My late father, of blessed memory, was not a learned Jew nor what I would call a spiritual or intellectual “seeker.” He strove to live a values-driven life of integrity and was fiercely committed to family and community. While he and my mother gave me extraordinary opportunities to expand my horizons and explore new worlds — geographically, socially, and existentially — one of his most powerful messages to me was always: “Don’t forget where you come from.”
Yesterday, I traveled on a “mini-mission” to the North Shore — where I was born and raised. I visited JCCs and synagogues, and met with professional and volunteer leaders, rabbis and educators, and preschool students and their parents — all of whom care deeply about their communities and are working hard to build a vibrant Jewish future. Together with a small group of CJP leaders, I also met with colleagues at the Lappin Foundation and Salem State University who are doing groundbreaking work to educate and inspire our next generation about Israel, and who are on the front lines of combating antisemitism and educating youth, teachers, and our broader society about the Holocaust.
For me, this visit to the North Shore provided a chance to express gratitude for the incredible work of our partners and grantees, and to listen and learn about successes, challenges, and opportunities as we emerge from COVID and look toward the future.
And it also felt so personal.
The JCC is where my nephews and nieces attended preschool (the last one “graduates” this year) and where I (albeit at a very different time and in a different location) spent my formative years playing sports, acting in musicals, and learning what strong, local Jewish community is all about.
We visited the synagogue where I grew up and went to Hebrew school six hours a week for five years. Although I have not been back in a very long time, something about walking into the building moved me in a surprisingly powerful way.
Perhaps because nothing aesthetically has changed, perhaps because I saw my Hebrew school graduation picture on the wall, perhaps because vivid memories of moments and experiences came flooding back as I walked through the halls – it felt like coming home.
To be honest, I wouldn’t call myself a Hebrew school success story from the perspective of Jewish learning, or even joyous Jewish identity. Yet the sheer number of hours I spent in that synagogue, in the broader context of family, friendships, and community during my formative childhood years, created the foundation of my Jewish identity and shaped me into the person I am today.
During Passover and Shavuot there is a custom to read one chapter per week of Pirkei Avot: Ethics of the Fathers. I think of my father’s message every time I read the opening words, which introduce an essential Jewish concept called mesorah (tradition). “Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai and passed it on to Yehoshua...” (Who in turn passed it on to the next generation, who passed it to the next generation, etc.) Mesorah comes from the Hebrew word for passing something on, or down from, one person to another.
The rabbis open Pirkei Avot not with a specific teaching but rather with a meta- message about Torah and Judaism: Before you engage with the content that we’re about to teach you, including relevant, inspiring Jewish wisdom, ethics, and practices, remember that these teachings are the connective tissue between you and the generations that have come before you. You, in turn, will be the link between them and your own children, their children, and all the generations to come.
Mesorah is not a static thing that is transactionally passed down. It is the dynamic, creative, messy process of transmission itself, of telling our story, and of living out my father’s words from generation to generation. It is an emotional or spiritual experience, the sense that we are connected to a history and a People that transcend time and place, the deep knowledge that we are not alone in this world, and that we are walking a path that others have walked before us.
That’s what I felt when I walked into that synagogue yesterday. Traveling through the North Shore reminded me how powerful and personal it is for us to be inheriting and creating this Greater Boston mesorah together.
Rabbi Marc Baker
About the Author
CJP President and CEO Rabbi Marc Baker is an educator, writer, and leadership mentor who is devoting his life to Jewish learning and building Jewish communities.