25 October 2009

My Talk at J Street Sunday October 25

At the opening to the J Street Conference tonight down in DC, I was one of three people who spoke about how the "younger" generation deals with Israel. My prepared comments came from notes in my notepad but I'll try to reproduce them here.

First, I gave credit to my amazing daughter Audrey, 12, who traveled down to DC with me. This is her Bat Mitzvah year and it was important to expose her to a piece of Israel advocacy and social organizing. Plus, she's a very charming travel companion.

My comments focused on a few thoughts.

One, the younger generation of Jews engages their Jewishness more from the perspective of the universal than the particular. I used, by way of explanation, a recent video I saw on about Jewish high school students and their campaign to raise awareness about Darfur.

Solomon Schechter Day School Students. Young Judea, the venerable Zionist Youth Movement. And the concern? Genocide in Darfur. It's not that it's not Jewish to care-it's just that the moral lesson of Jewishness is that we are obligated based on our understanding of history not only to care for ourselves but to care for others as well.

The move from the "outside-in," from the "universal to the particular" was first articulated by Franz Rosenzweig at the founding of his Lehrhaus in Frankfurt at the beginning of the 20th century. For an assimilating German Jewry, Rosenzweig sought to articulate that the way toward Torah was the necessary choreography of an assimilated generation. One wonders if the way back "toward" Israel is through younger Jewish American's concern for universal values of justice.

Second, the current generation of young Jews knows little about dates, viscerally, prior to 1990. Which is to say that the epic and cataclysmic dates of 1948, 1967 and even 1973, are facts in a book, but not felt deeply in the gut. That's significant.

Third, one cannot easily dismiss the effects of intermarriage rates on the development of Jewish connections to Torah, Hebrew language, land and people. All have been arguable weakened and to not take stock of this is a huge mistake.

Fourth, there a couple interesting surprises of the last ten years. The first is that Pluralism has truly won the day--influenced in large part by the experience of Jewish development encounters in Israel, which, because of its rich Jewish diversity, models pluralism differently than America, which is still too strongly organized by denominational divides. Year abroad programs along with service and learning programs, have richly influenced Jewish identity. Second, birthright israel has created a class of more than 200,000 individuals who are undeniably excited about being Jewish. Interestingly, few want to make aliyah. But engaging them on Jewish questions is crucial--and with regard to encouraging their interest in the question of two states for two people, well, it's not a birthright agenda item, per se, but J Street would be remiss not to go after a large portion of these Jews who care deeply about Israel's fate while also freely acknowledging the Palestinian claims to homeland as well.

Fifth, coalition politics and values politics a generation ago are very different than they are today. The Obama supporters of the current generation saw Obama as a more articulate and important "Jewish" values leader than Netanyahu. That speaks volumes about how Jewish coalition politics may form--if at all--in the next generation. And here J Street has a role to play as well.

Finally, I closed with a couple interesting thoughts from Rashi about this week's Torah portion, Lech Lecha, in which Abraham receives his call to inherit the Land of Israel. "Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your father's house, to the land that I will show you." The ultimate Zionist text.

Soon after the call, Rashi reminds us, Abraham goes into Shechem, where he offers a prayer that Jacob's sons should be victorious in battle against the residents there. But Rashi also reminds us that Torah was prophesied in Alon Moreh, which the rabbis understand as Shechem as well. In other words, Defense of Land and Torah are intertwined; one can't escape either the "birthright" or the moral obligation to be righteous in the pursuit of a home.

So I shared a re-reading of the text, in which the "land," "birthplace," and "father's house" of the text could be understood as challenging our own willingness to move beyond only the inherited narrative and add to it our aspirations for a righteous and just encounter with others who make a claim on the Land. Yes, God gave us the Land in the Torah narrative--on condition that we live there righteously. Articulating both visions can be a way forward for J Street, 18 months in to its own political action--so young and already having an impact on how we American Jews talk about Israel.


Mama Bee said...

Really interesting. Two comments:

I think you rightly identify the idea of "Jewish peoplehood" as a cornerstone of engagement for younger generations. Particularly in North America, we need to stop focusing so much on the differences of affiliation. Instead we should be reorienting Jewish education and outreach to emphasize our common heritage, traditions and values -- and the importance of all kinds of observance. If young people understand that there is a spectrum of ideas related to Judaism and Israel that can be embraced, they will feel more connected whatever their opinions. This is particularly true with regard to Israel, where the issues are so complex that no one way of thinking can keep everyone in the fold.

Second, there are two ways of considering the intermarriage issue -- you can suggest, as you do, that intermarriage is responsible for lack of engagement. I see it another way. Many Jewish organizations (not CBE or the URJ) have consistently rejected intermarried families. That is not the fault of "intermarriage," that's the fault of Jewish infrastructure that has failed to see an extraordinary opportunity to keep these families active and involved through outreach.


Andy Bachman said...

Stephanie--thanks so much for your response. I want to be clear: I don't "fault" intermarriage either. What I said last night and may not have come through in the way I wrote it later in the evening is that as a result of higher rates of intermarriage, the "ethnic" connections of Jewish life are diminished, and therefore peoplehood, once defined in more tribal terms, if you will, is forced to cover territory that is more values based. Arguably, the old phrase "you don't look Jewish" will soon be applied to a measure of whether one's actions--kindness, humility, generosity, hospitality to strangers and concern for justice--make one "look" Jewish. The tradition ought to welcome this values rich assessment!

Mama Bee said...

Agreed -- thanks for the clarification!