidays was more Blowin’ in the Wind than U’netaneh Tokef.

Now it is 50 years later (how did it come so fast?). It is indeed now a lot harder climbing the big hills than it was as a freshman going to class. I see how much my health and conditioning has taken a backseat in my life and needs to be a major concentration. We boomers have much left to contribute, but we must take better care of ourselves. There were several people celebrating their 75th reunion. That should be a goal for all of us.

Being with my fraternity brothers, reminiscing, hearing all the things they had accomplished, and talking about the future was glorious. Coming from a class filled with activists, it is no accident that we produced people who made major contributions.

One of my classmates developed a pulmonary rehab program that was successful with asthma and COPD sufferers and which he was now using with Covid long haulers.

Another had started a non-profit that brought together high-level people with widely different positions to engage in constructive conversations and had success in the areas of health care coverage, U.S.-Muslim relations, and faith-based initiatives.

Yet another is a financial planner who speaks of having his clients increase their feelings of control over their personal finances to improve confidence and help them be happier.

I was so grateful and proud to hear of the individual and collective accomplishments. And it was magical to find out the importance that Judaism now plays in the lives of many of my classmates.

Fifty years ago, our involvement in being Jewish was membership in our Jewish fraternity. Now we are regular attendees at Torah study, synagogue adult education leaders, and highly involved members of Jewish communities.

At this reunion we went to a lecture on Medicine and Talmud, in a small lecture room. It was standing room only. My friends and I talked a lot about our journeys, and how after lives of service, many of us were looking for a different kind of connection, something intellectual and spiritual.

And we are finding it in our Judaism.

We talked about Jewish views on end of life and funeral issues and remarked that we would not have had that conversation 20 years ago. Not about Jewish views, nor about end of life. We laughed about that as we complained about our aches and pains. We talked about our values, and what we intended to do going forward. And we agreed to meet on zoom the next time I lead Torah study. Judaism for our generation, adapting with the new world of technology.

What is it that has so many people looking to their Jewish roots to find fulfillment in the later years?

George Carlin asked and answered the question this way:”I was thinking about how people seem to read the bible a lot more as they get older, and then it dawned on me: they’re cramming for their final exam.”

I’m not sure that is the answer, but it might be!

Like God herself, why we are in this exploration now is mystery to me, a mystery many of us want to live in.

We just know Judaism is a great place to go traveling. And we will let this magical mystery tour take us away.

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