The Future of American Jewish Liberalism
Where to begin? I recall many years ago being on the receiving end of a Conservative attack on my liberalism being called a Self-Hating Jew. Not the most positive terminology. I spoke up about Israel and the Occupation and House Demolition and Checkpoints and the trials of Palestinians. Was I looking at Israel in a vacuum and seeing only what a certain group of left wing zealots in the United States and Israel wanted me to see? It’s not so easy to parse the story, how one comes to find oneself in it or to look under the hood of American Judaism and identify the various streams of thought.
I grew up in an upper middle class family in South Jersey, attended a “Conservative,” Synagogue; Beth Shalom, in Haddon Heights and received a Bar Mitzvah in 1968. Nothing extraordinary there! Was President of my AZA group which did nothing particularly Jewish except participate in a basketball tournament and convert a couple of non-Jewish friends as temporary members of our ersatz community to help us win. We suffered a loss in the first round as our non-Jewish center broke his hand at the beginning of a very long game and I’ve thought more than once about whether we met a vengeful G-d on the court that day in Cherry Hill. Some of my best lessons in life were negative ones.
But I didn’t continue in my development as a young Jewish adult. I kind of lost my way for a time, only showing up at my parent’s synagogue on the High Holidays for quite a few years. But the wilderness was lonely and unfulfilling and eventually as I returned to the Garden State I found a new synagogue that was Reconstructionist, across the river Delaware in New Hope PA. Lots of liberals, some conservatives and an amalgam of individuals and families searching for the right place to practice and revitalize their Judaism.
A dear friend, Jerry Halper, who carried a big chunk of our young synagogue on his back had a heart attack and died at 57 and left a huge hole in the operation of our Little Shul By the River; Kehilat HaNahar. I spoke some nice words at the funeral and was promoted to the Board, AKA Tribal Council and made Chair of the Social Action Committee. From there I looked at an Israel I knew far too little about and began sharing what I learned with the members of my Little Shul and some interesting people from the larger community. Beginning with a great deal of help from a few people strategically located in the “peace camp,” I organized an Educational Forum For Peace & Understanding that featured the Israeli Consul General and the Deputy Representative of the PLO speaking together in the first of two panel discussions on March 26, 2000.
I created a Muslim-Christian-Jewish Dialogue Group; New Hope for Peace and wrote and spoke and traveled to Israel and the West Bank and studied the situation every single day. I have learned a lot, lost my card-carrying status as a liberal, although I remain far from representing a conservative ideology. I find hope in odd places and have met many American Muslims and Christians in particular who are also searching for answers to assist us in seeking and finding and creating a viable road to Middle East Peace.
I cannot quantify the number of young American Jews who are casting off their Hebrew school education in favor of something based on a desire to resist oppression which many have come to see in the Occupation. While I’m sure PEW and AJC and others are counting heads I calculate the growth of both Jewish peace organizations such as J Street and Jewish Palestinian rights organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace as a factor in a new generation of young American Jews who are growing up beyond the shadow of the Holocaust, the birth of Israel or the Six Day War. These young people represent a new generation that can break in many different directions and may even be lost to Federation, AIPAC and the world of traditional organized Judaism altogether if it’s not careful to recalibrate its message.
I cannot afford to cast off our new American President, because although I have problems with his politics and his personality he is the man in the President’s Chair and he may yet stumble his way forward toward peace with some assistance from all of us.
We have all been built to recognize and accept the stranger because we were strangers too. May it be so!