Jewish Life on Mars

Sermon given September 12, 1997, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

A couple of months ago, when the United States mission to Mars began transmitting photographs to Earth, a humorous article appeared in The Jewish Week. It satirically suggested that the roving vehicle Sojourner had found the leaders of several competing Jewish organizations, each already staking out territory on Mars. The author imagines a Chabad House and its “tireless efforts to reach Jews in the most remote regions, urging them to perform mitzvot.” There is an Israeli Reform rabbi, looking for greater tolerance abroad. There is even a representative of the Anti-Defamation League, who complains: “‘[W]e’ve already ordered the press releases and fax paper[,b]ut so far, no one has defamed us.’”

Around the same time that article appeared, I read a more serious piece by American Jewish astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman. Hoffman speculates about a Jewish community in the future, on a colonized Mars. He wonders how Shabbat would be observed on a planet with a twenty-five hour day. I, too, thought about the first Jews to settle in that Mars colony, but asked a different question. Would there be just one individual or family, or would a viable community be established there? Most of all, I thought about a silly song that the kids sing at our Greene Family Camp.

It goes like this:

“Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish.
You’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew.
So when you’re all alone, and you’re somewhere kinda newish,
The odds are, don’t look far ‘cuz they’re Jewish too.”

No. I’m not making this up. I couldn’t. It goes on:

“Some Jews live in tents, and some live in pagodas;
and some Jews wear no shoes and live by the sea.”

The words of this song trouble me, and not just because they’re silly. The truth is that we Jews make up a very small portion of the world’s population, just a fraction of one percent. The song suggests, though, that wherever we live or travel, we will be surrounded by fellow Jews. That is simply not true.

The song also seems to assert that it doesn’t matter where a Jew settles. In a pagoda or barefoot by the sea, the song says, and maybe, by extension, even on Mars, Jews and Jewish life will be there. That assertion may be false.

It wasn’t true for the very first Jews who arrived in America. Historical records suggest that there might have been a Jew at Jamestown, the first English colony in America. Without a Jewish community, though, no continuity was achieved.

A similar fate has met some of the smallest Jewish communities in the American South in recent decades. There simply were too few Jews to sustain a community. Even where there were active Jewish homes and small synagogues, the young people either assimilated and ceased being Jewish, or they moved to larger communities. Today, a museum has been established to preserve the memories and artifacts of southern Jewish communities that are no more.

In considering Jewish life on Mars, then, determining the exact beginning and end of Shabbat is not the most important question. More significant would be whether such a colony would include a sufficient number of Jews to maintain a viable community.

But how many Jews is enough to form a community? That issue is raised in a videotape I’ve seen several times. A group of interfaith couples are discussing their children’s identities. One couple, who are raising their children as Jews in Los Angeles, assert that they wouldn’t do that if they lived in the husband’s home town, which happens to be Waco, Texas. “They wouldn’t be welcome in my parents’ country club,” says the husband. “There aren’t Jews there,” says the wife.

Two aspects of the couple’s remarks trouble me. First, the lady is incorrect. There are Jews in Waco, two synagogues, in fact, each with a full-time rabbi. Second, I am appalled that anti-semitism would turn people away from Judaism. Jews have survived our difficult history because we have remained strong and united during times of oppression. Being unwelcome in a country club is a trivial reason for abandoning Judaism.

The truth is that most Jews in Waco have wonderful relations with their Christian neighbors. They also have a vibrant Jewish community, whose members recognize the need to work hard and contribute generously, in order to keep Judaism alive in their city.

For some Jews, though, real Jewish life in America does not exist outside New York. They would say that the Jews of Waco might as well live on Mars, and that the same goes for us in San Antonio, as well. Many rabbis can not imagine serving congregations outside of one of the great metropolitan areas of North America, with hundreds of thousands of Jews. Rabbi Stahl tells the story of a lady at an Israel Bonds tribute dinner in New York. She told our rabbi that she admires the work he does “out there,” as if San Antonio were a frontier outpost in rural Mongolia or even on Mars.

Jews who prefer to live in major metropolitan areas argue that Jewish life is richer when it is sustained by ever-present trappings of Jewish culture. Yiddish phrases are part of the vernacular. Public Schools close on the High Holy Days. Good deli is plentiful.

For too many Jews in those major cities, though, Judaism consists only of those trappings. A fresh bagel, an Orthodox Jew next door, and maybe an annual fund raiser for Israel constitute Jewish life. Synagogue affiliation rates are abysmally low. You don’t have to go out of your way to be Jewish there, or so they say.

San Antonio, of course, is different, even now that we, too, have good bagels and deli. Seeking out a Jewish neighborhood here means living where one’s children won’t be the only Jews in the school. Jewish life doesn’t come to us. We must seek it out and create it ourselves: in our synagogues, with our Jewish agencies, and with active Jewish lives in our homes.

Admittedly, one can do the same in New York, and many do. Wherever we live, we must seek out an active Jewish existence and engage in the life of the Jewish community. This requirement holds true wherever we live, even, one day, on Mars.

What won’t endure is a totally privatized Judaism. Some do say that they feel Jewish in their hearts, and have no need for community worship, for Jewish learning, or for organized Jewish community. God’s covenant, though, has been made with each individual Jew and with the entire Jewish people. God spoke to Abraham and Sarah, one to one, calling them into covenant, just as God can speak to each of our hearts. But God also spoke to the Jewish people as one, at Mount Sinai, calling us into an eternal bond, not only with God, but also with one another. The bonds of community, of congregation, and of peoplehood have kept the Jewish people strong throughout millennia, in good times, and in bad ones, too.

Maintaining a vibrant Jewish community requires effort and commitment. It calls on each of us to pay our fair share, in financial contributions and in giving our time. We must choose to live in a town or city with a sufficient population to support an active Jewish community, even if it be small. Where there are fewer of us, as is even the case here, we must work even harder.

Our covenant was sealed four thousand years ago at the foot of a mountain, with every single Jewish person standing together. Later, when kings reigned in Israel, we lived in settlements spread around a small land. Who could have envisioned then that there would be vibrant Jewish communities in lands yet unknown, across the Sea? Today, we begin to imagine Jewish life beyond this Earth. As we dream, let us strengthen our Jewish community, wherever in God’s universe we may live.

Amen.