Tag Archives: controversy

Opening Jewish Conversations, Opening Jewish Community

Flashback: a few weeks ago, on this very blog, a post about Jewish conferences is published… authored by yours truly (shameless, right?). The piece was about how valuable such gatherings are – so valuable that they should be placed above sleep on our collective priority list. Just weeks after writing that piece, I found myself in Cambridge, Massachusetts for… you guessed it: another Jewish conference.

Southern reunion at Boston airport! Lex, Rabbi Shulamit Thiede of Charlotte, NC, and Walid Musarsaa, a student at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC.

Southern reunion at Boston airport! Lex, Rabbi Shulamit Thiede of Charlotte, NC, and Walid Musarsaa, a student at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC.

I was at Harvard University for the weekend conference, along with a few hundred others from around the country – in fact, 8 states out of the 13-state ISJL region were represented there! We had all come together for the first-ever conference of Open Hillel.

Open Hillel is a campaign that seeks to broaden the parameters of permissible conversation about Israel and Palestine at Hillel chapters around the country. Those who attended this conference feel that the value of machloket l’shem shemayim, spirited debate for the sake of heaven, should manifest itself even on the question of Zionism; that especially on questions related to Israel and Palestine, which often touch us in the deepest corners of our neshamot (souls), we should be open to a vast array of differing perspectives. Open Hillel believes that all Jews – even those who aren’t Zionists – deserve to be heard and included in Jewish communal conversations.

I learned an unbelievable amount at this inspiring event, attending sessions about human rights, the bounds of the Jewish “Open Tent,” even exploring issues like intermarriage and gender identity. I met wonderful students, recent college graduates, and older community members who were united by their desire to lay it all on the table – to staunchly debate the topics about which we disagree and, as a result, to grow in our knowledge of the issues.

But I had a funny thought while at this conference. Does it relate to my work at the ISJL at all?

The ISJL serves a geographic region; my department, the education department, specifically serves religious schools. The premise of our work is that every Jewish child should have access to an excellent Jewish education. We serve communities with twenty-five students, or five students, or even one single student. They receive access to the same resources that a community with 300 students gets. Every community is welcomed, and none is valued more than any other.

Open Hillel does not serve a particular geographic region. It does, however, serve a Jewish constituency, including a group which, like smaller communities, is occasionally overlooked: those whose perspectives differ staunchly from many Jewish institutions’ stances on Israel and its policies. Open Hillel recognizes that, regardless of any individual’s political stances about Israel, our Jewish institutions must provide a space for all to engage equally; that every Jewish person should have access to an excellent Jewish community.

I believe our Jewish community can and must uphold the ideal of “Eilu v’eilu div’rei Elohim Chayim” – “These and these are the words of the Living God” (Talmud Eruvin 13b). In Talmud, in our synagogue board meetings, and even at our dinner tables, we engage in rigorous debate about issues we deem important. Valuing and participating in debate is not merely part of being Jewish – it is perhaps the basic premise from which the rest of our tradition follows.

Though the focus areas are different, Open Hillel addresses issues of inclusion and empowerment– as does the ISJL. The ISJL knows that the existence and experiences of our wonderful Southern Jewish communities might be totally unknown in other places. Through our work, we build awareness and ensure that Southern Jews are viewed as a vital piece in the beautiful puzzle that is American Jewish Life.

Open Hillel wants to do something similar by demonstrating that harsh critics of Israel – even Jews who are not Zionists – are a crucial part of our community’s make-up. That so many of these people, who some might believe are just apathetic about their Judaism or actively “self-hating,” are as deeply in love with their Jewish identities as those who think differently. The goal these organizations have in common is to foster a diverse Jewish community that will thrive for centuries.

That goal can and should be our Jewish communal Torah. The rest is commentary. Let’s go and do it.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on October 22, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

On Columbus Day… What Can Ellis Island Teach Us About Ebola?

How we treat others matters. Today, banks and schools and government organizations are shut down for Columbus Day—a national holiday that has grown controversial. After all, Christopher Columbus was an important figure in history, but did not treat others well. Today, many are instead encouraging the celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day rather than Columbus Day.

Whether you are observing Indigenous Peoples Day, Columbus Day, a day off, or another Monday, today is different. We mark this day in the middle of an Ebola scare here in the United States, and an Ebola epidemic in Africa.

Ellis Island

Ellis Island

Ebola is testing our country. It is testing our medical capabilities and the confidence we have in our healthcare system to contain the spread of a deadly and contagious disease. But, it is also testing our values—our compassion and our concern for the dignity of all. It is testing how we treat others.

Dallas, Texas, is where this country’s first Ebola patient, Thomas Duncan, was hospitalized. Dallas County Judge  Clay Lewis Jenkins was determined to respect the dignity and well-being of Mr. Duncan’s family, when Mr. Duncan was diagnosed, when he was treated, and when he died.

While many of us watched with concern and fear for what Mr. Duncan’s diagnosis meant for the health of all Americans, Judge Jenkins made it a priority to show Mr. Duncan’s family that their dignity mattered. On NBC last week, he said that he intends to see to it that Mr. Duncan’s family is treated just like he would want his family to be treated if he were the one in the hospital. He made it clear that he is not throwing caution to the wind, but acknowledging that even while a family is sequestered, they should be treated well and with humanity.

Judge Jenkins is a mensch. He is striving to do right by the public but is finding every possible way to ensure that it doesn’t come at the expense of others.

When I consider how I would react in a situation where in order to address the needs of many I may have to cut the liberties of few, I can’t say that I would be as determined to consider the dignity of a few. I could only hope that I would, because though it took us some time to get there and though the process is ongoing, ultimately that is what our country was founded upon: the belief that everyone’s rights are important and that the rights of a few need to be protected from being trampled over by the majority.

It is also a Jewish value—recognizing that even when it is difficult, it is important to treat everyone the way we would seek to be treated. Perhaps it is these values that have led me to imagine immigration officials taking the temperatures of any person from Africa and being subjected to an intense screening process before entering our country. As I picture this, I remember the many stories of Jewish immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island during the time of a Cholera scare. After traveling hundreds of miles in a crowded steamship, they had to have a “clean bill of health” before being allowed into this country. They could be scrutinized by one doctor after another, subjected to police intimidation, and unfairly treated. As the MyJewishLearning.com article states: “Currency exchange rates and prices of railroad tickets and food were inflated; bribes were demanded; rudeness and cruelty were rampant,” until in 1902, when “a new commissioner of immigration instituted drastic reforms, heralded by signs everywhere demanding ‘kindness and consideration’.”

Now, at JFK we are incorporating Ebola screenings for passengers arriving from West Africa. There is the risk of ostracizing and marginalizing people. While I continue to hope for the safety of everyone in our country, and the world who is faced with the threat of this awful disease, I also hope for dignity. I admire the efforts of people like Judge Jenkins. I hope that screenings and examinations that take place are done in a way that honors the dignity of all people and reflects the highest standards of “kindness and consideration.”

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on October 13, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Checking Your Privilege: It’s a Mitzvah

gold-cardYears ago, one of my high school teachers gave us a hint to help us spell the word “privilege” correctly. She said that it was a privilege, to have two eyes and a leg and the word itself has two “I”s and the word “leg” contained within it. That’s a simple definition of the word, as well as a spelling reminder: not everyone has a whole and healthy body and therefore not everyone has the benefits associated with health. Privilege can seem basic, but it still shouldn’t be taken for granted.

This weekend, there was a lot of discussion about Tal Fortgang’s article, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” in The Princeton Tory.

Tal, a freshman at Princeton University, shared his legacy—a legacy shared by many Jews—of anti-Semitism, persecution and survival.

His point: while he is privileged to have benefited from the support of his ancestors, he is not going to apologize for this privilege because it was the outcome of the sacrifices made by them and on the basis of their “formidable character.”

There is so much that is problematic in his article, which has been both praised and heavily criticized. Not all privilege can be earned simply on the basis of “formidable character.” Reflecting on the spelling lesson, for instance – having the privilege of health is not correlated with formidable character. Similarly, for those Jews who are White, the color of their skin is not a reflection of their hard work. Yet, it is undeniable that sadly, at this point in time, there are benefits that are associated with Whiteness that have nothing to do with character and at the same time, there are White people and people of all races who work very hard and have great character.

But it is the last line of his piece that is particularly striking. “I have checked my privilege. And, I apologize for nothing.”

My response: “Who asked you to apologize?”

Asking someone to check their privilege doesn’t necessitate that the person apologize for having privilege. Instead, it is asking one to be aware that not everyone shares that privilege and therefore it might be worthwhile to find ways in which people who don’t share that same privilege can experience some of the benefits associated with the privilege. In other words, recognize that you have something others do not have.

Why is that so much to ask? The consequences of reflecting upon your privilege only helps a person appreciate the challenges others face to achieve similar benefits and find opportunities to minimize some of the barriers that make these benefits less accessible to people who do not share some of the privileges we have.

I believe that Judaism, the legacy Tal and I share, teaches empathy. We can learn empathy from Jewish liturgy, from Jewish history and from present day Jewish experiences. The Jewish story teaches us what happens when people don’t “check their privilege.” For many of those who persecuted Jews, they were privileged in the sense that they were a part of a majority and the Jews were a less privileged minority. Would persecution have been impacted if these majorities “checked their privilege?” I don’t have the answer to that question. But, I would argue that it is critical to empathize with people who do not share the privileges we have. As people who have seen the consequences of a privileged majority and oppressed minorities, I will posit that part of our legacy is to constantly check our privilege, to ensure that we handle it responsibly.

Maybe it could even be thought of as a modern mitzvah. Not simply a good deed, but literally an obligation.

In conclusion, may I suggest an alternative ending to an opinion piece on this topic?

I am thankful for the many privileges I have, among them, good health and a legacy of empathy and survival. I wish that everyone could say the same and I hope that I continue to check my privilege. 

What do you think?

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 5, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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