December 8, 2019

The Women of Worcester

The third annual daylong symposium sponsored by the Jewish Federation in Worcester, Mass., was titled, "A Woman’s Voice," without the slightest hint of irony. Less than a generation ago, "a woman’s voice" meant only one thing, the talmudic prohibition of Orthodox men toward hearing the sound of Jewish women in prayer.

Kol isha (a woman’s voice) was used as the legal barrier against women becoming rabbis and cantors, the excuse for exclusion.

That’s why I named this newspaper column A Woman’s Voice, to break down a wall.

There were some 100 women at the Woman’s Voice seminar at the Worcester Jewish Community Center (JCC), and many had no idea what blocks had been hurdled. Why should they? By a showing of hands, more than three-quarters of those in attendance had had a bat mitzvah, most of them as adults. They were at the JCC to refine personal skills ("winning without whining"), enhance their spirituality and celebrate themselves as part of Massachusetts’ second largest Jewish city, with its own revolutionary history.

It was an activist crowd, and many were interested in knowing how Jewish experience in transforming our own rituals could help women in Afghanistan. For a woman with a memory, attending such events can provide the thrill of the normal, to see how earlier dreams had come true.

We have come far. But that was the rub. The more I talked about women’s victories of the recent past, the more I worried about the present, not to mention the future.

Pride has its limits.

It has been clear since Sept. 11 that our children, especially our college- and high school-age youth, do not feel equipped to fight the current rhetorical and political battle on behalf of the Jewish state. My sisters in Worcester are worried, too. They confirmed it last weekend with their own family stories, so I know it’s not merely the attention deficit of those raised near Hollywood. Their sons and daughters, like those I see in Los Angeles, are not picking up the torch.

Daunted by the military challenge? Overwhelmed by the politics? Terrified by terrorism? Who knows? They should be in the heat of the debate. They are not.

Perhaps they’ve been too infused by the left-leaning equivocation of the Vietnam generation. Instead, the generation now coming into adulthood is still, politically speaking, deferring to us, their parents. These are young men and women with strong Jewish backgrounds, who have visited Israel, who date Jews. They are saying, "We are numb. Help us."

I have heard too many conversations in which parents set the agenda and state their positions. The young sit by in silence.

If you are a college-age Jewish activist, write to me. I want to understand. Meanwhile, we, the parents generation, can’t wait any longer. We must find a way to help you help us. There is so much to be done, and much of it is waiting for you.

I don’t want to remind you about the Six-Day War and how it transformed young Jews of your parents’ time. You will find your own coming-of-age experience to bind you to Israel.

In the present crisis, every Jewish event must be used for community organizing. There is no chance for downtime, to gaze at the glories of the past without energizing ourselves for the current battle.

Every luncheon must include a) an educational update on Israel; b) a letter-writing campaign to legislators urging continued support for Israel, reviving the techniques of the Soviet Jewry campaign; c) outreach to the local campus or Hillel; and d) informational material on how to talk to your children about Israel.

Let’s help the next generation gain its voice.