Along with hundreds of other Jewish Philadelphians, I attended the opening gala of the National Museum of American Jewish History last weekend. It was a beautiful event, highlighting and celebrating the incredible and unlikely success Jews have had in America. Those who worked so hard for years should be praised for the successful outcome.
The evening's speakers frequently noted how accomplished Jews have been in America, rightly acknowledging the impact freedom and meritocracy have had on the Jewish American experience. However, Jews have thrived in other countries, in other eras and in environments that have offered far less personal freedom.
Jews became doctors when and where they were badly needed. When their professional path was limited, Jews became leaders of finance, and accumulated wealth and power as a result. Throughout history, Jews have been leaders in all areas of science, helping to advance human understanding of the world.
But these historical facts beg the question: How is it that Jews have been so successful?
It cannot be because of American freedom, since that has only existed for the past two-and-a-third centuries. And it cannot be solely because of Judeo-Christian values since, by definition, Jews and Christians, as well as many atheists, share these values. And, of course, it's a bit far-fetched to suggest that it is genetic — that simply having Jewish genes will lead to success.
The one thing that ties all Jews together is Judaism, and Judaism is rooted in Torah — its laws, stories and way of teaching values.
When people attribute the achievement of Jews to their determination, to how they value education, and to their morals and ethics, they are missing the true reason for their success. These traditional Jewish attributes are side effects of the true source of Jewish achievement and the true reason for our playing an outsized role in the leadership of humanity: Torah.
Torah is not just the Ten Commandments. It is not just the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs. It is not just the stories of our prophets. Torah is an intricate and detailed set of laws, and ways of reasoning about laws, that govern human interaction and the development of human society.
Torah is the source of our determination, the driver of our love of education, the instruction manual for life that leads us to have the morals and ethics we have. If you don't teach from the instruction manual, and only teach from example, the sources of the lessons will become lost, and the teachings will become diluted, and we will eventually lose access to the advantages we have.
So if Torah is the "how" of Jewish achievement, then it is also the "why." Yes, we are the chosen people — not chosen to receive, but chosen to give, chosen to have the responsibility to be a light among the nations, to spread our value system throughout the world. We can do that by becoming leaders in science, finance and politics, but only if we recognize why we are there.
We are not successful merely in order to accumulate money, prizes or self-serving power. We are not successful simply to perpetuate our people. We achieve greatness so we can be seen, so we can set an example to the world by how we live.
The National Museum of American Jewish History succeeds in celebrating the past accomplishments of Jews in America. But some of the $150 million that was raised to create the museum could have been used for a higher purpose: to teach Torah to American Jews to ensure their future success. For example, if just 10 percent of that money was distributed to the Philadelphia-area Jewish day schools, those institutions could go on to create the next Jewish success stories — the next Sidney Kimmels, the next Raymond Perelmans, the next Leonard Barracks.
These three men understand the value of the Jewish day-school mission. Each has given generously to our schools to help create the next generation of Jewish success stories. I hope that others who support the museum will also support Jewish education.
Let the National Museum of American Jewish History represent a monument to our thriving culture. Let's use its opening as a rallying cry for funding Jewish education, so we can keep adding to its exhibits for centuries to come.
Otherwise, the museum may become a mausoleum to a people who, as generations pass, become assimilated into irrelevance.
David Magerman is the president and founder of the Kohelet Foundaton.