Growing up, my favorite day was the annual Israel day parade in Philadelphia. It was a celebration of belonging and identity. We sang Israeli songs with pride, waving our Israeli flags. The crowd converged on Independence Mall, celebrating at the cradle of American democracy. In the late 60’s/early 70’s, Jewish pride was “in,” and it felt completely American.
I never felt unsafe publicly demonstrating Jewish and Zionist pride. Until I experienced an incident as a young rabbi in the small mid-western town where I served, I had never personally encountered anti-Semitism. I was fortunate to grow up in a region and a time where we could be fully American and Jewish.
Jews in America enjoy unprecedented acceptance and empowerment. Yes, pockets of anti-Semitism still occasionally pop up. In 2002, my New Jersey congregation was directly targeted, a frightening experience for all of us. But still, it felt to me that the outbreaks of irrational hatred could be overcome with the friendship and support of our Christian neighbors who would stand with us against hatred, as they did in both of my personal experiences.
I have invested my life in advancing positive Jewish ideas and experiences, shying away from any narrative that rests on the notion of remaining Jewish to defeat 2000 years of hatred. Joyous Jewish pride has remained my driving force.
This summer, my optimism, or call it denial, has been dented. There are very frightening and distressing stories of resurgent and violent anti-Semitism coming out of Europe. This is a serious crisis.
Still, I felt personally separate from that reality. Then last week, I realized that even in here in northern New Jersey, we are not immune. Sadly, the convergence of anti-Israel sentiment and Judeophobia has tipped the scale.
At a recent local “support Israel” rally there was huge police presence, including two county “command center” police trailers and horseback police patrol. This spoke volumes; we could not be safe without their protection. Thankfully, there were no problems. Was it because the event was only strategically announced and not advertised, out of concern for security? Anti-Semitism wearing the mask of Anti-Israel has come to threaten us.
I found myself returning to a recent Moment Magazine symposium, “Anti-Semitism: Where Does it Come from and Why Does it Persist?” (March/April 2014.) It’s helpful, but the desire to understand is insufficient. We must pour our energies into building bridges of relationship and understanding with many groups. First, invest in Jewish internal dialogue, so that concerns about Israel do not infect Jewish unity and strength. Second, our ties with Christian and moderate Muslim neighbors and friends are essential for turning back the tides of hate.
This is no time for hysteria (have you too received emails and seen posts of this nature?) But the veil of denial must also be avoided. The moment to address this crisis is here.
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By now, if you are reading this, you undoubtedly have been inundated with punditry about the meaning of the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews. Many scholars and institutional players immediately bemoaned the results as confirmation of the decline or degradation of American Jewry. Others have dismissed the data as either flawed (based on its use of comparison with the widely discredited 2000 NJPS survey) as drawing causal conclusions where mere correlations are suggested, or as too macro to represent the specifics of an individual Jewish community. Still others have seen positives in the data, whether due to the opportunity to reach out to Jews who reject denominational affiliations, the surprisingly large percentage of Jews who express faith in God, or because of the incredible 94% of Jews who express pride in being Jewish.
This latter point truly is revolutionary. Growing up as a Gen-Xer in a largely non-Jewish environment in San Diego, being Jewish was something that my friends and I largely kept to ourselves. My Day School background made me feel knowledgeable in my Jewishness, but I don’t think “pride” would be the way I, or most of my friends, described how we felt about being Jewish. I think this is why the Adam Sandler Chanukah Song, when it came out, was such a big deal–it gave us permission to be proud of our Jewishness and the accomplishments of our fellow Jews. So we should celebrate how much has changed for the better in the relatively few years since then. Continue reading
But why would they choose Judaism?
This is a question I hear often. In my work helping to celebrate the racial and ethnic diversity that is endemic to the Jewish community, I also have the privilege of connecting with many people who have chosen to become Jewish. In Jewish tradition, when someone becomes Jewish the community is meant to accept them as they are, not to dwell on their status as a convert. Yet often, converts are met with curiosity or worse, suspicion. From Jews by choice, I hear that this can often feel like personal rejection.
Whenever I am asked about why people choose Judaism, I recall late night dorm conversations I had as a college student. A good friend was studying to be a cantor. He had grown up in Europe, in a country without a strong Jewish past, in a family that had no Jewish past. A chance encounter with Jews on Purim pulled him into the Jewish orbit and eventually he made the choice to make Judaism his own. We spent many hours talking about Judaism, I did not for a minute doubt his commitment or his place in the Jewish people. Nonetheless, time and again, I repeatedly returned to ask him why he had chosen Judaism.
At the time, I was struggling. I had not chosen Judaism and it felt like a burden that I could not escape. While I went through the motions of observance and community, I was pained by so much in our tradition particularly as it related to women’s roles, hierarchy and power. Israel, which had once been the idealized center of my Jewish identity, had given way to the complex realities of adult understanding. My awareness of the legacy of anti-Semitism robbed me of the ability to imagine true security. Why, I wondered, would anyone choose the very thing that on some level I wished I could escape?
There is nothing more that I love about being a rabbi, than hearing those who choose Judaism explain their choice –which they do as part of the conversion process. Jews by choice come to Judaism without the baggage that Jews from birth carry. Time and again, I hear that the ambiguities of Judaism, the very thing that was so challenging for me as young woman, are among the things that newcomers value in Judaism. Just like Jews by birth, they struggle with difficult issues like women’s rights or the State of Israel, but they feel confident that whatever struggles they have fit into the flexible but enduring Jewish framework. Among Jews by birth, I often hear that learning Hebrew was the bane of Jewish childhood. And yet as the member of a conversion board, I’ve heard grown men wax eloquently about the power of learning an ancient language and unlocking timeless wisdom by studying it in the original. In Uganda, where Rabbi Gershom Sizomu has officiated at hundreds of conversions, it is the magic of Shabbat- which allows people to stop work, come together with other, focus on the finer things- which is the most powerful draw. Those choosing Judaism see joy and possibilities. They accept the complexities as part of the beauty of the system they are entering into. Judaism through their eyes never fails to inspire me.
I know that for some portion of the Jewish by birth population it is hard to accept that a person from Scandinavia, the mountains in Peru, or plains of Africa- who does not know about gefilte fish, did not have ancestors forced to leave a homeland, and knows not from Woody Allen- can or should be part of the Jewish people. And this is highly problematic. But often, I think that the questions to converts or to me, as a rabbi who often has the privilege of working with individual converts as well as communities of converts, speak to deep seated ambivalence and struggles, even shame about our own Jewishness. I did in the end emerge from my struggles and find my own answers, but not before I inflicted my own ambivalence and doubt on my friend. Our own challenges and doubts need to be addressed, but not at the cost of making newcomers feel unwelcome.
This summer I had a conversation with a group of sixth grade students at a Jewish school in Buenos Aires. Discussing diversity of Jews around the world, they fixed on the concept of conversion. They wanted to know what conversations rabbis have with a conversion student when they sit at the biet din, “court” for conversion.I explained that each conversation is unique but then turned the question back at them. Forced to consider what they might say, they came up with some pretty compelling answers: peoplehood, ritual, customs, Israel. But more important than the content was the realization that they had answers for themselves. Ultimately, no matter how inspiring, someone else’s answer about why they have chosen Judaism will never take the place of each Jew finding his or her own reasons to be Jewish.
What are yours?