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Spectator or player?

The American Jewish experience through Israeli eyes: How can ties to Israel be ties that bind?
Illustrative. Birthright participants at one of the organization's Mega events, gathering thousands at Jerusalem's International Convention Center (Dudi Vaknin/Flash 90)
Illustrative. Birthright participants at one of the organization's Mega events, gathering thousands at Jerusalem's International Convention Center (Dudi Vaknin/Flash 90)

1. Jared and Ivanka didn’t turn up. They were probably with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, as they are on most weekends. Yet, every few minutes, as more students came in, all heads turned to see whether the power couple had arrived. This scene took place during Shabbat lunch at the Washington DC Chabad synagogue, headed by Rabbi Levi Shemtov. On Shavuot, just a few days earlier, the Kushners had indeed come to the synagogue and Jared had had to leave early and go on foot to the White House for meetings about climate change. One of the congregants told me that the Kushners had decided to join this synagogue because the other one in DC, and indeed most of Washington, is not a great fan of Trump, to say the least. The Chabad synagogue, however, welcomes all Jews with open arms, even the daughter of the President of the United States.

Although they weren’t present last Shabbat, who did come? Daniel from California, Jonathan from Germany, Mindy from Mexico, Liron from Israel and some 100 other Jewish students who had come from more than 30 countries to participate in the American Jewish Committee conference. Throughout the year, the students learn about Israel advocacy and leadership skills, enabling them to represent Israel’s viewpoint on campus. Then last leek they participated in the AJC Global Forum which brings together thousands of pro-Israel supporters. Now they have come to synagogue on Shabbat and Rabbi Shemtov has a request.

He is the Chabad shaliach in Washington and thus also to the White House. Framed pictures of him standing with George and Laura Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack and Michelle Obama grace the walls of his home. Shemtov has befriended them all. He lit the giant Menorah at the White House lawn, ran the Pesach Seder and also dealt with discrete issues, behind the scenes. The latest picture of him with Trump has yet to be framed and in the meantime, it is pasted over the Obamas, hiding them from view.

He is far more concerned about these students than about the Administration. “I am not worried about the Congress, where Israel enjoys strong support, especially in the current administration. The State Department doesn’t worry me either, nor does the United Nations. I am worried about you,” he says. “You are our representatives on campus. If BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) anti-Israel activity continues to gain a following – it’s because of us. Because we do not have enough self-confidence in the justness of our cause and because we don’t have the knowledge to rebut our detractors. BDS succeeds because we, the Jewish people allow it to, because some its claims make us uncomfortable.”

“I want you to know,” he suddenly changes topic, “I have made a calculation that since my wife Nechama and I came to Washington, we must have hosted 100,000 people in our home. I got to this figure by multiplying the number of people we host on an average week by the number of Shabbatot we have been here. 100,000 people who have prayed here, eaten here and met fellow Jews from all over the world. The common theme bonding them all is their identity. If we are united and sure of ourselves, then the world will understand us.”

Shemtov knows that the students sitting at his table may end up assimilating. He also knows that they are at the forefront of fighting anti-Israel activity on campus. So this past week they came to DC to hear lectures, panels and workshops to help them combat the propaganda. But now he has a small and practical request to them.

“My Rabbi, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, used to tell people: ‘Don’t be a spectator, be a player. Don’t just sit there and criticize the players and tell them what to do. Get up and go out onto the field. Don’t observe Judaism from the sidelines and criticize it. You are part of the team, and you share responsibility for it. The spectators can cheer the team on or boo them off, and if they lose, they will walk away and go home. But the players remain, they will stay on the field and try to improve the game.’

“So I am asking each one of you to take on something small which is connected to Judaism. You can learn a text, do an action, however small it is, but be consistent. Whatever you choose, when you get back to campus, encourage another Jewish friend to choose something as well.”

As they were pondering whether to take on this commitment, and whether they wanted to be spectators or players, dessert was served – for the 100,000th time.

* * *

2. The next stop on my visit was to nearby Rockville to meet Israelis living there, mostly in two neighborhoods known as “the Kibbutz” and “the Moshav.” Most of those present work at the embassy and other Israeli institutions in the capital, but hi-tech workers, physicians and business people also attended. Some of them were long-time yordim, others had really come for only a few years and nearly all of them were obsessed with knowing every little detail about what happens in Israel. It would be hard to find such an involved and top-notch group of people in Israel as up-to-date with the latest headlines and aware of any new developments in the country. They asked about Netanyahu and Trump, Abu Mazen and KAN — the new Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, Sara Netanyahu and Miri Regev. When the meeting was over, one mother came over to me and had some extremely sharp comments to make.

“I try to expose my children to Israeli culture,” she told me. “I am married to an American but I don’t want them to become fully American kids. This morning they watched Static and Ben El’s latest clip. I must tell you that I almost cried when I saw it, the music is catchy and lively and reached a million YouTube views within 24 hours. I know that my eight-year-old son will be singing it all summer long. He is sure that I will be pleased because it means he is keeping up with Israeli culture. But my son shouldn’t be singing these lyrics, nor should my daughter. What kind of message do these words convey to them? The words seep into their minds slowly, that’s how it works. Then we will hear on the news about assault and abuse because these youngsters don’t understand that ‘No!’ means exactly what it says, without any question marks.”

She downloaded the clip on her phone and we watched it together, we were the million plus one viewers. Here are a few lines of the lyrics: “It is rumored that she refused everyone here / it is rumored that none of the girls said “No” to him / there is a chance that something will happen / you just need to be open with her.”

Is this the Israeli culture we are exporting this summer? All the way to Washington? Why? And why does Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv appear in this clip? And all those parents who protest about any issue and organize internet petitions, why are they keeping silent about this song? We discuss fake-news so much, why aren’t we talking about fake-culture?

About the Author
Sivan Rahav Meir is a media personality and lecturer. A Jerusalem resident, she is the World Mizrachi’s scholar-in-residence. Her lectures on the weekly Torah portion are attended by hundreds and the live broadcast attracts thousands of listeners around the world. Sivan lectures in Israel and overseas about the media, Judaism, Zionism and new media. She was voted by Globes newspaper as most popular female media personality in Israel and by the Jerusalem Post as one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world.