September 19, 2018

My message to the GA: follow the love, not the money

This column is not about the future of the Jewish people; you’ll get plenty of that in this issue of The Jewish Journal.Rather, it’s about the story of two Judaisms.

The first one is the Judaism I experience when I’m in fancy conference rooms talking to big Jewish machers about the big issues of the day.

The second Judaism, the one I write about every week, is the Judaism I live when I’m desperately looking for kosher marshmallows at Pico Glatt.

There’s a lot that I love about the first Judaism. For one thing, it’s great for my self-esteem. I get to schmooze with the players, and the stuff we talk about is so urgent and important! Do you have any idea how cool it feels to wax passionately about ideas to fight global anti-Semitism, or a new PR campaign that will improve Israel’s image in the world, or what we need to do to unite the Jewish people? When you talk about big stuff in front of big people, you feel like you’re really making a difference in the world.

Another thing that fascinates me about this first Judaism — the same Judaism that organizes major conventions like the annual General Assembly (GA), which this week is meeting in a city near Los Angeles called Downtown L.A. — is how good it is at raising money. Sorry, not good, brilliant.

Have you ever noticed how they know exactly how to push our buttons? They know that we’ll give more money to a crisis than to a problem, and that if we feel like the whole world is out to get us, or that Israel is in bigger danger than ever before, or that the Jewish people are facing an unprecedented crisis, well, we’ll probably add a few zeroes to our checks.

And who can blame them? Where would the Jewish people be today if it wasn’t for the generosity and fundraising efforts of our money people, who over the generations always seem to step up to the plate for the common cause? In fact, it was the generosity of wealthy Ashkenazi Jews that helped my Sephardic family and thousands of others resettle in Canada in the 1960s, when my parents were trying to escape the not-too-friendly confines of an Arab country.

The problem, and I don’t know how else to put this, is that money is way too important. It’s like a nuclear force — a piece of plutonium in Jewish community life. It’s so powerful a drug that it blinds and addicts and overwhelms everything in its path. If I have to make payroll today for my Jewish nonprofit, what else is there to talk about?

Money is so intoxicating that we don’t realize the heavy price we pay for our obsession with it. When you reduce any problem down to money, you suck all the juice out of it. You trivialize the problem, so you can’t see its texture, its depth, its nuance. It becomes that much harder to come up with any deep or creative ideas.

Take the “problem” of Israel, for example, which happens to be the theme of this year’s GA assembly. How often have we all been exhorted to “give to Israel during its time of crisis”? It’s like a broken record. Not only do we become numb to the subject, but we lose sight of the fact that there are things we can give to Israel that are more important than money. Like what, you say?

The best answer I’ve heard to this question came from Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. In a recent salon gathering at a private home in Los Angeles, he explained how the all-consuming attention on dramatic and existential issues in Israel (security, peace, survival of the state, etc.) had drowned out less dramatic but critical issues like education, pluralism, democracy, human rights, the role of the army, the role of religion, the environment and other areas that have suffered from long-term neglect.

Instead of focusing on crisis-driven donations, Hartman called on people who love and care for Israel to connect more personally with the country, based on their own individual passions. For example, if your thing is the environment, connect that passion to Israel and make it the focus of your contribution, financial or otherwise. Whatever your thing is — music, Jewish unity, human rights, solar power, getting more milk out of cows — share that love with Israel and help make it a better country.

What Hartman is yearning for is a more intimate relationship between the Diaspora and Israel. Simply writing a check or staying at the King David Hotel or yelling at demonstrations is not enough. Israel needs your unique gifts, your loving critiques, your creativity, and, in return, Israel will have more to give back to you.

This notion of personal passion brings me to the second Judaism, the one I experience every day in a bustling, Modern Orthodox neighborhood called Pico-Robertson.

If the organizers of the GA had called me a year ago and asked if I knew a good place for their 3,000 delegates to stay in Los Angeles, I would have suggested that they shack up with 3,000 of my neighbors in the hood, who I’m sure wouldn’t mind hosting them. Instead of being close to Staples Center or The Walt Disney Concert Hall, like they are now, they would be close to Nagila Pizza and the 613 Mitzvah store, and all the other shops and shuls and little markets that make up this eclectic, turn-of-the-millennium Jewish neighborhood.

In the mornings, instead of room service or an organized breakfast with other delegates, they’d be schmoozing and having their coffee with the locals, in their cafes or kitchens. After a long day of meetings and speeches at nearby hotels and other venues, they’d return to the hood and see firsthand what it’s like to live and breathe Judaism.

In addition to making new friends, my wish would be that the delegates would gain new insights, the kind that are hard to get from Power Point presentations. Because if there’s one thing that I believe is missing from the first Judaism — the one that’s brilliant at making noise and raising money — I’d say it’s a better understanding of the second Judaism — the one that’s brilliant at staying connected to our Jewish faith.