September 19, 2018

Who’s a Jew? Who Decides?

Photo from Pixabay

This coming Tuesday, the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee — a parliamentary committee usually charged with guaranteeing the rights of immigrants to Israel — will hold a special hearing on the “blacklist” of rabbis from around the world whose religious authority Israel’s Chief Rabbinate rejects. This list of 162 rabbis from every Jewish denomination consists of those religious leaders the Chief Rabbinate has deemed unworthy of vouching for individuals’ Jewish identities (more than 7,000 individuals wishing to marry in Israel each year are required to prove their Jewish identities to the rabbinate.) Eight months ago, the Israeli organization I founded and direct, ITIM, made the “blacklist” public, causing an outcry in the Jewish world.

ITIM acquired the “blacklist” after suing the rabbinate in Jerusalem’s Municipal Court under the Freedom of Information Act. The court ruled in 2016 that the rabbinate had a responsibility to let the public know its processes for determining who is Jewish and who isn’t.

ITIM decided to publish the “blacklist” to call attention to the rabbinate’s unchecked power in deciding the critical question of “Who is a Jew?” and the apparent distrust, if not outright contempt, that the rabbinate was communicating toward Jews who live anywhere but Israel. We hoped that the publication of the list would spur rabbis and Jews around the world committed to the integrity of the Jewish people to convince the Israeli authorities that world Jewry is important and that a new contract of mutual trust must be forged. After the government enraged world Jewry on issues of the Kotel and conversion, we believed that common ground could be found on the issue of peoplehood. In the end, we believe that trust is critical for our future as a people — particularly given the internal and external threats Jews face around the world.

And, in fact, people were outraged and spoke up. We heard from Diaspora leadership, Jews around the world, Israelis from all walks of life, ministers and members of the  prime minister’s Office.

The rabbinate continues to issue thousands of letters a year declaring citizens’ Jewish identities “unrecognized.”

But so far, the rabbinate hasn’t taken its head out of the sand.

Since last July, the rabbinate seems to have been unmoved by the public outrage and remains unchanged in its approach to the issue. ITIM recently learned that the rabbinate’s committee to establish criteria for approving rabbinic authority has met once since it was created in December 2016, and has not met at all since the “blacklist” was published. In a letter published last month, the Chief Rabbi blamed the absence of criteria on the rabbinate’s legal counsel, which it claimed prevented its publication. At a meeting I attended last week at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, a senior official acknowledged, “There is no way we can produce criteria for whom we trust.” Apparently, they know but they aren’t planning to tell.

Meanwhile, the rabbinate continues to issue thousands of letters a year declaring citizens’ Jewish identities “unrecognized” and providing no evidence for its decisions. The cases become only more absurd over time. Just last week, I received documentation demonstrating that an Israeli rabbinical court denied an Israeli immigrant a get to be legally divorced because she converted to Judaism outside of Israel by a rabbi whose authority it doesn’t recognize. Should she remarry, this Orthodox Jew will become a bigamist according to Jewish law, because the government institution created to administer that law has become extreme and exclusionary.

It has been more than two years since I stood in the Jerusalem Municipal Court and requested that the rabbinate make public its processes for determining who is a Jew and which rabbis it trusts. The words Justice Nava Ben-Or (who since has been nominated to the Israeli Supreme Court) addressed to the rabbinate’s attorneys that day continue to echo in my ears: “Your approach is unjust and un-Jewish,” she said.

At upcoming Knesset meeting, the rabbinate will have an opportunity to address those words, to make amends, to reach out to the Jewish world and to begin to repair a relationship it has badly damaged. I pray it will do so — for the sake of the thousands of people it has written out of the story of the Jewish people, and for the future of the Jewish community.


Rabbi Seth Farber is the director of ITIM: The Jewish Advocacy Center and a founder of Giyur K’Halacha, the independent network of conversion courts in Israel.

Jewish identity beyond bagels and lox

Photo from Wikipedia

As always, the time for panic about Jewish religious identity is now.

That’s been true for some 3,000 years. Judaism has never been great at retaining a crowd. Since the Exodus from Egypt, Jews have been fractured and fractious; censuses of the Jews in the books of Exodus and Numbers famously show identical numbers, despite the passage of years. Even when we’re not assimilating, we’re winnowing out ourselves somehow.

But a new poll from Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows that American Jews younger than 30 are particularly unlikely to identify as religiously Jewish (47 percent); the rest identify as culturally Jewish. That contrasts sharply with Jewish seniors, who identify as religiously Jewish rather than culturally Jewish by a 78 percent to 22 percent margin. Furthermore, fully 37 percent of all Jews in the United States refuse to identify an affiliation with a particular religious movement; they identify as “just Jewish.”

These numbers aren’t particularly shocking — another PRRI poll from 2012 showed that only 17 percent of Jews found their Jewish identity in religious observance, and only 6 percent found that identity in cultural heritage or tradition. Most shocking, only 3 percent said they found a general set of values in Judaism. Fully 46 percent cited a belief in “social equality” separate from Judaism as somehow creating a Jewish identity.

The effort to somehow carve off Jewish religious activity from Judaism has been ongoing since the Enlightenment. But it’s a project destined to fail. That’s because the unifying factor among Jews has been religion. Trash the Torah, trash the identity. We can find values of social justice in John Rawls or Robert Nozick; we can find “culture” in Woody Allen movies. But we can’t find a common identity.

Jewish identity isn’t merely a shared reference to a set of movies or foods. It’s a set of values springing from religious identity — from God. That doesn’t mean that you have to keep kosher or turn off your phone on Sabbath to experience Jewish identity.

But it does mean that you have to respect the notion that Judaism is concerned with such matters — and more importantly, that Judaism reflects God’s immanence in the world, and that the revelation of His presence passed down from generation to generation is worth honoring.

Over the course of the holiday season, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, we work to recognize this truth. And then we celebrate this truth during Sukkot. When we sit together in the sukkah, we aren’t just eating good food and enjoying good friends. We’re not just hanging out with family. Sukkot isn’t an outdoor meal at the Olive Garden. It’s a representation of the fragility of our world — a metaphor rebuking materialism. It’s a reminder that all the things we value mean nothing without the God who infuses our lives.

And it is our task, collectively and individually, to experience the joy of knowing God. The Torah commands us no fewer than three times to rejoice on this holiday. And as Maimonides says in “Guide for the Perplexed,” we have the capacity to experience joy in what we understand of God, when we turn our intellects to Him.

Jewish identity isn’t merely a shared reference to a set of movies or foods. It’s a set of values springing from religious identity — from god.

So, how do we understand God on Sukkot?

First, we understand that there is a meaning behind the material world. Atheist materialism posits that we live in an accidental universe devoid of meaning, and wander through it alone in deterministic fashion. Sukkot and the history of the Jewish people rebuke this notion. We are participants in history, and our participation matters. We know the sukkah is temporary, but we beautify it anyway because we have been commanded to do so.

This is a uniquely Judaic notion, and one that animates even the most atheistic, secular Jews who spend inordinate amounts of time fretting over “social justice.” Why bother unless we have independence of action and a mandate to better our world?

Second, we understand that our heritage doesn’t spring from ourselves. We honor our ancestors with the ushpizin — we remember Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. We are not the source of our tradition or our values. They come from a more ancient source.

Finally, we understand that God cares about all of us. We are commanded to pick up the lulav (palm frond), along with the hadas  (myrtle) and the aravah (willow) and the etrog (citron). According to the midrash, the lulav represents those who study Torah but do not do mitzvot; the hadas represents those who do mitzvot but do not study; the aravah represents those who do not study Torah and do not do mitzvot; the etrog represents those who both study and do mitzvot. Why not pay homage to God with the etrog alone, then? Because the Jewish people are composed of all of these sorts of people — and only together, recognizing our inherent worth and value to God, can we stand before our Creator. We can’t leave one another behind.

All of which means that Sukkot is an ideal time to reach out to our fellow Jews who see themselves as cultural. God doesn’t care; they are welcome in the sukkah. It is their job to join with us, no matter our different priorities; it is our job to infuse our sukkah with light, so that they may see a world filled with the presence of God, not merely an ancient superstition with bagels and lox.


BEN SHAPIRO is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire, host of the most listened-to conservative podcast in the nation, “The Ben Shapiro Show,” and author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”

The All the Rivers exchange, part 3: On tribalism

Two people wearing Israeli flags are told to leave by a protest organizer during a pro-Palestinian demonstration against Israel's military action in the Gaza Strip, in Ottawa (Photo by Reuters)

Dorit Rabinyan was born in Kefar-Saba, Israel and wrote her first novel, Persian Brides, at age twenty one. An award-winning international bestseller translated into ten languages, Persian Brides established her as the voice of a new generation in Israel. Rabinyan won the Israeli Film Academy Award for best television drama of 1997 for Shuli’s Fiancé, and the Eshkol Prize for her second novel, Strand of a Thousand Pearls. She lives in Tel Aviv.

This exchange focuses on Rabinyan’s book All the Rivers (Random House, 2017), a controversial novel that tells the story of an affair between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. Parts one and two can be found here and here.

***

Dear Dorit,

Your previous response mentioned the “suffocating sack of multitude…” in a way that doesn’t quite clarify if you see such suffocation negatively or positively. You tend to use passive language: “We are programmed”, “We prove loyalty to our tribe by…”. Well, should we strive to change this? Should we attempt to escape this programmed tribal affiliation?

Of course, this question goes back to the core of your book, and also to the question raised by its Israeli opponents (many of them, it should be said, did not bother to read it first). Put simplistically: do you approve of interfaith, intertribal, and international romantic relations? Or maybe you surrender to a programmed culture that views such relations negatively?

***

Dear Shmuel,

I’ll answer your question in two parts, starting with the tribal affiliation question:

Not only am I not alienated from our tribal feelings as Israelis and Jews – in the love story between Liat and Hilmi I actually give expression to these forces. The forces that shape our desires and fears – and form the nature of the most personal decisions we do or don’t make – are, in fact, the subject at the heart of the novel: the books asks to what extent a person is nothing but the image of his native landscape or, if you like, the image of a conflict tearing his native land apart. Maybe it was the telescopic view from New York – this distance and estrangement that exile enables – through which the tribal code of Israeliness felt especially transparent and harsh while writing the book. This Jewish-Arab intimacy – which undermines the Jewish command to not mix with goyim and which runs again the Zionist command to remain separate in the Middle Eastern space – actually gives special validity to the strong pulse of our community’s isolationist DNA. These tribal forces are active in Hilmi as well, and at the moment of truth he does turn his back on Liat and show his loyalty to the Palestinan collective; but in Liat’s case it seems that the collective instinct ingrained in her is stronger than her free will and that this is due to deep historical education and heritage.

I think that the conclusion that arises from the novel is that the tribal feeling is almost a force of nature. Even when we think that we are free of it, that we are independent individuals, masters of our own destiny; even when we would like to believe that we have crossed oceans and escaped the land we were raised in and that we are far away from the group that programmed our identity and loyalty to fit its own needs; even then we will see how strong this pulse, for better and worse, beats in our subconscious. This goes for our excellent humanistic values as well as for our racist consciousness, stereotypes, and anxieties. Not only do I not think that the tribal instinct is bad – through Liat and Hilmi I reflect how natural, human, and organic to their national identity it is.  Moreover, I believe that the liberal ethos whose crisis the world is currently witnessing – with the rise of Trump, Brexit, etc’ – is a reaction to the contempt that liberalism has showed toward the deep need for, and the solace found in, tribalism. Human beings need boundaries like other animals need it: a framework that gives order to the place you belong to, that delineates your sense of home. Nationhood is not at all foul in my view;  it is the nationalists who use this deep feeling – and the need for acceptance, for self-definition – that give it a bad name.

Now to the question regarding my approval of intertribal relations:

My immediate response? Every man or woman need to do what seems right to them. You didn’t expect me to answer this question with a “yes, I’m in favor” or a “no, I’m against,” right? While there is a stinking political scandal linked to me and my novel, I’m still a writer and not a politician. What interests me is the world of the soul, the complexity, the emotional dilemma, the endless shades between the black and the white.

That being said, since we already mentioned the scandal, I’ll tell you something curious – In the early days of 2016, when Israeli public discourse was feverishly obsessed with Borderlife and with the reasons given by the pedagogical committee that banned it from the school curriculum, the news desk of the IDF radio [one of Israel’s largest radio stations] asked Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics  for data on the magnitude of the phenomenon of interfaith Jewish-Arab marriage. They wanted to examine the immediacy and severity of the “threat of assimilation” that my book –Which was accused of “encouraging teenagers to engage in romantic relations between Jews and non-Jews” and “threatening separate identity” (quotes from the notorious education ministry report) – was associated with. Do you have any guess what the number was? Well, in the last twenty years there was an annual average of 18 Jewish-Arab couples who registered to get married or to receive ‘known in public’ status. I think that this negligible number shows how utterly ridiculous the whole affair surrounding the banning of the book actually was. I believe that this statistic is enough to show us how far the tribal code ingrained in Liat’s soul – the isolationist mentality pre-programmed in her by the Israeli-Zionist education system – is from being threatened by any work of art. An Israeli-Palestinian love story – beautiful, gentle, and moving as it may be – and Hebrew literature in general cannot change the demographic balance between the Jordan river and the sea, and not even within the 67 borders.

 

 

When Judaism Becomes a Brand

“Jewish culture is in the mainstream, it’s popular, and that’s something any brand would want to jump on,” says the founder of a startup profiled in the new issue of Bloomberg Business Week. It “seeks to sell [an] accessible version of Jewish traditions,” explains Danya Shults, whose for-profit company, Arq, offers workshops, retreats, and meals in addition to items like seder plates.

The organized Jewish community supports a number of nonprofits that take a similar approach. Aliza Kline, executive director of the social dining app One Table, observes, “Not that long ago, it would have felt dirty to talk about branding Jewish culture.” One Table supports Shabbat dinners for Jews and non-Jews with the help of grants from several prestigious Jewish foundations and federations.

Jewish funders increasingly support immersive experiences as a way to keep Jews “in the tent,” but the content of those activities typically has little Jewish substance beyond the “brand.” For all the talk of Jewish ‘culture,’ there’s little Jewish literature or music in these new initiatives. There aren’t many excursions to Jewish theater, or meetups to discuss Jewish history or artists or folklore. Instead, there are meals and athletics and travel whose connection to Jewish identity is tenuous at best.

What does this trend say about communal values? For one thing, it embodies the understandable hope that “enlarging the tent” will create new options for intermarried Jews. When Danya Shults thinks about what Arq might sell, her “ultimate test case” is whether her Presbyterian husband would be interested. OneTable’s community is 10-15% non-Jewish.

At the same time, it suggests that our communal organizations don’t have much confidence in the things that make Jews distinctive. Judaism as a religion, Jewish thought, and Jewish customs are treated as liabilities that will alienate millennial Jews and non-Jews alike. Communal leaders therefore tacitly treat those who care about Jewish ideas, culture, and practice as a low priority. They prefer to focus on the least committed in the hope of not losing them.

As it happens, that approach is the very opposite of best practices in marketing. Breweries, for instance, know that 80% of the beer is consumed by 20% of the beer drinkers. That 20%—the frequent drinkers—are the core consumers, so that’s where brewers spend most of their marketing budget. That’s where they get the most cost-effective results.

The Jewish community takes the opposite tack. For the last 25 years, many funders, institutions, and startups have taken greater interest in the “fringe” market, the 80% of Jews who have the weakest connection to Jewish life. With that strategy, it’s no surprise that the indicators of Jewish involvement have continued their long decline. Yet communal leaders still act as if these new efforts are somehow making a difference.

Why not invest more communal resources in those who are interested in the distinctive qualities of Jewish life? That would actively strengthen Jewish identity. It could spur newly formed groups to explore Jewish ideas, creativity, and history. Most importantly, it would treat our variegated heritage not as a marketing liability, but as a source of pride and inspiration.

Spiritual, but not religious, but not woo-woo

Years ago, a few days before Passover and a few days after we moved into the house where our children would grow up, I ran into one of my new neighbors, Mr. M—-. We’d met on moving day, but I’d been too crazed dealing with boxes to more than shake his hand, so I was glad for this chance to be more neighborly.  From his black hat, I assumed he was Orthodox. I greeted him by saying, “A zissen Pesach, Mr. M—-,” the traditional Yiddish wish for a sweet Passover. 

He looked at me as if I had three heads, or had spoken in Martian. Maybe he didn’t recognize me? I re-introduced myself, and said again, heartily, “A zissen Pesach.”

After a long stare, and stonily looking me up and down – I was in shorts and a tee shirt – he asked, incredulous, “You’re Jewish?”

I was too dim to think this was anything beyond a comical misunderstanding. “Of course I’m Jewish – that’s why I wished you a zissen Pesach!” I said jollily, sure this would clear everything up. 

His face did not mirror my smile. He wagged his index finger side to side like a metronome, as if instructing or reproaching a simple or wicked child.  “No,” he corrected me. “A koshereh Pesach.”

A Pesach that strictly observed the additional dietary rules for the eight days ahead. A Pesach with two extra sets of crockery and two extra sets of cutlery reserved exclusively for this holiday. A Pesach it was obvious to him that I — the kind of Jew who wasn’t really Jewish —would not be having. 

It is not uncommon for some Orthodox Jews to maintain that Reform Jews like me are as Jewish as gentiles. Drawing and enforcing boundaries is something that the world’s religions excel at.  Religious rules create identity and loyalty. Instead of the secular agony of figuring out how to live and what to do, religion offers the supreme serenity of obedience: submission to scriptural, priestly and divine authority.  This can build remarkably cohesive communities. It can also – ironically, in light of religion’s avowed spiritual aspirations – be soul-crushing.

I grew up as an Orthodox Jew, but as an adult I found the Reform Movement a more welcoming place to wrestle with meaning and purpose. If I hesitate today to call myself religious, it’s not because I don’t identify as a Jew; it’s because “religious” can imply, and to more than just me, dogmatic authoritarianism. 

My neighbor Mr. M—- believes that observing halacha – the body of law in the Torah and Talmud – is essential to his Jewishness.  Unlike him, but like “>Seven percent of all Americans say they’re S.B.N.R. – a bigger group than Jews, atheists, Muslims or Episcopalians. Though more than one-fifth of Americans say they’re not affiliated with any religion, more than a third call themselves spiritual.  At the same time the share of Americans who say religion is important to them has been going down, the share of people who feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least once a week has been “>collective nature of our celebration – our communal eating, drinking, singing and storytelling – will be psychically more powerful than any of the self-conscious symbolism of the seder. When we sing “Eliahu hanavi” about Elijah’s return, I will feel its mournful yearning across the millennia in my bones. When we recite, “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt,” my spirit will thrum – not because there’s archaeological evidence that this sentence is true (there isn’t), but because this is the sentence about the bread of affliction that my ancestors have assembled annually to say, together and aloud, since Deuteronomy was composed 28 centuries ago. 

Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” He must never have been to a seder. Sometimes, other people are paradise.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Sanders confronted about ‘Zionist Jews’ at Harlem forum

Democratic presidential candidate defended his support of Israel and peace in the Middle East as he was confronted by a “Black Lives Matter” supporter about his relationship with the Jewish community during an event at the Apollo Theater in Harlem on Saturday.

“You went to Israel for a year. As you know, Zionist Jews—I don’t mean to offend anybody—they running the Federal Reserve, they running Wall Street, they’re running everything,” John Prince, wearing a Black Lives Matter pin (according to the NY Observer), yelled out towards the end of a forum on race and social justice issues at the iconic Harlem theater. “What is your affiliation to your Jewish community?”

“No, no, no, no, no, that’s not what you’re asking. No that’s not what you’re asking. I’m proud to be Jewish,” Sanders said to applause. “I may be Jewish, but you’re not going to find any candidate running for president, for example, to talk about Zionism and the Middle East.”

“I am a strong defender of Israel, but I also believe that we have got to pay attention to the needs of the Palestinian people,” he continued. “There are wonderful people-and I have met them-on both sides of that issue, and there are bad people on both sides of that issue. If we are going to bring peace, hopefully, God willing, in the Middle East, We’re going to have to treat both sides with respect and equality.”

“A disgrace! #BernieSanders’ response to obscenely antisemitic Q is . . . promise to be tougher on #Israel? Shameful!,” NYC Councilman Rory Lancman tweeted after the remarks were reported.

During the forum, Sanders invokes his Jewish faith as a root cause for his sense of racial justice. Saying he feels “uncomfortable” to talk about himself on the campaign trail, the Democratic presidential hopeful told the crowd that he can remember tears coming down his face when he learned as a child that most of his father’s family had been killed in the Holocaust by a lunatic in Germany. “That is something you never forget.”

“To see racism or people hating each other for the color of their skin or for the accent that they may have is, from the deepest part of me, something that is so grotesque and awful,” Sanders said. “From a very early age, it was clear to me that I have to spend my life helping to oppose that type of behavior.”

Sanders held a campaign rally in the Brooklyn neighborhood he was brought up as a child on Friday. Standing outside the apartment building he lived in for the first 18 years of his life, Sanders urged his supporters to help him win the state of New York in the April 19 primary, a win that could propel him to win the Democratic presidential nomination and the White House.

As he was entering the building, Sanders was confronted by Assemblyman Dov Hikind for comments he made on the Israel-Gaza war in 2014.  Hikind then went up to Sanders’ wife, Jane, and expressed his disapproval of Sanders’ misstatement and demanding an apology. “What he did was a victory for terrorism,” Hikind told reporters following the rally. “He is the most popular guy with Hezbollah, Hamas, and terrorist organizations.”

The missing left: Where’s the support for liberal Zionists on campus?

The Forward recently asked college students “to tell us about a college experience that had shaped their Jewish identity in some way.”

Of the six students whose responses it published, five attend American universities. Of those, two are members of Students for Justice in Palestine, which supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel and rejects Zionism – or what one of the students, Ben Berman of Clark University, calls “the settler-colonial project of Zionism.” A third declares he has “no connection with Israel.”

The remaining two are proudly pro-Israel. One belongs to the campus chapter of Students Supporting Israel, a group that takes a mostly uncritical view of Israel. The other counters the pro-Palestinian propaganda she hears with references to Michael Oren, an Israeli centrist, and Caroline Glick, a journalist on the far-right band of the Israeli political spectrum.

It’s impossible to say whether this small sample is representative of anything, but one thing is conspicuous: There is no pro-Israel left. To engage with Israel, according to these students, means to defend it uncritically or join those who, according to the anti-Zionist principles of SJP, seek an “end to the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands.” To be a Jew means either to stand with Israel or, as Berman puts it, “stand against injustice — especially when it’s being committed by some of our own.”

You wouldn’t know there is actually a Zionism that can be loving but critical of Israel. Or that within and outside of Israel, there are groups that support Palestinian rights and statehood while defending the Jews’ right to a state and Israelis’ right to security.

The same dichotomy is found in another testimony by a presumed millennial, Jesse Alexander Myerson. In a cover story in the Village Voice titled “The Heresy and Evangelism of Bernie Sanders,” Myerson argues that the “non-Zionist” Sanders appeals to Jews of “my generation” precisely because his socialism represents an alternative to the “militant nationalism” of the Jewish mainstream.

“[N]ext to Bernie Sanders’s dogged agitation for universal equality and justice, decade in and decade out,” writes Myerson, “Zionist chest-thumping looks like a cheap substitute. ”

Calling Sanders “non-Zionist” is wishful thinking by Myerson, who divides Jewish identity neatly between socialism and Zionism. That presumes that a, the two are mutually exclusive (for Israel’s founding generation, that might come as a surprise), and b, there is no way to be a Zionist and stand up for “equality and justice.”

Sanders, who famously spent time on a kibbutz as a young man, doesn’t talk like a “non-Zionist.”

“Israel is one of America’s closest allies,” he said in his first major address on the Middle East, “and we – as a nation – are committed not just to guaranteeing Israel’s survival, but also to make sure that its people have a right to live in peace and security.”

In the same speech, the Democratic presidential candidate spoke about “a whole lot of suffering among Palestinians,” as well as “the unconditional recognition by all people of Israel’s right to exist.” Sanders called for “an end to attacks of all kinds against Israel,” as well as “ending what amounts to the occupation of Palestinian territory.” He criticized the Netanyahu government for building more settlements, the Palestinian Authority for abrogating the Oslo Accords and Hamas for saying Israel does not have the right to exist.

That’s not non-Zionism – that’s liberal Zionism.

One student leader who understood the distinction was Benjy Cannon, the former president of J Street U.Writing in Haaretz, Cannon praised Sanders for creating “an opening for other candidates, now or in the future, to extend a clear hand in friendship to Palestinians, condemn the occupation and settlement growth, and simultaneously maintain the critical importance of U.S.-Israeli ties and Israel’s right to be free from terror and violence.”

It’s a shame Sanders wouldn’t give his speech in person at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s recent policy conference, or that AIPAC wouldn’t let him deliver his remarks via satellite. It might have signaled to young liberal Zionists that the pro-Israel mainstream is at least willing to air such views, even if they don’t like them.

The demise of liberal or progressive Zionism is in part the result of its own failures, and of historical events out of its control. Israelis themselves are disillusioned with their own left, which hasn’t been a political force for years. Taking their cues from Israel’s hawkish government – and reacting to Palestinian terror and rejectionism — many American pro-Israel organizations and leaders ignore or ostracize liberal Zionists. The vote to block J Street from joining the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was seen by many on the Jewish left as a referendum on its liberal policies, not its tactics.

The rise of anti-Zionism voices on college campuses – especially among Jews – suggests how this trend might be backfiring. Writing about the BDS movement on his Brooklyn College campus, Eric Alterman noted this week that the “pro-boycott group Jewish Voice for Peace is perhaps the fastest-growing Jewish organization on campuses nationwide.” The BDS movement, he writes, “is filled with young Jews.”

One group seeking to counter this is Ameinu, the former Labor Zionist Alliance. An Ameinu initiative, The Third Narrative, is trying to support those who stand with Israel, criticize its policies and are buffeted from both the right and the left. Significantly, the initiative tries to help liberal Zionists “respond to Israel’s most vitriolic critics.”

Kenneth Bob, Ameinu’s national president, points to a 2010 study by Israel’s centrist Reut Institute. To fight the campaign to delegitimize Israel, according to Reut, pro-Israel groups should “substantively engage liberal and progressive circles. These represent the battleground between Israel and its allies, and the delegitimizers.”

And yet Ameinu hasn’t been able to attract philanthropic support for its campus outreach.

“We’d love to have a campus program, but have great difficult finding funding,” Bob said in an interview. “The community speaks out very vocally on issues like [egalitarian prayer] at the Kotel, but when it comes to the occupation they are very hesitant to support those who use that word.” As a result, said Bob, “there is a huge vacuum” in reaching pro-Israel campus liberals.

Building up liberal Zionism wouldn’t change the minds of students who are predisposed to embrace BDS and other dogmas of the far left. But for the silent or unengaged students who sit out the clash between the non-Zionist left and the uncritical pro-Israel groups, it might provide an authentic alternative.

Sanders: ‘I’m proud to be Jewish’

It happened. After months of refusing to discuss it in public, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders referred to his Jewish faith as something he's proud of and as an essential part of who he is.

“I am very proud of being Jewish and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being,” Sanders said Sunday night during the Democratic presidential debate on CNN.

Sanders was asked by CNN moderator Anderson Cooper to respond to recent critics of him hiding his Jewish faith, despite being the first successful Jewish presidential candidate in history, after he was asked by an undecided voter about believing in God.

“I’m very proud to be Jewish, and being Jewish is so much of what I am,” Sanders stated. “My father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. I know about what crazy, radical and extremist politics mean. I learned that lesson as a tiny, tiny child when my mother would take me shopping, and we would see people working in stores who have numbers on their arms because they were in Hitler’s concentration camp.”

This is the first time Sanders responded directly to his Jewish faith on prime time TV. In New Hampshire after his stunning win and the first for a Jewish presidential candidate, Sanders described himself as “the son of a Polish immigrant,” not as Jewish. At a recent Democratic TV debate, the Vermont Senator spoke of the historic nature of “somebody with my background” running for the highest office in the nation, but to the dismay of many, he did not refer to his Jewishness.

Sanders, who’s secular, also said he believes God is relevant. “Senator Sanders, do you believe that God is relevant, why or why not?” Denise Ghattas, an undecided voter who grew up in Flint, Michigan, asked.

“The answer is yes,” Sanders responded. “And I think when we talk about God whether it is Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, what we are talking about is what all religions hold dear. And, that is to do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.”

Indie bands and intellectuals at the ‘Woodstock of Jewish identity’

My teenage years were pretty Jewy.

Back in high school, I happily attended Jewish day school, spent summers at a Jewish camp, went on a group Israel trip and took part in a few youth group events. So it was a strange feeling I experienced over President’s Day weekend when I found myself looking back and suddenly feeling Jewishly deprived.

Sounds corny. But that was my gut reaction standing among 2,500 spirited teens from around the world at the energized opening ceremonies of this year’s BBYO International Convention.

IC, as it is known in BBYO world, has been around for decades. But in the past few years it has evolved into a high-energy event rivaling any conference or convention on the Jewish calendar.

Teen attendance has nearly tripled since 2012 — this year’s total attendance was about 4,000, including adults. Depending on how you count, that’s bigger than the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. Yes, AIPAC’s annual policy conference wins on the numbers, drawing more than 15,000 — including more than half of Congress — and it features a first-rate program packed with big-time plenary speakers and dozens of interesting panel discussions. But the AIPAC event’s focus is relatively narrow compared to the annual BBYO gathering (and slightly less fun).

This year’s IC boasted its own mega-program, with a diverse set of headline speakers, including welcome videos from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and in-person talks from the NAACP president, Cornell Brooks; Kind Snacks founder and CEO Daniel Lubetzky; transgender advocate and model Geena Rocero; Nordstrom executive (and BBYO alumnus) Jeffrey Kalinksy; refugee activist Erin Shrode, and Gideon Lichtman, a founding pilot in the Israeli Air Force.

Teens took part in 30 offsite “Leadership Labs” with a wide range of leaders in the realms of advocacy, philanthropy, marketing, social entrepreneurship, political engagement, civic leadership, Israel, Jewish communal affairs, education and environmental protection.

Throughout, there was also live music, including electronic from the dance music group Cash Cash, the alternative rock band The Mowgli’s and hip hop/pop singer-songwriter Jason Derulo.

Shabbat included 23 pluralistic teen-led services, a Friday night meal billed by organizers as breaking the Guinness World Record for largest Shabbat dinner ever, and multiple learning sessions (including a talk moderated by this journalist between Matt Nosanchuk, the Obama administration’s Jewish liaison, and Noam Neusner, who served in the same capacity during the administration of President George W. Bush). There was even a New York Times columnist on hand to sum it all up.

“What you see here is like a Woodstock of Jewish identity,” David Brooks of the Times told a group of philanthropists who had gathered for their summit on the eve of IC to discuss the need for more funding for teen programs. “You see all these people coming together and their identity as Jews is inflamed by the presence of each other.”

Just as Woodstock was a cultural moment that reverberated for decades, it is not hard to imagine a few more epic ICs could create and inspire a cohort of thousands of Jewish activists-for-life capable of maintaining and reinvigorating Jewish communities and institutions for years to come. For some philanthropists, that alone might justify the $1.1 million funders are putting up to keep the cost to each teen under $1,000.

But for BBYO’s CEO, Matt Grossman, the supersized IC is about the here and now. The growing numbers at IC are partially the product of recent BBYO membership growth (17 percent over past five years), Grossman said during an interview. More importantly, he added, the convention is an important tool for inspiring teens to connect their friends to BBYO.

“Nothing is more powerful than an older teen putting their arm around a younger teen and inviting them into the movement,” Grossman said. “Teen leadership and, specifically, peer-to-peer recruitment is key to our growth.”

And they’re going to need a ton of it.

According to an analysis of the 2013 Pew survey of American Jews done by Rosov Consulting, there are about 446,000 Jewish teens with some claim to being Jewish. Filter out 19-year-olds, the Orthodox and those most disconnected from Jewish life, and you’re looking at a target audience of about 210,000. According to Grossman, BBYO is undergoing a capacity-building study to determine “the resources and strategies needed to capture even greater market share.”

Currently the organization has about 19,000 paid members, and about 32,000 take part in a BBYO event each year. The organization’s database of reachable teens is about 80,000.

Tripling the number of paid members would get about a quarter of the 210,000 target audience. If we’re simply talking participation in an event, BBYO would still need to more than double its current number of annual touches to reach all those teens.

BBYO’s annual budget is about $28 million — a 33 percent increase over the past five years. The organization boasts an impressive group of lead funders — including the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, the David and Inez Myers Foundation, and the Marcus Foundation — though it says its fastest growing source of revenue is smaller gifts from parents and alumni ($2.35 million in 2015).

The organization employs 100 paid full-time and 30 part-time staff. About 30 staffers in total are based at the national headquarters in Washington, D.C., with the remaining employees working with teens in the field.

“BBYO is enabling tens of thousands of Jewish teens to create and participate in fun, joyous and meaningful experiences that allow them to develop as leaders, serve others and connect with Israel and to a larger purpose, all within a Jewish wrapping,” said Stacy Schusterman, co-chair of the Schusterman Foundation. “I have seen firsthand, both as a parent and a funder, the enduring power and importance of this work, as did all of those who participated in BBYO IC and the Teen Summit. I hope more people will invest in the currently underfunded Jewish teen space.”

The stakes are about more than BBYO — most of those 210,000 teens aren’t involved in any Jewish activities.

Grossman isn’t prepared yet to say how much it would cost to hit sky-high numbers. But he believes one thing BBYO already has is a successful formula for engaging the bulk of today’s Jewish teens.

It starts with a bedrock first principle of being a teen-led movement rather than advancing a particular ideology — a huge advantage at a time when Jews of all ages are steering clear of institutions and synagogue movements and formulating their own definitions of Jewish identity.

The IC program, say BBYO’s staffers and several members of the youth group, was the product of planning by the teens themselves and hence a reflection of their eclectic interests and passions. Judging from the speaker lineup and the crowd response, the average BBYOer is unapologetically excited about being Jewish, connecting with other Jews and supportive of Israel — and equally dedicated to working together to advance more universal causes, from minority and LGBQT rights to the plight of international refugees.

Which creates the seemingly incongruous sight (at least in today’s political climate) of a raucous convention hall crowd cheering a founding Israeli Air Force pilot’s talk of shooting down Arab fighter planes and less than an hour later applauding just as strongly for the NAACP leader’s calls for Jewish teens to take advantage of their privilege to join with African-American activists in today’s battles for racial justice.

While a willingness to let today’s teens point the way forward is critical to BBYO’s success, so is the organization’s simultaneous ability to foster enthusiasm for its 90-year history and leverage an alumni base of 400,000.

The result is a potent combination of historical gravitas and a wide-open future.

How high a future is the question.

For Jewish Mormons, hybrid identity seen as no contradiction

Phyllis Miller’s experience growing up in Southern California wasn’t much different from that of many American Jews.

The product of an intermarriage — her mother wasn’t Jewish but later converted — Miller’s family attended synagogue occasionally, kept the kids home from school on the High Holidays and ate matzah on Passover.

But Miller’s religious life took an unusual turn in her high school years in San Diego, when she embraced the Mormon church.

After a year of resistance from her parents, she was baptized at age 16 in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She later moved to Utah, enrolled in Brigham Young University, married a Mormon and raised six kids as Latter-day Saints, or LDS.

For decades afterward, Miller felt part of her identity was missing. So about 20 years ago, she started celebrating Hanukkah again. Later she found her way to a synagogue seder. These days Miller, 55, often wears her Star of David necklace and every six months she attends the semiannual gathering of B’nai Shalom, a Jewish Mormon group that holds events in this city on the eve of the twice-yearly LDS general conferences.

Make no mistake, however: Miller is still Mormon. She just celebrates her Jewishness, too.

“I still consider myself Jewish,” said Miller, whose grandfather was Larry Fine, one of The Three Stooges. “I feel like I just added on to my faith.”

Miller is among at least hundreds of Jews across North America who have converted to Mormonism yet still practice some Jewish traditions and identify as Jewish. They see no contradiction between the two.

“Being Jewish is my heritage,” Miller said. “It’s not like you can just get rid of it.”

The numbers of Jewish Mormons are difficult to estimate. The B’nai Shalom LDS & Jewish Facebook group has about 450 members. Some 200-400 people usually show up to the group’s March and September gatherings, which typically include a potluck dinner with traditional Jewish foods, a lecture, Jewish music and dancing — and plenty of schmoozing.

Victor Ludlow, a longtime religion professor at BYU who helped launch the Mormon university’s Near Eastern and Jewish studies programs in the 1970s, and has served two five-year terms as an LDS bishop, says the Mormon church smiles upon hybrid Jewish-Mormon identities. Jewish rituals such as Hanukkah lightings and Passover seders are seen as positive cultural rather than religious traditions – as long as the practitioners still believe in Jesus and the Book of Mormon.

“If it doesn’t interfere with their practice as Latter-day Saints, as long as it’s something that’s positive, that enriches their lives, there’s no problem with them. In fact, they’re encouraged,” said Ludlow, who is retired. “And there are enough commonalities between the two cultures that sometimes it’s not as much as a cultural shock for Jews to become Mormons as it is for Christians.”

Among those commonalities, according to Ludlow, are that both peoples are bound by a covenant, are or have been led by living prophets, build temples and observe dietary laws. Both religions use the word gentile to describe people outside the faith. In Utah, which has a Mormon majority, it is the Jews who are the gentiles.

Mormons also feel a kinship with Jews as a people persecuted for their faith. Mormons cite the hostility of American Christians, especially in the decades following the religion’s founding in 1830 by Joseph Smith, as echoing the Jewish experience.

That’s all cold comfort for the parents of Jews drawn to the Mormon church. When Mitch Cowitz, a native of Toronto, told his Jewish parents he was interested in converting to Mormonism, they were aghast, insisting he meet with rabbis and someone from an anti-cult group.

“They did everything but try to disown me,” Cowitz recalled.

They failed. Cowitz was baptized at age 21. Though he’s now a Mormon bishop, he says he hasn’t left Judaism. Cowitz lives in Thornhill, a heavily Jewish neighborhood of Toronto, and still celebrates many Jewish holidays. He also closely follows news from Israel.

“It’s my people. I consider it my land as well. I still consider myself Jewish,” said Cowitz, 50. “But I believe that the Book of Mormon is God’s word that has been revealed in these modern days. That’s what originally spoke to me. And the whole concept of Jesus Christ as the messiah.”

In an interview with JTA, a few commonalities in the experiences of Jews who convert to Mormonism emerged: The individuals tend to be from relatively assimilated or mixed-faith families, grew up in locales without a strong Jewish community, discovered the Mormon church through friends and had their crucial first encounter with Mormonism in their formative late-teen years. All encountered parental resistance. Many cited the Mormon focus on family as one of the faith’s most attractive elements.

Jason Olson, a U.S. Navy chaplain serving in Japan, is the son of a Jewish mother and Lutheran father. Growing up in Phoenix, he went to Reform Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah and observed Jewish holidays, but his family also celebrated Christmas and Easter. That confused him, and prompted a religious quest that led him eventually to Mormonism, thanks to some LDS friends in high school.

Those were difficult years, Olson recalls.

“I had privately embraced Jesus as the messiah, but I was still outwardly living a Jewish life and struggling with my identity,” he said.

Though he kept studying with rabbis, they couldn’t shake his convictions, and at 18 he was baptized. But that was hardly the end of Olson’s Jewish road. When it came time to serve his requisite tour as a Mormon missionary, he was sent first to New Jersey and then to the Orthodox Jewish stronghold of Monsey, New York. His encounters there rekindled his interest in Judaism and prompted soul-searching that eventually led him to spend several months living in Israel.

For college, Olson went to BYU and majored in Hebrew Bible. After graduation he enrolled in a doctoral program in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis, the Jewish-sponsored, nonsectarian university in suburban Boston. Eventually Olson became a Navy chaplain – as a Mormon. But Olson, 30, still considers himself Jewish.

“In religious practice, I’m a Latter-day Saint, but I still embrace Jewish traditions,” Olson said in a telephone interview from Japan. “I still will light Hanukkah candles and have a Passover seder. I feel it’s part of my religious and cultural heritage. I personally don’t see any contradiction between Jewish tradition and the Christian faith that I have embraced.”

Aside from converts like Olson, there are thousands more Jews who have embraced Mormonism and no longer identify as Jewish, according to Ludlow, who has been dubbed the “Passover Patriarch of Provo” for hosting several traditional seders every year — mostly to teach Mormons about the Exodus story and Jewish traditions.

“There’s hardly a Mormon congregation between Boston and Washington, D.C., that doesn’t have some Jewish individuals who have converted to the church,” said Ludlow, who was born and bred in the LDS church.

Harold Levy, 67, a retired teacher in California who converted to Mormonism at 36, says he has come to appreciate Judaism more in the decades since his baptism. Now he studies Judaism and even went to Chabad for services last Rosh Hashanah.

“I used to take Judaism for granted,” said Levy, who is deaf and communicated with JTA through instant message. “Now I understand Judaism much better and enjoy it more. I am a member of LDS, but inside I am still Jewish.”

Why ‘good for the Jews’ is bad for the Jews

Ever wonder if Bernie Sanders is good for the Jews? How about Andy Warhol? The pope? 9/11? The Diaspora? Alexander the Great? Drake? The year 5775?

These questions and many more have all been asked and answered. Apparently a lot of people still see this as a useful metric.

“Is it good for the Jews?” is as much a punchline as a question. And yet, whether the question is asked explicitly or not, there remains a corner of our community that brings a “good for the Jews” mentality to every concern.

A recent JTA Op-Ed was titled “Why campus anti-racism protests are bad for the Jews.” The headline is problematic because it assumes that Jews want to do what is good for the Jews. And once these Jews understand #BlackLivesMatter is bad for the Jews — because, the Op-Ed argues, some of its activists support Palestinian claims against Israel or there’s been pressure on campus administrators to silence similar Jewish demands  — well, they will oppose #BlackLivesMatter.

This is an excellent example of the dangers of  “good for the Jews.” First, it suggests that Jews have uniform interests. Second, it prioritizes how something impacts Jews over how it affects others. Third, it reinforces a communal identity built around isolation, vulnerability and fear; genocide hovers, always.

Good and bad are binary. Communal interests, however, lie on a continuum. Jews are diverse. We are liberal and conservative; rich and poor; radical and reactionary. We are of all races, ethnicities and sexual orientations. Suggesting that our interests are singular is disingenuous. Telling Jews (and non-Jews) that you are either for or against us is manipulative. It is also at the root of fascistic tendencies.

In life, sometimes we put our needs first; sometimes we put first the needs of others. Viewing life through a “good for the Jews” prism encourages us to place our multivalent selves at the center of every conversation. Only our needs matter. But it’s often true that what’s “good for the Jews” doesn’t necessarily help Jews all that much — and can be downright harmful to those who need a hand most. As the expression goes, sometimes it’s not about you.

In the immediate shadow of the Holocaust or pogroms, Jews were understandably guided by a sense of their own precariousness. That’s what should happen when governments are committed to your annihilation. But 60 years later, particularly in the United States, it is wrong to pretend that Jews, as a community, are similarly vulnerable. Jews are the wealthiest religious group in the United States, and with the exception of Hindus, the most educated. Two of President Barack Obama’s four chiefs of staff have been Jews with deep ties to the community.

Given our unprecedented standing and influence, denying our collective privilege can lead to complicity in oppression. This is painfully true when we do so in disputes with communities that might understandably be guided by a sense of their own precariousness.

The “good for the Jews” mentality is particularly troubling when applied to issues with a racial component. Take affirmative action, which is back in the news. In the 1970s,every major Jewish civil rights group opposed affirmative action in the landmark case Bakke v. University of California, which banned the use of racial quotas to increase university enrollment of students of color. Tipping the college admission scales in support of “minority” students, male Jewish leaders declared, was bad for the Jews. As Rabbi Robert Marx noted at the time, this assertion was based on misinformation and miscalculations. And it broke the heart of Justice Thurgood Marshall, who had worked so closely with Jewish groups to end legal segregation.

These same Jewish leaders assumed affirmative action helped blacks at the expense of whites; after all, Jews had benefited from “merit-based” admissions. Yet not all Jews are white. And, to date, the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action are women, including Jewish women — whose exclusion from Jewish leadership gave lie to the notion that a singular entity known as “the Jews” exists in the first place. Even on its own terms, affirmative action was both good and bad for Jews.

Jewish leaders believed our responsibility was to put the interests of Jews first. There was no evidence that affirmative action, even pro-“minority” quotas, would impede Jewish progress. In short, the beneficiaries needed affirmative action more than relatively few Jews might be (marginally) hurt by it. Needed it and deserved it.

Finally, Jewish leaders saw a slippery slope. They feared that quotas to help “minorities” would inevitably lead to quotas against Jews. They believed the Jewish position in American society was precarious; too precarious to take any chances. That was and remains a miscalculation. There are communities living in a precarious position. Some of these communities most need affirmative action.

Jews have a fundamental interest in a more equitable society. This is true for practical reasons: inequitable societies are less stable, and instability leads to scapegoating. And too often we are the goats. It is also true for moral reasons: Our tradition has all kinds of mechanisms for ensuring greater equality as a reflection of our values. These include Kuppah, a communal fund to support the poor, and shmitta, a Sabbath year where we forgive debts and provide extra resources to the poor, to help balance the scales.

Today, most major Jewish organizations support diversity-based affirmative action, but there are many examples of communal confusion inspired by efforts to divine our collective interest. Some Jews support fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline because it hurts oil-producing enemies of Israel, even while it damages local communities and undermines more comprehensive efforts to combat climate change. Some in the Jewish community soft-pedal the Armenian genocide to curry favor with Turkey, when that relationship is “good for the Jews.”

So what’s the bottom line? When we focus on what is “good for the Jews,” we often get it wrong. For us and for others.

It is past time that we retire this mentality. It limits a community that does amazing things when it looks past its own nose. And that would be good for … everyone.

Mik Moore is the principal at Moore + Associates, a boutique creative agency based in New York with expertise in comedy and cultural change strategy.

The University of California is guilty of Zionophobia

There is a new, dangerous epidemic throughout the world — Zionophobia. The disease has stricken the world at large, but students on campus are left trying to combat it alone with no proper action by their university administration. The University of California is guilty for not addressing the issue, and so recently they have taken responsibility to change the course of the epidemic by assigning a task force to respond and effectively address the issue of anti-Semitism on campus.

As a proud Zionist on campus, I am constantly forced to defend my identity and its inherited connection to the State of Israel, because nobody else will.

I was born a Jew. Jew comes from a Greek root referring to the geographical location of Judea, which lies in the modern day state of Israel. My identity is more than a religion, culture and nationality. Zionism describes all of those things. Jews are bonded by a common history, culture, language, and values and therefore, Zionism is an inextricable part of the Jewish identity and my identity. In all past proclamations, UCLA Chancellor Block has talked about civil discourse and mutual respect.  He has even talked against anti-Semitism, but not once did he mention the core of the problem: anti-Zionism. But let me make it clear that Zionophobia is racism. Pope Francis, President Obama, British Prime Minister Cameron and French Prime Minister Valls agree.  Each have stated that denying Israel’s right to exist is anti-Semitism.  And just last month, Secretary of State Kerry stated at the U.N. that the U.S. “will condemn anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, no matter how their proponents attempt to cloak it in some false mantle of respectability.”

How dare any member of the University community attempt to destroy or denounce my identity. I am ashamed that the university has allowed my identity to be politicized by swastika signs, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaigns that repeatedly cross the line from criticism of Israeli policies into blatant anti-Semitism, Apartheid Week and Anti-Zionism Week. All these activities have one thing in common they are not an attack on policy rather a personal attack on Zionists. These events are scare tactics geared at the Jewish community. They are used to incite disruption on our campus and widen the bridge between communities. Groups like Students for Justice in Palestine pride themselves as the antithesis to Zionism. Their slogan “from the river to the sea” is nothing but a call to destroy and annihilate the Zionists.

There is a loud call and action to condemn all hate groups against other minorities, with the exception of those who are anti-Zionists, which today is one of the clearest and rampant form of racism which marginalizes and calls for the elimination of a people — the Zionists. Thankfully the UC Regents understand the problem plaguing my school.  They have appointed a committee to address all types of intolerance and specifically the frightening rise in anti-Semitism which has been spurred by condoned Zionophobic racism.

If the UC Regents deliberation ends up with another condemnation of anti-Semitism, we have accomplished nothing to curb anti-Jewish assault on campus, because the hate mongers will continue to hide under the slogan “Zionism is not Judaism”. The University must gather the courage and name the hate at its core, i.e., Zionophobia.

The Regents must declare the University of California campuses a “hate-free” zone, and this should include all forms of racism, explicitly Zionophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-black incitement. Religions and skin-color do not have a monopoly on racism. All identity-forming symbols should be respected equally.

The Regents must take responsibility and not allow others to unrightfully and hatefully define my identity and experience at this University. I am the physical manifestation of Zionism and I am proud.

Menna is an undergraduate student at UCLA and a board member of the Bestemming Project, a movement to combat anti-Semitism through the arts.

The menorah wars

“Shah! Don’t be too Jewish” is how Charles Silberman described the dominant attitude of American Jews in his 1985 classic, “A Certain People.” As part of the march to success during the second half of the 20th-century, Jews subdued the public expression of their Jewish identity, doing everything they could to melt into the surrounding culture. When faced with discrimination in employment and education, tens of thousands dropped Cohen and Levi and adopted American-sounding names to open doors to colleges and jobs. 

This was challenged in the mid-1970s in what became known as the “Menorah Wars.” Chabad emissaries urged on by the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, felt that the time had come for a bold, self-confident Judaism. The first menorah lighting was small, in 1974 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. A year later, in San Francisco, Chabad erected a massive menorah in Union Square, drawing about 1,000 to the festive celebration. Reform Rabbi Joseph Asher, leader of San Francisco’s largest congregation, Temple Emanuel, reacted strongly. He publically challenged the menorah in Union Square, sparking a battle that would rage in the Jewish community for 1 1/2 decades. In city after city, Chabad erected Chanukah menorahs. City halls and shopping centers, parks and other public places became the venues for public celebrations. The liberal Jewish establishment reacted with antagonism, arguing that it infringed on the principle of the separation of church and state. Christmas trees and other holiday celebrations had rarely perturbed the alphabet soup of Jewish groups that came out stridently against the menorah celebrations. At first, Jewish leaders tried to persuade and cajole Chabad Shluchim to suspend their celebrations. They escalated their opposition by publicly criticizing Chabad, and even intervened with government authorities to prevent public celebrations. When the Chabad rabbis would not back down, the American Civil Liberties Union, the then-influential American Jewish Congress and other Jewish groups challenged the menorah lightings in court. 

The church-and-state argument was a camouflage for a much deeper issue. The real debate was over Jewish identity in America. For decades, the primary principle had been that Jews should reserve their expression of their religious identity for the synagogue and home. There was fear that a public assertion of identity could create anti-Semitism. On a deeper level, many Jews were insecure about their identity and, as Silberman wrote, “afraid of being too Jewish.” The Rebbe challenged this idea. Saying the United States is a country that ensures the protection of religious rights, and arguing that menorah lightings would inspire many Jews to take pride in their heritage, he advocated a bold, self-confident Judaism. Other issues were at play. As Chabad’s network was beginning to grow, some Jewish leaders wanted to stifle its independence and success. As leaders of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles told a Chabad rabbi in L.A., “We run the Jewish community, not you.”

In my recent book, “The Secret of Chabad,” I recall a conversation with professor Arthur Hertzberg, president of the American Jewish Congress in the 1970s, who led the legal challenges to the menorah lightings. A year before his death in 2006, he summed up the debate, and time had changed his perspective. “We believed that we should be a Jew at home and a citizen on the street. The Rebbe’s view was that by being a Jew on the street, we would be a stronger Jew at home. He was right and we were wrong.”  

The participation at the time of tens of thousands in lightings all over the country proved the Jewish establishment was out of touch with the grass roots. The formal end of the Menorah Wars came in 1989, when the United States Supreme Court ruled in support of public menorah lightings. 

Today, public menorah lightings are ubiquitous. Jews have found that America’s pluralistic society enables Jews to live proudly. Things have come a long way: Chabad’s Rabbi Levi Shemtov in Washington, D.C., will be busy kashering the White House kitchen for the annual Chanukah celebration. In the Kremlin and at the Eiffel Tower, as well as at thousands of other locations, Jews will gather to celebrate with pride. Even Temple Emanuel of San Francisco, which decades ago initiated the Menorah Wars, will put on its own public menorah lighting on the fourth night of Chanukah in a shopping mall in the Bay Area.  

Rabbi David Eliezrie is the author of “The Secret of Chabad: Inside the World’s Most Successful Jewish Movement.”

The tyranny of the normal

I grew up on 1950s television, and all I wanted in the world was to be the Cleavers. I wanted my dad to come home each evening in his neatly pressed suit, hang his fedora near the door and greet my mom, perpetually cheerful in her high heels and pearls. I wanted to sit down to dinner and talk enthusiastically (and one at a time) about football games, fixing cars and going to the prom. I wanted an older brother who wore a letterman’s jacket and who would teach me the manly arts.

I wanted to live in a family that never argued — where no voice was ever raised, where any existential problem could be solved by dad’s good-humored wisdom and mom’s freshly baked cookies. That was normal. Why couldn’t my family be normal, too? 

My family was nothing like the Cleavers. My dad never wore a tie (and doesn’t to this day). And mom never wore heels. We were loud and emotional. We loved intensely and we argued constantly. We had no time for football — the Vietnam War was fought over our table. The prom? We were too busy debating civil rights, the counterculture, the legacy of the Holocaust and Israel’s survival. 

We weren’t normal … and that hurt. I was sold an image of normal, a map for the right kind of life. The tyranny of the normal weighed on me, and each deviation brought pangs of shame. So I hid and split myself into two selves: inside/outside — a Jewish inner self and an outer American normal self. 

As I grew older, I made a marvelous discovery — the Cleavers were in black and white, emotionally colorless. My family was glorious, Jewish Technicolor! I came to love it. And my friends loved it. All of the Cleavers who lived in the neighborhood began showing up at our home on Friday nights to share challah and the boisterous philosophical-political-moral conversation that was our Friday night table. 

Who sells us this map called “normal”? Who sets the standard for the right home, the right family, the right life? Who produces the image of the right self that so tyrannizes?

We have pictures in our wallets of our kids. And on the back of each photo, we etch a map for their life. When the kid doesn’t keep to the map, we scream at the teachers, we shlep the kid to therapy, we demand the doctor prescribe medication. We turn on ourselves, and soon, we turn on the kid. My teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, once noted that there is a particularly Jewish form of child abuse: It’s called disappointment.

All Jewish kids get A’s, right? They all go on to Stanford, Brown and Berkeley. They all are first violin in the orchestra, the lead in the play, the captain of the team. But is there pride for the kid who is different? Is there love for the one who doesn’t conform to our normal? Can we see the kid as he is, as she is, and appreciate a child’s unique gifts? Do we have a place for the child whose journey is off our map?

One thing a rabbi knows: No matter how put together we all appear on the outside, on the inside, everyone has burdens. Everyone has secrets. Everyone has shame. Everyone has moments when life drives us off our map. 

No matter how good we look on the outside, no one’s life is normal, not television normal. And no one’s life is perfect. We hide, we escape, we deny. Or worse, we cast out or destroy the one who has frustrated us. That’s the problem.

But God gives second chances. There is life after divorce. There is treatment for addiction. There are new career opportunities. We can love this kid. But only after we let go of the shame, acknowledge what’s before us, and forgive. This is the most profound form of forgiveness — to release ourselves and those we love from the dominion of expectation, the tyranny of the normal.

Yom Kippur is the holiest night of the year, and these are its holiest words: 

Kol nidrei ve’esarey va’charamey, v’konamey v’cheenuyey, v’keenusey ushvu’ot.

All of the oaths and vows and promises we could not fulfill are cancelled. All of the maps that designate what’s normal are torn up. All of the expectations that we held up — for ourselves, for our children, for those we love — are relinquished. 

V’nislach l’chol adat bnai yisrael.

We are released. We will not allow the tyranny of expectations to stand between us and those we love. We will not let someone’s idea of the normal torture and twist and steal away our life. Our failures are forgiven. Our shame is lifted. There is nothing that we must hide. We are released to write our own map, to seek our own way. Now, we are finally free. 

Vayomer Adonai, salachti kid’varecha.

This holiday, we will stand before family, friends and associates, and ask forgiveness for our transgressions, as they will stand before us. But before we can muster the courage to turn to anyone else in contrition, we must forgive ourselves. Before we can be open and ready to offer reconciliation to another, we must find release ourselves.

That is the sacred gift and task of these highest holidays. Shanah tovah. For a new year of blessing.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein is the senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino.

Bernie Sanders: Being Jewish taught me ‘what politics is about’

A day after a radio host falsely said that Sen. Bernie Sanders has Israeli citizenship, the candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination spoke publicly about how his Jewish identity has influenced him.

[READ: DID NPR HOST ACCUSE BERNIE SANDERS OF DUAL CITIZENSHIP?]

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor Thursday, Sanders (I-Vt.) said that he was “not particularly religious” but that as a child being Jewish taught him “in a very deep way what politics is about.”

“A guy named Adolf Hitler won an election in 1932,” he told the Monitor. “He won an election, and 50 million people died as a result of that election in World War II, including 6 million Jews. So what I learned as a little kid is that politics is, in fact, very important.”

In an interview with Sanders on Wednesday, National Public Radio host Diane Rehm offended Sanders and many American Jews when she said, mistakenly, that the senator had dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship. The assertion rankled many because Jewish-Americans have historically faced accusations that they are disloyal to their countries of citizenship or care more about Israel than the country in which they live.

[READ: DIANE REHM APOLOGIZES TO SANDERS…ALMOST]

Rehm apologized later in the day, saying that she was “glad to play a role in putting this rumor to rest.”

What’s wrong with March of the Living?

The evening before we visited Auschwitz, over pizza with a group of young people in Oswiecim, the town on whose outskirts lies that infamous symbol, one of my students approached me with tears in her eyes.

Tears are hardly uncommon to visitors of sites of mass death. But for this student — a participant in a weeklong trip to Auschwitz undertaken as part of a course on Holocaust history and literature that I teach at Baruch College in New York City — the trip marked her first time on a plane, her first time in a foreign country, and her first time experiencing an academic setting that didn’t involve a laptop and a classroom located at a busy Manhattan intersection.

Unable or unwilling to bridge these two worlds — a crossing of time and space that seven decades after the war’s end enables a group of American students to casually dine with European counterparts at the edge of history’s most notorious killing center — she felt lost, detached from all that was familiar and unsure of what lay ahead.

Students on our trip were a diverse group, self-identifying as Latina, Jamaican, Polish, Israeli, Moroccan, Mexican and American, among others. By day we toured sites essential to a historical understanding of the Holocaust. In the evening we discussed readings connected to the places we had visited. Some students shared their own journals, which joined Primo Levi and Ruth Kluger as texts for analysis and reflection.

The great advantage of looking at the Holocaust in this way is that it eliminates the notion that this history belongs more to one person than another. This democratic take on the Holocaust makes the experience meaningful, even transformative, for everyone.

Typical Jewish teen tours hold themselves to a poorer standard. Confined to Jewish youth, the trips eliminate the diversity of voices essential to ensure that the imperative of remembrance is broadly observed. Aimed principally at Jewish identity building through the Holocaust, they offer a limited rendering of history, narrow in reach.

Trips like the March of the Living, which completed its 27th iteration in Budapest on Sunday, fail the objective of Holocaust remembrance itself through sheer simplification, making the genocide of European Jewry a subject to be explored among friends rather than the profound wrestling with history and its consequences that it could be. As a former participant in the march, I find its goals around Israel and Jewish identitylaudable. But the very fact that it even has such goals makes it doctrinaire by nature rather than inquiring.

In a diverse intellectual environment like our trip, it is the questions, not the answers, that define the approach. And by sharing the richness of their own varied backgrounds and perspectives, my students discovered that the unavailability of easy answers to the questions posed by the Holocaust is important — essential even — to their learning.

It’s not a comfortable place to be. Learning to live with ambivalence is a hard lesson for undergraduates, but an essential one. After we returned home, one student approached me about the final paper he was struggling to write. The sheer enormity of our trip was proving paralytic. He felt powerless trying to confine his thoughts and analysis in a tidy little paper — a reaction that in itself might be the most important lesson learned.

It may never be possible to fully imagine or understand this history, and doing so surely grows more elusive with time. But by actively studying, analyzing, visiting, speaking and thinking about the Holocaust, by refusing to make a trip to Auschwitz easy or comfortable by fully embracing the intellectual challenge it presents, may be the best way to best remember.

(Jessica Lang is an associate professor of English at Baruch College and the Newman director of the college’s Wasserman Jewish Studies Center.)

Conney Conference poses a question that may have no answer

Is there such a thing as Jewish art?

The 2015 Conney Conference will pose  and hope to answer that question during its three-day swan-dive into Jewish arts at USC, March 24-26. Programs include panel discussions, art exhibitions and performances by an array of artists tackling the topic.

Spoken-word poet Rick Lupert of poetrysuperhighway.com answered the question with a definitive: “Yes. Period.” Lupert will be performing with composer and song-leader Craig Taubman on the evening of March 25. “Jewish art must exist because people are creating Jewish art,” the poet said matter-of-factly; he will perform one of his poems, titled “Unrequited Potato,” about waking up to the smell of latkes in the morning — an undeniably Jewish poem.

Photographer Bill Aron also thinks the question is a no-brainer. “I do identify as a Jew, and most of my work is about Jewish communities,” he said. On March 26, Aron will discuss his book “New Beginnings: The Triumphs of 120 Cancer Survivors,” which chronicles 120 survivors readjusting to their “new” normal life, post-treatments (“Maybe I’m the 121st,” the artist said, also a survivor). What makes his book Jewish? “There’s certainly a moral involved in my work, a sense of tikkun olam,” he said.

Stacie Chaiken, who will perform her play “The Dig,” about an archaeologist coming to terms with her Jewish identity, on the last day of the conference, also mentioned tikkun olam, using art as a means to heal the world. But unlike Aron, Chaiken is undecided about whether Jewish art exists. “I’m really not sure, but it will be neat to hear how people position themselves in terms of Jewish identities as artists,” she said.

Professor Doug Rosenberg, director of the Conney Project on Jewish Arts at the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, founded the conference back in 2005 with this question in mind. Five conferences later, he isn’t any closer to coming up with an answer: “I don’t know if it’s possible to come up with a definitive answer. With each passing conference, the question becomes more layered and more nuanced,” he said.

Rosenberg was first inspired to ponder the issue in 1996, after attending the exhibition “Too Jewish?” at the Jewish Museum in New York. The show also was presented at the Hammer Museum at UCLA. 

“That was really the first time that there had been a collection of contemporary work which asked the question if art could be contemporary and Jewish at the same time,” Rosenberg said. So, in 2005, he organized a symposium, what would become the first Conney Conference, hosted by the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at UW-Madison. 

Ten years later, this is the fifth conference since its inception and the first time the conference is taking place outside of Madison. “We decided to take the show on the road,” Rosenberg said.

It also will be the first time UW-Madison alumni and Palm Desert retirees Marv and Babe Conney, whom the conference is named after, will be attending the event. Marv Conney said he’s excited to see the conference expand and evolve. “It’s really learning its potential,” he said, speaking of the conference as he would of a grandchild.

“We’re no spring chickens,” Conney said of himself and his wife, who haven’t been able to attend the previous conferences. Back in 1997, the Conneys approached the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies with a proposition: They wanted to endorse an arts program at UW-Madison. Conney said that since the college started offering the Conney Project on Jewish Arts, the enrollment in the program has been primarily composed of non-Jewish students. “I think it’s important, because it speaks to the universality of the subject,” he said.

Professor Ruth Weisberg, director of USC’s Initiative for Israeli Arts and Humanities, had attended a couple of conferences before ultimately initiating a conversation with Rosenberg about taking the conference to the next level. She knew that the Conneys hadn’t attended previous conferences due to geographical barriers, so that was an impetus for her to suggest a change of venue. Weisberg, representing USC, and Rosenberg, representing UW-Madison, eventually joined forces. “It’s very unusual for two major universities to co-sponsor an event like this,” Weisberg said.

In joining the project, Weisberg only had one request for Rosenberg: “That the theme be more Israeli than it usually is.” So, for the first time, the conference will address intertwined identities among Jewish, American and Israeli artists. “We’ve never really approached that question before,” Rosenberg admitted but said he’s excited to cover new ground and uncharted territory.

Weisberg first became interested in the topic of Israeli identity in art when she visited Israel “and asked artists to tell me about being an Israeli artist.” She was shocked when the artists, refusing to be pigeonholed as strictly “an Israeli artist,” referred to themselves as “international.” “I found it amusing, since their art had to do with boundaries, territories and land,” she continued. This made her think about an artist’s relationship to his/her cultural identity.

Keynote speakers Stanford professor Janice Ross and artist Andi Arnovitz also will join the conversation. Ross will lead a discussion titled “The Chasidic Swan,” investigating the role ballet plays in Israel, and American-Israeli Arnovitz, aside from exhibiting her work in a Jewish feminist exhibition, will speak about her entwined identities.

There may be no absolute answer to the question posed at the conference, but as the Conney Project celebrates its 10-year anniversary, it proves there are endless ways to approach the topic — and no harm in trying.

For more information on the Conney Conference, click here.

What’s my name? Thanksgiving

I was born in Soviet Ukraine at a time when people were stripped of their spiritual rights and forced to conform to a colorless mass that was communism. How did I know that I was Jewish? It was written in the passports and legal documents of every member of my family, an undeniable truth that no one could question, abandon or deny.  I was always amazed at how easily identifiable we were. We were different, something about our genetic makeup that made us sound and look and act as the “other.” And there was no shortage of tormentors to remind us of that.

But what did it mean to be Jewish? There were no working synagogues when I was little, just empty buildings where Jews once worshiped. There were fading memories of Jewish holidays once celebrated and Hebrew prayers once pronounced. There was a sense of regret for all that was lost.

My family left their home. We didn’t just walk out of the land where my grandparents and great-grandparents are buried — we ran. To be honest, we were not looking for a spiritual home.  We were looking for safety, a place to live without fear of arbitrary persecution. I am almost certain that it wasn’t my family’s faith in God that gave us courage to leave. But I know that we were not alone when we leapt into the unknown.  

Thousands of Jews we had never met before fought for our freedom. The Jews in America and in Israel, who had tirelessly petitioned the Soviets to let our people go, did have synagogues and rabbis and inspirational teachers to hold them up, to motivate them. God’s word and God’s promise lived through the courageous acts of many American Jews.  

A few years ago, I had dinner with Rabbi Bernard Mehlman, my husband’s rabbi from growing up at Temple Israel in Boston. He told me that he traveled to Moscow in the ’70s at the height of the Soviet crackdown on the refuseniks, when families who tried to get out were harshly mistreated and imprisoned for treason. He went to Moscow in the dead of a miserably cold winter to bring a pacemaker for a Jewish woman who was refused the apparatus over and over on the grounds of being a traitor. She would have surely died had he not smuggled it into the country for her.  

Now that I live in America, I sometimes struggle with my identity. I have an internal dialogue: What am I? How do I identify myself? Am I Russian? After all, I speak Russian and it is my mother tongue. But that’s not quite right, as my roots are in what is now Ukraine, and hardly anyone speaks Russian in Ukraine anymore, preferring their national language. Certainly I am not Soviet, as that definition does not even exist anymore. I am American. Yes. American. But am I Jewish American or American Jewish?   

This year, my intent during the Thanksgiving holiday is to honor my American story in a wholly new way, through the lens of a Jewish immigrant experience. Jewish religious observance requires retelling of the Exodus from Egypt story every year, as if each generation personally experienced God setting them free from bondage. Thanksgiving is truly an American holiday. Whether your family came to this country during the Civil War, through Ellis Island or after the fall of the Iron Curtain, it’s a celebration that’s easily embraced by all. Breaking bread together and sharing gratitude transcends racial, ethnic and social boundaries. 

Recently, my girlfriends and I shared our anxieties about the preparations for the upcoming Thanksgiving family gatherings. Most of my girlfriends in this particular group are relatively recent immigrants or first-generation Americans with parents who very much identify with the immigrant experience. We all laughed at the myriad different foods that show up at our Thanksgiving tables: Persian rice, pirozhki, dozens of pickled side dishes, mayonnaise-smothered potatoes and everything in between. We joked about overbearing mothers set in their ways and children who won’t touch the turkey, and grandparents who think cranberry sauce is excellent for tea-sweetening. We shared stories of confusion between a multitude of languages and our poor, intermarried, American family members who get lost in the shuffle and are too polite to exert their preferences. This experience, we agreed, is the best of what America has to offer.  

As I searched to label my identity, I thought how this year, Thanksgiving falls on a time during which we read the portion of the Torah VaYetzei. In it, Jacob’s wife gives birth to his fourth son, who she names Yehuda, which literally means “thanksgiving.” She says, this time, I will give thanks to God and name this child Yehuda. The Jews inherit Yehuda’s name and it becomes our own, as we are known as Yehudim, those who give thanks. Thanksgiving is literally coded into our very names. We carry within us a vision of a higher being, standing at the top of Jacob’s ladder, and a promise of a homeland, our safety and our continuity as a people.  

So finally, I came up with an identity I am comfortable with: I am Yehudi. I am part of a grateful people. I am grateful to God. I am grateful to the people who fought for my personal freedom. I am grateful to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who lost their lives, as one mistake was made after another and continue to be made, as we strive for the vision of justice and freedom for all. I am grateful to the Founding Fathers of this country who wrote the Declaration of Independence with language of such clarity that we have aspired to honor it for more than 200 years: 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

They ended the document with a pledge of loyalty: 

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Thank you, America, for giving me the safety and the freedom to know that I am Yehudi. I am a Jew and a grateful one.

Marita Anderson is a student at the Academy of Jewish Religion in Los Angeles.

Manhattan’s Ramaz school clarifies advice on concealing kippahs

When Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the principal of Ramaz, an Orthodox day school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, first heard about “>letter about school security shortly afterward to students, parents and faculty, many were startled to find in it a suggestion about concealing kippahs, which Shaviv attributed to Lookstein.

“The recent incident involving abuse and harassment of a couple in the neighborhood has aroused comment. This seems to have been — thankfully — an isolated incident,” the email said. “However, Rabbi Lookstein suggests that parents may consider advising their children to be discreet in wearing uncovered kippot, tzitzit, etc. It remains good advice not to walk around the streets displaying iPads or other ‘vulnerable’ items; not to text, or listen to music via ear buds while walking (distracting your attention from the surroundings), and under all circumstances being prudent and aware of personal space and personal safety.”

Contacted by JTA, Shaviv took pains to say the school wasn’t advocating that students conceal their kippahs or tuck the ritual fringes of their tzitzit so much as merely passing along Lookstein’s suggestion.

“The school is not suggesting it. We’re passing on a suggestion,” Shaviv said in an interview, noting that he had no intention of concealing his own yarmulke. “All we’re saying is it is something that some parents may wish to discuss with their kids – no more, no less.”

He added, “Rabbi Lookstein has now reconsidered and may not want to suggest that after all.”

Now, Lookstein says, his view is clear.

“We don’t want this to become 

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Giving meaning to Holocaust remembrance

Much ink has been spilled since the release of the Pew Research Center survey on Jewish identity in the United States. Many have addressed a number of the findings of the survey, with varying degrees of concern. But as we approach Yom Hashoah, I would like to address one issue that seems to unify Jews wherever they are along the affiliation spectrum, and that is the memory of the Holocaust.

An extraordinary 73 percent of Pew’s respondents said that remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of what it means to be Jewish. This figure closely resembles what we have seen here in Israel and in discussions and surveys with thousands of Jewish students and teachers, from America and elsewhere.

The causes for this are various, complex and worthy of separate discussion. Yet, given the prevalence of this sentiment, we have a duty to ensure that Holocaust remembrance is infused with meaning.

The Holocaust was a cataclysmic and seminal event in modern Jewish history. It cannot but be a part of our current identities — not the sum total of Jewish (or Israeli for that matter) identity but a part.

Jewish identity is a multidimensional mosaic. The Holocaust is an aspect of this mosaic, and we must strive to provide it with depth. How do we ensure that the memory of the Holocaust motivates positively for our identity and heritage?

For the past two decades, the educators at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies have been grappling with this question. How do we meaningfully teach about the Holocaust? How do we connect a new generation with a world that was eradicated?

We start by understanding that we cannot teach about the Shoah without talking about the creative and diverse Jewish life that existed before the Second World War. We teach not only about death and destruction but also about life before and during the Holocaust and the attempts to retain human dignity. We educate about the return to life of the survivors of the Shoah and their courageous decision to rebuild. Thus, the study of the Shoah is contextualized within the study of Jewish history.

Going beyond just facts and the numbers, we need to relate the experiences of affected individuals, families and communities. We should make sure not to pass judgment on the choices people made during the Shoah. We will never fully understand the circumstances and the “choiceless choices” faced by the Jews at that time, but we can strive to find a degree of empathy. At the same time, our pedagogical approach must take into consideration the emotional and cognitive maturity of our students.

This constitutes a thoughtful and nuanced approach to the Holocaust that grasps the Shoah as a building block of our common identity, calling upon us all to grapple with its events and dilemmas and gain meaning from them.

It is imperative that we strive to nurture collective remembrance deriving from individual memories and accounts, piecing together fragments of information to create enhanced understanding. Holocaust education can also gain meaning when we apply a multidisciplinary approach that includes literary, artistic, philosophical and religious expression.

The Shoah and its aftermath continue to reverberate. The German Nazis and their collaborators attempted to annihilate the entire Jewish people. The questions emanating from this collapse of the morals and values of Western civilization must still be confronted and addressed by everyone.

As a Jew who, like the large majority of the Pew respondents, considers the memory of the Holocaust to be a part of my Jewish identity, I seek to channel that sense into learning about the diverse Jewish world that existed, about the Jews’ spiritual and physical heroism during the Shoah and about the extraordinary post-Shoah activities of the survivors. Each one of us can and should commit to furthering this legacy.

The Holocaust’s implications are many, and each of us is affected and touched by it in different ways. If we all take responsibility to perpetuate Jewish life, traditions and creativity, our shared Holocaust history will have become a positive common basis for vibrant Jewish continuity.

(Avner Shalev is chairman of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.)

Jewish identity defined — a la Facebook

Ora Weinbach is not satisfied with merely calling herself a Jew. Instead, the recent high school graduate strives to put the za za zoo back into her religious observance by being an “impassioned Jew” — a term she uses to define herself on Facebook.

As opposed to the generic “Jewish — Orthodox” listed under the majority of her friends’ profiles, she has created an entirely new category to express the fervor of her faith.

“Selecting Orthodox Judaism from a dropdown list, after Jehovah’s Witness and Jain, just didn’t seem as ‘ Wear it proud!’ as it should,” Weinbach said.

Facebook has become far more than a social network; it is a virtual social necessity.

Providing a do-it-yourself outlet for people to express their likes, dislikes and even their faith, the interactive platform allows users around the world to join together — whether on the newly available Facebook chat or in myriad groups that cater to almost any interest. The Jewish community, in particular, has created a haven for itself on this booming network, claiming hundreds of groups, applications and pieces of Jewish flair.

Beyond providing aesthetically appealing odds and ends for all its Jewish participants, Facebook — unlike MySpace or Friendster — hands over the reigns to developers by allowing them to create their own add-on applications.

Rabbi Moshe Plotkin, the head of the Chabad house at the State University of New York at New Paltz, is the creator of the popular Jewish Dates 2.0, which displays the current Hebrew date and a user’s Hebrew birthday. The application, like JewMeter and Jewish Gifts, is intended as a fun tool to help reinforce Jewish identity.

“I wanted to use every medium to bring Jewish culture closer to their father in Heaven,” Plotkin said.

Putting hundreds of hours into creating various “jewpplications,” developers like Plotkin are ensuring that Facebook is a means of inspiration, rather than just a tool for finding old friends and staying in touch.

Facebook groups can be found for almost any interest, and the selection for Jews extends from the serious, “We Are Still Here (Holocaust Memorial),” to the humorous, “I am a Victim of a Jewish Mother.”

For Zoe Jurkowski, a sophomore at YULA Girls High School and a member of several Jewish Facebook groups, the platform represents more than just sharing pictures and connecting with friends.

“When some show that they are proud of their religion, others are suddenly inspired to embrace it despite some social stigmas that might influence them not to,” she said.

Facebook has also become an asset for community organizers, such as Rabbi Effie Goldberg, the regional director of West Coast National Conference of Synagogue Youth. He uses Facebook as an opportunity to reach out to new members in a comfortable atmosphere where both he and his NCSY-ers can communicate about everything from upcoming events to the underlying goals of his organization.

“I have found through my experience in using Facebook and dealing with teenagers, that teens will go to the nth degree to express their Judaism,” he said. “Whether with a Hebrew letter or the Hebrew date on their page, each profile has a connection to their religious view. Teenagers want to stay together as a strong Jewish network.”

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When ‘pride’ doesn’t cut it

Growing up an observant Jew in the small city of Palm Springs with a Jewish minority was sometimes difficult, but I have always been proud of my Jewish heritage, of who I was and of what I believe. I have never thought once of questioning my Jewish identity — it is merely a part of me.

Five years ago when I was 11, my family and I moved to Los Angeles, and I was put in a private Jewish school. I had been in a Jewish school in Palm Springs, where my father was the school principal and shul rabbi, but when I started school in Los Angeles, I discovered that my definition of being Jewish was significantly different from theirs.

Their emphasis on Judaism was based on the applications of learning the nooks and crannies of halacha (Jewish law), and it was difficult for me to identify. Rather than assisting me with my Jewish identity, it took me further away from it by focusing on the minutia and not the big picture.

Because I didn’t fit into that environment, my parents decided to put me in independent study or, as we all know it, home schooling. At the time, it was the only option, since my parents feared that a public school environment would threaten my Judaism.

However, home schooling was not all it was cracked up to be. Yes, I was home in PJs every day; yes, I could watch television 24-7, and yes, I could work at my own pace. But what they don’t tell you is how painfully boring it can get, how insanely lonely you become and how detached you feel from society. I wouldn’t recommend it.

As our last resort, after a year of home schooling, I enrolled in a public high school, by far the best decision of my life. I flourished in the diversity, the openness and the acceptance. I didn’t know anyone else who kept kosher, kept Shabbat and went to shul every week, but all the more, I maintained the utmost pride in my beliefs.

However, seeing a world outside what was once my bubble of the Jewish private school, I understood that not everyone shared the same enthusiasm that I did. As I sat in my classes, one boy in particular noticed that I wore skirts much more than all the other girls, which bothered him. He doubted the validity of my religious beliefs, and he wanted me to doubt them, too.

An atheist, he didn’t want to convert me to another religion. He just wanted to prove all religion was false. He was incredibly knowledgeable, and he would challenge me with quotes from both the Jewish and Christian bibles, asking me for the Jewish take on numerous issues.

Now, just because my father is a rabbi doesn’t mean I know all the answers. I told him all I knew, but he was persistent in trying to find contradictions between my personal beliefs and what is in the Torah.

This is not meant to be a story about how public school is a bad influence — it’s been wonderful for me. However, it happened to be my first real encounter with the outside world. It made me realize that one can only be protected for so long and without the right tools of awareness, can quickly become enveloped in deception and lost.

Deception can almost always be avoided through understanding. While the boy in my class was putting down religion as a whole, proselytizers who want to convert Jews to Christianity often use similar tactics. They manipulate Jewish texts, know the great vulnerability unfamiliarity brings and use it to convince Jews that they are incomplete and are missing a link in their faith.

The way to combat both of these forces is by becoming more knowledgeable.

Earlier this year, I was given some information about Jews for Judaism, a nonprofit organization, whose mission is: “To strengthen and preserve Jewish identity through education and counseling that counteracts deceptive proselytizing targeting Jews for conversion.”

After receiving grants from the Jewish Community Foundation and Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund, Jews for Judaism created Be-True, geared toward high school and college students. On April 6, I attended Be-True’s first annual conference, which stressed the urgent need “to preserve Jewish identity — now.”

Even as involved as I had been in the organization before, the conference was still eye-opening. I was fully aware of deception’s capabilities and had been in several situations myself. Yet reading about deception or even experiencing it is nothing compared to facing the fact of just how many people are affected by it. I was able to hear the stories, which brought information on a page to reality in person.

Recently, Jews for Judaism also launched Be-True.org, jam-packed with information, even providing an opportunity to “Ask the rabbi” any type of question.

Jews for Judaism is a significant aspect in my life because I know that while pride is incredibly important, it’s not always enough. Pride can only be perpetuated through education and understanding of that which you love.

Sarah Schefres is a senior at Hamilton High School.

An old story finds new life in LGBT haggadah

Asher Gellis talks about his life with a modest but clear-eyed sense of wonder that fits his role as a young community activist who is just beginning to hit his stride. Next week, JQ International, an organization that has helped to nurture his development as a leader, will host a seder that will include readings from a new haggadah weaving the history of gay and lesbian people into the story of the Exodus.

Like the Jews emerging from their captivity in Egypt, Gellis said his own experience of oppression lent a special urgency to his quest to establish a community for people wandering in a spiritual desert. A decade ago, he was just out of college — and just out of the closet — and feeling very much alone in the wilderness.

“There was no place to be Jewish and gay in Los Angeles,” he said. “Some temples had gay programming, but they seemed more oriented toward people who were partnered, had kids.”

As a young man just discovering himself, Gellis said, he simply didn’t connect with communities oriented around family identity — conventional or otherwise.

Then he discovered a scattered group of like-minded young gays and lesbians who were beginning to coalesce into a community. They had a variety of backgrounds — from secular Jews who had been involved in JCCs to Orthodox Jews who had been through yeshiva.

“JQ International evolved organically,” said Gellis, who is now executive director of the Los Angeles-based organization, which focuses primarily on people in their 20s and 30s. “It’s a true grass-roots organization. Once we had a critical mass of people, things just took off.”

With deep roots in the Jewish communal experience, JQ International has grown to more than 600 members from the dozen or so who gathered for the organization’s first meeting in 2002. Most are in Los Angeles, but new chapters have just opened in New York and Arizona. JQ’s programs are at once social and socially aware — a game night doubles as a food drive, a picnic is also an occasion for planting trees in a local park.

And observances of Jewish holidays become opportunities for young LGBT Jews to mend the rift they often feel between their religious and sexual identities.

“It’s essential to the process of coming out to learn how to lead a less-compartmentalized existence,” Gellis said.

Integrating elements of Jewish identity into their experience as gay men or lesbians also encourages JQ’s relatively youthful members to develop a sense of pride in the legacy of LGBT activism.

“Often there’s no sense of transmitting history in the gay and lesbian community,” Gellis said. “A lot of younger gays and lesbians don’t know what Stonewall [the New York riots that prompted the LGBT liberation movement] was about, or they don’t know how they came to have the rights they have. That’s what being Jewish is about — having a good strong knowledge of who I am and where I come from.”

The upcoming Passover seder, which will be hosted by Hillel at USC on April 26, exemplifies the organization’s focus on integrating Jewish and LGBT identities through activism and traditional observance. A distinctive feature of the event is the alternative Seder plate — which holds a coconut.

“The coconut represents young closeted gay people,” Gellis explains. “Even though they’re sweet and tender-hearted on the inside, they’re also stuck inside a hard shell. It’s our way of remembering people who can’t be with us because they’re not out [of the closet] yet.”

But the element of the seder that’s generating the greatest excitement in JQ’s community is a new haggadah that documents the tradition that’s emerging as JQ evolves from an organization into a movement.

“Stories in gay and lesbian experience find a lot of parallels in the Passover story,” said Kevin Shapiro, a member of JQ’s board of directors and a graduate student in the MBA program at USC. “The main theme of Passover is exodus. The Jews went from being enslaved and not living lives of integrity to a period of freedom where they gained knowledge and a new level of awareness. That’s a good mirror for the experience of coming out.”

Shapiro joined JQ in 2004, after he heard about the organization through a friend and went to a Chanukah party where he met young people who were gay, Jewish and eager to integrate and deepen those identities through activism.

“I especially liked the fact that it was nondenominational,” Shapiro said. “Everyone was there because of the common experience of being gay Jews, regardless of their background.”

Shapiro said that while developing the haggadah has been a collaborative effort from the start, he traces his own enthusiasm for the project to his experience leading JQ’s seder two years ago.

“I took a couple of weeks to prepare,” he said. “I learned there were lots of different types of haggadot — for example, since the ’70s, there’ve been feminist versions and environmentally aware versions, in addition to basic historical narratives. But even though some of them included gay and lesbian elements, there was nothing that really worked for our people.”

Shapiro and the other members of the JQ community involved in the project have assembled the gay and lesbian components of other haggadot and added additional elements from LGBT history that resonate with the Passover story to produce an entirely new document that reflects the distinctive experiences and knowledge of their group. “Each haggadah captures the unique experience of the Jewish community that created it,” Shapiro said. “We’re taking a tradition we’ve created and putting it in the body of literature that sustains the Passover tradition. This has really been a codification process of a new chapter in Jewish history.”

Shapiro also points out that JQ’s haggadah is as much about recovering history as making it.

Theater: ‘Immigrant’ sings the story of the ‘Only Jew in Town’

In 1909, an impoverished Jewish immigrant arrived in Hamilton, Texas, hawking 1-cent bananas from his pushcart.

Haskell Harelik had fled Russia to escape pogroms, docking not in Ellis Island but in Galveston, Texas, via a plan to route Eastern European Jews to the West. He spoke no English and was the first Jew the Hamilton residents had ever seen. But he found some friendly faces, and he stayed in that Baptist town, founding a dry goods store and raising three sons there.

The unexpected success story is the subject of “The Immigrant,” actor/writer Mark Harelik’s musical adaptation of the play he wrote to honor his grandfather (at the Colony Theatre in Burbank through May 4), and the show has traveled a journey as arduous and as rewarding as its protagonist’s.

It began after another Harelik project fell through at the Denver Center Theatre in 1985. When the artistic director asked if he had anything else that could go into rehearsal in a month, the author’s thoughts turned to his grandfather.

“He had been my hero since I was a boy,” Harelik said. “He was not a captain of industry or a soldier who had saved his platoon, but a different kind of hero — a very kind, generous person who, as the only Jew in town, brought ecumenism to an isolated rural community.

“For a Jew to be so accepted in that all-Baptist environment was inspirational,” he added. “I thought of him as one of the lamed vavniks — the Talmudic concept of 36 righteous people upon whom the fate of the world stands.”

“The Immigrant,” which initially starred Harelik as his own grandfather, was such a hit that it went on to become the most produced play in the country in 1991 and remains one of the most frequently programmed works in regional theater.

The musical, which features klezmer-meets-Copeland style songs by Sarah Knapp and Steven M. Alper, debuted in 2000 and played off-Broadway in 2004. While neither the play nor the musical has been a critical success (reviews of the Colony Theatre show have been mixed), the comedy-drama about the struggle to maintain one’s cultural identity in the melting pot has struck a chord with diverse viewers.

“Jews and non-Jews all over the country have said, ‘This is my grandfather’s story,'” Harelik recalled.

During rehearsal breaks at the Colony Theatre, cast and crew shared anecdotes about their own immigrant forebears. Musical director Dean Mora described his Mexican great-great uncle, who was the Archbishop of Los Angeles in 1890; actor Chris Guilmet, who plays Haskell, traced his roots from France to Quebec to Maine; and director Hope Alexander (n�(c)e Ossipoff) recounted how her Ukrainian father fled Cossack pogroms, never to see his extended family again. Alexander said she loves the play, “because I feel it is a quintessential American story. It is about all our families; strangers in a strange land, who carved (and continue to carve!) the American dream out of hard work, hope and tears.”

Mark Harelik’s Jewish identity was shaped by the old and new world stories exchanged around the family dinner table when he was a boy in Hamilton. During his early childhood, he remembers attending synagogue in Waco, Texas, with his grandparents and “feeling warmed by their contact with their religion and their beliefs.” But by the time Mark was preparing for his bar mitzvah, his grandfather had moved out of town, Mark’s mother was dying of Hodgkin’s Disease and the remaining relatives found themselves “in painful isolation, with no religious or cultural raft to carry us through dark waters.” “The Legacy,” Harelik’s 1995 sequel to “The Immigrant,” draws on the crisis of faith he experienced as he prepared for his bar mitzvah.

“I stopped being a practicing Jew the minute I left for the University of Texas at Austin,” Harelik said. “The late 1960s zeitgeist was to reevaluate everything and start over, and I was very easily persuaded. Thereafter, my relationship with Judaism became embodied only by my relationship with my grandparents.”

The day he sat down to write “The Immigrant,” Harelik had learned that his grandfather, then suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, did not recognize his own name. The nonagenarian was too ill to ever see the production; he died in 1987.

“The play was all that remained of this good man’s life,” his grandson said. “But he was so humble he would have been surprised audiences were so interested in his story.”

In fact, hundreds of productions have been staged across the United States; Harelik created the musical version because he felt the genre would serve the folksy characters and make his grandfather’s saga even more universal.

He said he hopes to write a third play to create a “Hamilton” trilogy: “It will describe the passing of the last Jews from town,” he said. “And once again there will be this all-Baptist community, where for two generations a Jewish family thrived. It’s a trend that is happening all across the landscape. Whereas a century ago there were Jews throughout the West, there are now vast Jewish cemeteries in towns with no Jews.”

For now, Harelik’s parents still live in Hamilton, and the actor-writer likes to visit with his 2-year-old son, named (what else?) Haskell Harelik.

“A century after my grandfather first set foot in town, people tell me how much they enjoy knowing two Haskell Hareliks, one on each end of life,” he said.

Briefs: Katsav backs out of sex charges plea deal, Al Qaeda has more threats for the Jews

Katsav Reneges on Plea Bargain

Moshe Katsav, the Israeli ex-president mired in a sex scandal, has rejected his plea agreement. Katsav appeared in Jerusalem District Court Tuesday and pleaded not guilty to charges of sexual offenses. Attorney General Menachem Mazuz now will have to decide whether to indict Katsav and on what charges.

Under the rejected plea bargain, Katsav would have been convicted of sexually harassing and molesting female staff but spared more serious rape charges. Katsav’s lawyers said they believe the prosecution’s evidence does not prove that the president is guilty of the charges.

The defense won a postponement in proceedings last month so that the evidence could be reviewed. Katsav and his attorneys will now go ahead and try to challenge the complainants’ credibility. Women’s rights groups and anti-corruption lobbies were upset that the former president, who stepped down in disgrace last year, was offered a plea bargain.

Katsav arrived at court with his wife, Gila, a half-hour late, delaying the start of the trial. His car was surrounded by womens’ rights activists and television camera crews.

Al Qaeda Steps Up Threats to Jews

Al Qaeda stepped up its calls to kill Jews. Ayman al-Zawahri, the Osama bin Laden lieutenant who last month urged Muslims to strike Jews “everywhere” in revenge for an Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip, issued an even more expansive threat last week. “We promise our Muslim brothers that we will do the best we can to harm Jews in Israel and the world over with Allah’s help and according to his command,” Zawahri said in an audiotape released online.

The remarks, which were in response to e-mailed questions from Al Qaeda supporters and came with an English translation, linked the sought-after fall of Israel to the sought-after failure of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

“I expect the jihadi influence to spread after the Americans’ exit from Iraq and to move towards Jerusalem,” Zawahri said.

A fugitive from the Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak, Zawahri predicted the demise of the pro-Western governments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But he had especially hostile words for the United Nations, calling it an “enemy of Islam” for its vote on creating the State of Israel in 1948.

Center on Israel Education to Open

The first national center to provide resources for teaching about Israel at the pre-college level is being launched. Financed by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Washington, D.C.-based Israel Education Resource Center will develop materials, train educators and help congregational and Jewish day schools integrate the study of Israel into every aspect of their curricula. Lynn Schusterman announced the center’s launch Monday in Boston before 1,300 day school educators at the national assembly of Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. The new center is meant to help close the gap between the Israel education Jewish children receive at the high school level and the complexities and hostility they often encounter when they reach college.

“We realized that most students were coming to university with very limited understanding of modern Israel,” said Lisa Eisen, national director of the Schusterman Family Foundation. “The idea that they would be ill equipped to engage in informed discussions, much less advocacy, with so little knowledge and so little connection to Israel” led the two foundations to put their money behind a national resource center that will focus its efforts on K-12 Israel education.

The center is searching for a president and will do some pilot programs this year to help selected day schools better integrate Israel studies into their general curriculum. When operational, the center will act as a clearinghouse for best practices, allowing Israel educators from schools and informal settings, such as youth groups and summer camps, to share resources.

Conservative Shuls May Quit Group

Two Conservative Canadian synagogues are moving ahead with plans to break with the movement’s synagogue umbrella organization. The board of Adath Israel, a century-old congregation in Toronto, voted “overwhelmingly” last week to leave the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the Canadian Jewish News reported.

At Beth Tikvah, also in Toronto, the board of governors recommended severing ties to United Synagogue on June 30, when its membership term expires. The United Synagogue “no longer represents what and who we are,” said Rabbi Steven Saltzman of Adath Israel.

Canadian Conservative synagogues are generally more traditional than their American counterparts, and the 2006 decision by the movement’s law committee to permit the ordination of gay clergy set off speculation that the Canadians would secede from United Synagogue. But movement leaders in Canada say the issue is one of return on membership dues, as much as any ideological divide, that has led many synagogues to consider secession.

“For some years, the congregations in Montreal felt that they were getting little for the annual fees they pay to USCJ, and the issue of ordaining homosexuals brought to a head this long simmering discontent,” said Rabbi Alan Bright of Shaare Zedek in Montreal, which has voted on the issue. Bright would not disclose the decision.

Beth Tzedec, another congregation in Toronto, also is considering secession.

Israeli Cabinet Debates Chametz Ruling

The Israeli Cabinet debated a court challenge to restrictions on the public display of chametz during Passover. Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai, who leads the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, used Sunday’s session to complain about a Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court decision last week to overturn municipal citations against grocery stores that display bread during Passover.

The offending shops, the court ruled, had not flaunted the chametz but only chose to offer them to nonobservant customers. Such reasoning did not sway Shas, however, which saw a challenge to a 20-year-old chametz ban.

“This ruling is a black stain on Jewish identity,” Yishai told the Cabinet, according to political sources. He further asked Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann to countermand the court.

Hillel opens doors to non-Jews, campus at large

Hillel centers on university campuses were viewed not long ago as little more than the local Jewish hangout, a place where students could come for kosher meals or socialize with other Jews.

But in a move that Hillel leaders say has been forced upon them by this generation’s altered social landscape, the organization is throwing open its doors to everyone, designing programs that appeal to Jews and non-Jews and hyping its contribution to university — not only Jewish — life.

Examples of the shift are abundant.

Rabbi Joshua Feigelson, the self-described “campus rabbi” at Northwestern University, has designed a campus-wide program called “Ask Big Questions” that stresses the value of Jewish wisdom in addressing contemporary challenges. Other Hillel chapters are organizing interfaith programs, like Jewish-Muslim coexistence houses or trips to rebuild the Gulf Coast. And it’s becoming more common to find non-Jews serving on local Hillel boards or as regular attendees at Shabbat dinners.

The shift is even evident in Hillel’s changed mission statement. Prior to 2006, the organization sought to increase the number of Jews “doing Jewish with other Jews.” Now it seeks to “enrich” Jewish student life, the Jewish people and the world.

“Most of the students that we have are not interested in doing Jewish with other Jews,” Feigelson said. “They’re interested in doing Jewish with their friends who are doing Catholic and Puerto Rican and Turkish — their friends and their family. The challenge for us is how do you create expressions of Jewish life that students will deem to be authentic at the same time as they are not exclusive or tribal.”

Beginning under the leadership of Richard Joel, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life sought to expand its reach beyond the minority of students with strong Jewish identities who naturally gravitated to the local Hillel chapter.

But Hillel leaders say increasingly that to reach the majority who might view the organization with anything from disdain to indifference, it must actively counter the perception that its chapters are “Jews-only” venues.

As it attempts to do so, Hillel finds itself negotiating a tricky line between Jewish particularism and universality, between the twin imperatives of creating uniquely Jewish programming and protecting the fluidity of personal identities that today’s college students see as their birthright.

“We’re in a world that has no boundaries — no boundaries and infinite choices, literally,” said Beth Cousens, Hillel’s director of organizational learning and the author of a 2007 monograph, “Hillel’s Journey: Distinctively Jewish, Universally Human,” which lays out guiding principles for Hillel in the coming years.

“It is just dumb, it’s counterproductive for us to create boundaries,” Cousens said. “The way to make Jewish life vibrant, and help people fall in love with Judaism and discover who they are Jewishly, is not to be afraid.”

Much discussion at Hillel’s recent summit in Washington, D.C., focused on the peculiarities of so-called millennials, the generation born after 1980, and their unique set of cultural dispositions: globally minded, skeptical of institutional authority and unwilling to have their identities narrowly defined.

At the summit’s opening plenary, Robert Putnam, the Harvard University professor who authored “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” described how he could name the religion of every person in his high school class because faith defined the limits of his generation’s dating pool. High-schoolers today, he contended, couldn’t perform a similar feat.

“It’s not that people have stopped being religious, it’s just not that big a deal anymore,” Putnam said. “That line has been somewhat deconstructed.”

For those who worry about the threat of intermarriage to Jewish continuity, the rise of the millennial generation, and Hillel’s response to it, is likely to keep them up at night.

Hillel responds that it simply has no choice, that if an intermarried couple doesn’t meet at Hillel, they will meet at a party or in the classroom where the organization will have no influence on them.

“Hillel is acknowledging that we don’t live in a Jewish bubble,” Cousens said. “If we don’t do this, we’ll be irrelevant.”

Putnam has written extensively on the decline of community in America, and he urged the 675 summit participants — most of them Hillel professionals — to look for ways to create social connections that stretch across the boundaries of race or ethnicity.

In interviews on the sidelines of the summit, evidence emerged to suggest that process is already well under way.

At Syracuse University, the election of a non-Jewish student to the Hillel board occasioned some opposition. But while a meeting must sometimes pause to explain a particular Jewish phrase or practice, student leaders mostly say the addition has been positive.

“I think it’s been a mutually beneficial experience for not only him and the board, but for also the community at large to see that we’ve reached beyond the Jewish student, that we’ve reached beyond what Hillel’s stereotype is, and to bring in other types of people, and to really let ourselves realize that Hillel isn’t just for one type of person,” sophomore Jillian Zarem said. “It’s for as many different people as we can reach out to.”

At the Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, a Korean student who regularly attended Shabbat dinners at Hillel managed to recruit his Jewish roommate who previously wouldn’t set foot inside the building.

“How did he do it?” asked Aaron Weil, the executive director of the Pitt center. “He said, ‘John, I’m a Baptist. I’m Korean. I’m going to Hillel. Don’t you think it’s a little bit odd that I’m willing to go to Hillel and you’re not?’ He didn’t have a comeback for that, and he came in and saw the open community.”

“The benefit to us,” Weil continued, “is by making ourself a place that is open to all, Jews are going to feel more comfortable to go there because they’re not going to a place that is Jewish only. Jews are looking today, in general, for opportunities to be Jewish but not to be separate.”

Intermarriage reports urge understanding and openness

Three new scholarly reports on intermarriage argue for increasing Jewish educational opportunities, encouraging Jewish behaviors among both intermarried and inmarried Jews and opening the doors even further to intermarried couples and their children.

One report, the result of a new study, shows an intriguing correlation between rabbinic officiation at an intermarriage and how “Jewish” the family becomes.

“I would encourage the community to think more broadly,” said Leonard Saxe, a professor of Jewish community research at Brandeis University and a co-author of one of the three reports. “The ‘tragedy’ is not intermarriage but that we haven’t created an engaging Judaism that Jews, whether married to Jews or non-Jews, want to take part in.”

Saxe’s report, “It’s Not Just Who Stands Under the Chuppah,” is about to be released by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis.

It analyzes intermarriage data from several sources, including the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study and a 2007 Reform movement leadership survey, concluding that intermarriage itself is not as critical in determining a family’s Jewish involvement as the Jewish partner’s background and education.

In addition to that report, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) of Greater Boston just completed an in-depth investigation of its 2005 Greater Boston Community Study of Intermarried Families and Their Children. The investigation follows up on the study’s much-debated finding, reported in November 2006, that 60 percent of children in the city’s intermarried homes were being raised as Jews.

Also, the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies, an affiliate of Hebrew College in suburban Boston, will soon release a new study of 140 interfaith couples in Boston, Atlanta, St. Louis and San Francisco that describes an intermarried population whose eagerness to explore Jewish involvement is often stymied by communal barriers.

With all of the reports and debates over intermarriage in the past two decades, some might think three more studies are overkill.

Saxe disagrees.

“This is all a positive development,” he said. “The simple, end-of-the-world take on intermarriage that came out of a simplistic interpretation of the National Jewish Population Study data is now being better understood. It means people are paying attention to intermarriage in a more serious and thoughtful way.”

The “Chuppah” report, like the other two, goes beyond hand wringing to suggest policies aimed at greater Jewish engagement for both the intermarried and the underinvolved.

Relying both on national and internal Reform movement data, it shows that the Jewish behaviors and practices of intermarried families who are raising their children as Jews is almost identical to those of inmarried Reform Jews.

Saxe and his co-researcher, Fern Chertok, caused a stir when they presented that finding at the Reform movement’s biennial in December.

Their policy recommendations — that Reform Jews in particular must participate more actively in Jewish life if they wish to model Judaism for their children, and that this is more important to the Jewish future than staving off intermarriage — dovetailed with the initiative announced at the same convention by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, urging greater Shabbat observance among Reform Jews.

Creating a home filled with Jewish rituals and Jewish learning, Saxe and Chertok conclude in their report, has more influence on Jewish continuity than whether or not one marries a Jew. Thus the Jewish community would do well to encourage the former rather than worrying overly about the latter.

The newly released CJP report came about in part as a response to widespread criticism of its central finding that twice as many children in Boston’s intermarried households are being raised Jewish as was reported by the latest National Jewish Population Study.

“People asked, what did we mean by ‘raised Jewish?'” said Gil Preuss, vice president for strategy and planning at the CJP. “They said the way we asked the question led to a higher number of families saying they were raising their kids as Jews. So we looked at what that means in terms of real practice: day to day, week to week, what are these families doing?”

The result of that investigation not only confirmed the earlier findings, including the 60 percent figure, Preuss said, it also showed that a couple’s initial decision to raise their children as Jews is the critical factor in determining an intermarried family’s level of Jewish involvement.

Once a couple decides on a brit milah, or baby naming, for their newborn, he said, “the rest follows,” from synagogue membership to religious school to Shabbat observance.

The CJP report also showed, as did the Steinhardt report, that at least in Boston, intermarried families in which the children are raised as Jews look pretty much like inmarried Reform Jewish families in terms of Jewish practice. Nearly 70 percent of the children in both groups become bar or bat mitzvah; similar percentages are enrolled in religious school and are members of congregations, although the intermarried families tend to join later and leave sooner, and both groups attend services with the same frequency.

That didn’t happen on its own, local Jewish leaders say.

One major difference was noted in the religious education of teenagers. Whereas 37 percent of inmarried Reform families and 61 percent of Conservative families enroll their children of high school age in Jewish education, that number drops to 13 percent among intermarried families who are raising their children Jewishly.

The CJP is using this to beef up its financial support for Jewish education for teens and younger children as part of its strategic plan to be unveiled in May.

“The CJP will now spend a lot of time and money to strengthen the Jewish educational experience for 9- to 16-year-olds and their families,” Preuss said.

Also this week, the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies is releasing the findings of a new and extensive intermarriage study headed by University of Connecticut sociology professor Arnold Dashefsky.

Researchers interviewed 149 intermarried couples, mostly Jews married to Christians, in four cities, asking about their Jewish behaviors, degree of involvement with their Jewish communities, and negative and positive experiences with those communities.

Tikkun Olam, Thailand and an elephant named Yom

Who would have guessed that a 15-year-old boy born and raised in West Los Angeles would befriend a 49-year-old elephant named Yom who lives in a conservation reserve hidden deep in the jungles of Lampang in Northern Thailand?

Ever since my bar mitzvah, I wanted to do something that would connect me more to my Jewish identity. One way was to take the Jewish notion of tikkun olam (repairing the world) more seriously. So every summer I have spent two weeks helping out less fortunate communities.

On the summer of my 15th birthday, I joined the Rustic Pathways camp, a 25-year-old community service group that takes students to impoverished communities in Third World countries. Our group of 15 American students went to Thailand to help out on an elephant reserve.

The elephant population is at risk in Northern Thailand due to the constant poaching and attacks from angry villagers. In the past, elephants rampaged through the villages, which made for an unsafe situation for both the elephants and the villagers.

Wanting to protect the elephants, the local people have made a conservation reserve in the elephants’ natural habitat. And because keeping elephants well fed and healthy is an expensive enterprise, the elephants’ lifelong trainers (mahouts) teach the elephants tricks so they can perform in local shows to raise money for their upkeep. Without such programs, the elephants’ lives would be in great jeopardy.

The mahouts work all but three days every month. By helping them, we would take some of the menial work from their exhausting schedule.

The elephant reserve was filled with native Thai shrubbery of every color. Hours after I arrived, a mahout showed me his elephant, Yom. Her eyes, immense and brown, showed a deep level of love and serenity. Her hair, which is almost invisible from afar, felt as sharp as nails. And Yom’s giant ears drew attention away from her enormous nose.

It is remarkable how smart elephants are. After a couple of days, Yom flapped her ears in excitement every time she smelled me coming. And those flapping ears acted as an automatic seatbelt when I rode her, always holding my legs against her neck to make sure I didn’t fall off. At the conservation camp, I learned how to take an elephant’s temperature (you don’t want to know) and how to shoot a rampaging elephant with a homemade dart gun (very carefully).

Every day I gave Yom two baths. I rode her into the nearby lake once in the morning and once at night. There she submerged herself in water for up to 15 minutes at a time, with only her trunk sticking out like a snorkel.

After Yom’s morning bath, I took her to either the feeding grounds or the training area. On every occasion that I took her out to eat, she would pile food in her mouth like it was her last meal. We passed areas that looked as if a logging company had recently come through the forest. With all that eating going on, I wondered how there was even a forest left at the end of the day.

Once Yom had her fill of leaves and branches, I led her to her daily activities. One of these activities included a miniobstacle course. I steered her through poles, instructed her to bow her head and made her walk backward. Yom was exceptionally good at the course because she’d had more than 48 years of training at the camp.

Time always flew by when I was working with her. Before I knew it, the sun was ready to set and I had to put Yom back in the forest for the night. I rode her into the forest for miles to find the perfect spot. Once I decided on a place to leave her for the night, I tied her down to a nearby tree sturdy enough to hold her back, or she would have been able to leave the forest and walk right back to the city of Lampang.

Before I left, I always looked at all the surrounding trees and took note of the fact that they would not be there when I would return the next morning. Yom would make sure to take down every tree or bush she could reach for a midnight snack.

Then, just as I would leave, I would look back at her standing amid the trees. I would stare in awe of Yom’s beauty in her native habitat, standing half hidden in the foliage looking perfectly peaceful. This sight was the highlight of my trip.

I spent the evenings with the Thai counselors and staff members. They introduced me to their native dances that they had learned as children and their favorite Thai bands.

At nightfall, silence took over the forest, and the only sounds I heard came from the mahouts’ singing and drumming on paint cans. There was no TV, no electricity and no running water. We were just 15 kids, a herd of elephants and a breathtaking forest.

It was there in that dark forest that I realized that if I give to a cause that I am passionate about, I will get so much more in return.


Phillip Nazarian is a 10th-grader at Brentwood School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the April issue is March 15; deadline for the May issue is April 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Experience at international camp broadens perspective

As I look at a picture from the summer of 2007, I wish with all of my heart that I could go back and relive it. This picture contains a group of campers, each with a big smile on his or her face, glowing with happiness to be surrounded by their new best friends.

From a distance, these children look so different, as if they were each cut out of a separate magazine to form one colorful collage. Each child comes from a different ethnic background and speaks a different language at home. But here at this camp with their new friends, they have created a temporary home, where it is not necessary to speak a common language.

As a counselor at Camp Kimama in Michmoret, Israel, I learned that the only connection these children from all over the world need is their passion and love for Israel. Camp Kimama is Israel’s first international camp, where Jewish children spend two weeks forming a multicultural group of friends and exploring the different worlds that these friends come from. I spent one month of my summer working at Kimama, every day discovering more about myself and my fellow Israelis, Jews and Zionists.

The first day of the first session of camp can be summed up in one word: overwhelming. I had never been more confused in my life. The camp was full of nervous campers, overprotective mothers and a feeling of pure chaos.

I quickly realized that in order to communicate with all of my new campers, I would have to repeat everything I said in Hebrew and in English and make sure that every camper who didn’t speak those languages would have someone to translate for them. Can you imagine having to teach camp cheers to 60 energetic 10-year-olds in more than three different languages?

By the end of the day, my legs felt like Jell-O, my voice was nonexistent and if I had not fallen asleep within seconds of getting into my bed, I would have questioned myself about why in the world I gave up part of the freedom of my summer vacation to work at this seemingly crazy job.

Throughout the next few days, I began to learn the ropes of working at Camp Kimama and soon grew to love the environment, the campers (who I already cared and worried about as if they were my own children) and my fellow staff members. Somehow as a camp we managed to form a beautiful family and create a home away from home for the campers as well as for the counselors.

I began to realize this during the first Shabbat evening of the first session. Shabbat at Camp Kimama was one of the most unique and relaxing Shabbats I had ever experienced. Throughout the week, the entire camp is bustling with excitement and energy, as each age group runs from one activity to the next. I remember being so busy that by the time each day ended, it felt as if the day had lasted an entire month.

Once Shabbat finally came, everybody cleaned up, put on their best clothes and gathered on the grass overlooking the beautiful beach at Michmoret to welcome the much-needed resting day of Shabbat. As I looked around, I took a few moments to myself to absorb the faces surrounding me, because I knew that seeing such a diverse group of people come together for a Jewish holiday was not something I would see many times in my life.

Working at this camp was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. I am used to seeing Zionism from the perspective of either the Israeli community or of the Jewish American community, however, this time I saw it from a completely different standpoint.

In United Synagogue Youth (USY) we are sheltered by the limitations of a variety of people. Last summer, after I came back from my trip to Israel with USY, I was sure that having friends from New York, Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey meant that I had expanded my horizons as much as I possibly could.

Never would I have thought that a group of Jewish friends — my campers — could consist of children from China, Thailand, California, France, Israel, Florida and the Philippines. I can truthfully say that working at Camp Kimama this summer has changed my outlook on life as a Jew, as an Israeli and as a teenager.

Sivan Ron is a senior at Beverly Hills High School. She plans to join the Israeli army next year.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the April issue is March 15; deadline for the May issue is April 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Don’t build walls to keep out non-Jews

A study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that Americans are switching religions more than ever. As many as one of every two adults does not practice the religion in which they were born or raised.

Evangelical and nondenominational Protestantism are the winners. Catholicism and mainline Protestants are the losers. As an aging religious group, it is time for Jews to take heed of the changes affecting religion in America because they are Americans, too, and no major trend passes them by.

Pew refers to the “marketplace” of religions in the United States, and that is exactly right. People shop around for the religious theologies, practices and communities that suit them. Some may try on a number of faiths until they find the one that fits.

This is one of the great benefits of the nonestablishment clause of the First Amendment, freedom from the government sanctioning any particular religion and allowing many faiths to thrive. The result has been a healthy competition, a country relatively free from the religious strife that plagues so many societies.

At a time when other religious groups are seeking adherents and promoting their religious faiths, Jewish organizations and institutions generally are so afraid of decline and loss that they turn inwards. The result, is that these very insular approaches end up ensuring that decline and loss occur.

The reason is that Jews, like other Americans, crave free choice. We are more likely to retain more people because they feel they want to be Jews, not because they have to be.

The Jewish communal response to this expression of religious freedom is locked somewhere in another time or place — Europe and North Africa in the 1700s, for example. We keep having the same tired discussions about “preventing intermarriage” or “strengthening Jewish identity” or saving the Jews from assimilation with the right kind of, or enough, Jewish education.

Again and again we respond with rhetoric, ideas and programs that circle round and round in the same orbit — how do we keep Jews in? Hundreds of years of discrimination, violence and murder take a huge toll. They create a psychology of fear that results in Jewish isolation, a construct of us and them, insiders and outsiders, Jews and enemies. And with unabashed and straight-faced boldness, as if no one else is listening, we ask how do we keep strangers — meaning all non-Jews — out of our families, out of our synagogues. Out.

We don’t want to be part of the marketplace of religious ideas and practices, thank you, we just want to be left alone to marry each other and keep everybody inside, safe and secure.

This, of course, is an illusion.

Still, we fantasize that if we inoculate our young people with enough Jewish education, then they will reject the 98 percent of other Americans they might fall in love with or not be attracted to Zen Buddhism. What nonsense. We all have seen the numbers to prove that the head in the sand, return to the ghetto and hope the non-Jew will go away strategy is not going to work. No number of day schools or summer camps is going to turn back the clock on religious freedom and competition.

It is time for Jews to join every other group in America and quit obsessing about who is being lost and start acting on who might come in. Right now it is largely a one-way street because we cling to dangerously obsolete ideas, attitudes and practices about conversion. We do not welcome people with open arms but rather we stiff-arm. We still question people’s sincerity — do they really want to be Jewish?

Yes, of course we need standards and procedures — and to say that making Judaism more accessible means abandoning rules of admission is a straw argument to cover up how suspicious, off-putting and unfriendly we often are to those who want to be part of the Jewish people.

Openness and excitement do not mean that learning and ritual requirements to become a Jew should be abandoned. Just the opposite is the case. Spiritual seekers are looking for meaning, content and purpose. Becoming a Jew can be a deeply intellectual and emotional experience, and spiritual seekers are willing to engage in rigorous education about Jewish life, rituals of conversion and rites of passage to become a Jew.

Some rabbis do a great job in dealing with potential converts; many do not. Our synagogues often are less welcoming than we think. And our newspapers, sermons and sociological literature are filled with hysterical reprimands and dire predictions about the demise of the Jews that result from gentiles breaking through our traditional walls.

We have a theology that has no intermediary between the individual and God. That is appealing. We have a set of daily, monthly and yearly rituals that provide guidance and purpose. That is appealing. We have rich liturgy, beautiful prayers, deep roots in Israel, a strong communal system. All appealing. By being attractive to others, we will also be more attractive to born Jews. What are we afraid of?

We are checkmated by our own notion of ourselves that Jews don’t do that — we don’t compete for newcomers. Maybe Jews in 18th century Poland did not — and with good reason. It brought the wrath of the church and the state on them.

But this is 21st century America, not 18th century Poland or 20th century Germany. Pew tells us that Americans are switching religions like never before. Do we want to enter the competition armed with our wonderful 3,000-year-old history, or kvetch about assimilation, intermarriage and our dwindling numbers?

Those who choose to join the Jewish people will enrich us with their ideas, energy and passion. And born Jews who choose to embrace their Judaism in an open marketplace also will enrich Jewish life. It is time to embrace the America in which we live. We must abandon the paradigm that our children and grandchildren are potential gentiles and promote the new belief that America is filled with potential Jews.

Gary Tobin is the president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco and writes frequently about American and Jewish philanthropy.