Sharing the Goods in Palo Alto
Seeking to spark Jewish souls
Wednesday, October 25, 2017
Last Motzaei Shabbos, I flew to Palo Alto (after consulting my rabbinic advisors) for a panel "discussion" called Zionism 3.0 that included the head of the Reform movement in America, Rick Jacobs, and an "Orthodox" rabbi who raises large sums in the Bay Area for his Jerusalem institute. On issues of religious pluralism in Israel, I could not detect a sliver of daylight between the two. Channel 2's Yonit Levy moderated the event, which was held at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center.
When I was originally invited to the panel, during Chol Hamoed, I was told that the topic would be the Kosel controversies. But that was subsequently expanded to a general critique of chareidi political power called "Elected by the Majority, Controlled by the Minority." Eventually, the topic was further expanded to threats to American democracy from Donald Trump, and a Stanford professor of political science was included in the discussion.
Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of The Atlantic, who, as he himself mentioned, was often described as President Obama's court Jew, gave the keynote address — an extended critique of the damage wrought to America's democratic culture by President Trump. What exactly Trump had to do with Zionism, except as a foil for a bit of sniping at Prime Minister Netanyahu, was not clear, but the audience loved it.
I mentioned to Goldberg afterwards that it was too bad he had not found time in his articulate survey of American democracy's deficits to mention that 20 percent of US college students, according to a recent academic study, believe physical force is legitimate to shut down speakers who say "offensive and hurtful things" and 50 percent believe that it is legitimate to make it impossible for them to speak.
UPON MY RETURN to Israel 44 hours after I set out, Leah Aharoni, one of the founders of Women for the Wall, a grassroots group formed to oppose Women of the Wall, wrote to ask how it had gone. I told her that except as an excellent opportunity to test my theory that my circadian rhythms would be less adversely affected by flying back to Israel only 15 hours after I first landed in San Francisco, I really did not know. What, I wondered, are the criteria for evaluation?
Certainly, the discussion took a much different direction than it would have in the absence of an Orthodox representative. In the former case, the chareidi threat to Israeli democracy would have been the primary subject. I pointed out, however, that the only minority that rules in Israel in defiance of the public's elected representatives is the Israeli Supreme Court.
More important, by inviting my fellow panelists to consider why their protests of the abrogation of the Kosel deal have fallen on deaf ears in Israel, I was able to shift the tenor of the discussion. I offered two reasons. The first is the Israelis' sense of having been betrayed by their American brethren. On a matter of life and death to six million Israeli Jews — President Obama's eight years of pro-Iranian foreign policy, culminating in the Iran nuclear deal — American Jewry went largely AWOL. (Reform leader Rick Jacobs, a member of J Street's board of directors, wisely chose not to join a debate on that point.)
Second, I noted that the miniscule Reform and Conservative movements in Israel — a recent survey by Panim, a pluralist umbrella organization, found that only 0.4 percent of parents of school children in the government school system identify with Conservative or Reform — have no political clout. Even secular Israeli Jews are shocked to learn that Reform rabbis perform intermarriages, often with non-Jewish clergy co-officiating.
Moreover, news of the demographic free fall of the American heterodox movements has reached Israel. A former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations recently offered his surmise that Netanyahu views the chareidim — projected soon to be 20 percent of the Israeli population — as more important to Israel's future than the dwindling ranks of heterodox Jews in America.
With that second point, the thrust of the debate shifted to whether the heterodox movements have failed to stem the flight of American Jews to the "unaffiliated" or "no religion" categories. Proving that required no more than recourse to Rick Jacobs's own words. At the 2013 Reform convention in San Diego, he bemoaned the fact that the movement was losing 80 percent of its youth by the time they reached their teens. He has also described opposition to intermarriage in our time as tantamount to opposition to gravity. Juxtaposed to the 2013 Pew study finding that there are 110,000 Orthodox Jews in America who were not born into Orthodox homes, the respective trajectories of American Orthodoxy and the heterodox movements is inescapable.
Making the point, however, that no Jewish community in history has ever sustained itself for any period of time without intense Torah study and a strong commitment to mitzvah observance did not come without a cost. I may have been the first chareidi Jew whom most of those in the audience had ever heard speak, so one crucial goal was to come across as friendly. There turns out to be no particularly nice way, however, to tell someone that their version of Judaism has never, can never, and will never be able to sustain itself for long.
If I have one major regret about the panel, it was not doing a better job of making clear that my words were spoken in pain, not anger. Thus, when challenged about whether Israel could exist without non-Orthodox American Jewish support, I should not have answered in one word, "Yes." Rather, I should have noted that Jewish philanthropy — e.g., the Joint Distribution Committee, the Mandel Foundation, "friends" of various Israeli hospitals — benefit Israel, including the chareidi community, greatly. And I should have said that loss of all such support would be a tragedy, not least for American Jewry, for which Israel has served as the primary source of positive Jewish identity.
Finally, I should have explained the reason behind my answer. Because American Jews are, in the main, wedded to the increasingly anti-Israel Democratic Party, their political support for Israel has already waned precipitously. When Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic senator from New York, the state with the largest Jewish population, delivers the keynote speech at a conference featuring numerous prominent BDS supporters, one that is co-sponsored by George Soros's Open Society Foundation, which seeks to undermine Israel's status as a democracy, she does so confident that it will not cost her significant Jewish support.
I ARRIVED IN PALO ALTO determined to directly address non-Orthodox Jews on issues more enduring than the latest controversy du jour. In that, I was at least partly successful. I argued that Judaism has an objective definition; it is not the vector sum of what individual Jews happen to believe at a given moment. When explaining what makes my actions "Jewish," I can point to authoritative codes that have guided Jewish life for centuries and the canonical sources upon which they are based.
Jews have always been distinguished from all other religions by their insistence on binding Divine commands — the "accursed Law," in the apostle Paul's words. The heterodox movements reject the very concept of binding Divine commandments, and in that respect are closer to Christianity than classical Judaism.
Beware, however, that when making this point, you will be painted as arrogant for claiming that you know what G-d wants. (That still seems to me less arrogant than the counterclaim that G-d's commands are determined by what I choose to do.)
I shared how I was overwhelmed on an Israeli bus the morning of Entebbe by my sense of connection to the other passengers as fellow Jews. At that moment, I realized that what bound us together was our common, unbroken chain of ancestors whose relationship to G-d was of such power that they were able to endure pogroms and forced exile in every generation. That insight led me to ask whether, as a young secular Jew in the last quarter of the twentieth century, I could still access that power.
My final words were a plea to reconsider the dismissal of Jewish chosenness as some kind of racist doctrine. (In the 1996 Commentary symposium on the state of Jewish belief, not one heterodox theologian would affirm Jewish chosenness.) By failing to convey belief in G-d's special love for the Jewish People, through whom He reveals Himself to all mankind, we deprive our young of the most powerful reason to carry on as Jews and to marry other Jews.
ALL THESE POINTS I have made better many times in print, when one is not rushing to squeeze in between fellow panelists and the moderator's questions. But I doubt that there were any Mishpacha readers, or even many Jerusalem Post readers, in the audience. So the forum, for all its limitations, was my best chance at reaching those present.
Sadly, however, I'm not sure that how well or poorly I spoke makes that much of a difference. The large audience was made up of Jews imbued with a certain Jewish pride, who hope their children still share that pride and that their grandchildren will be Jewish. But my impression is that most were between the ages of 50 and 70, with their children off to college or beyond. I would probably have had a more lasting impact speaking to 20 Jewish college students.
After the plenary session, a native Israeli whose grandparents arrived in Israel from Yemen shared her despair that her teenage children and husband were not more interested in their Judaism, and her fears that her sons will not marry Jewish women. Couldn't there be some kind of easier conversion process for her grandchildren, she wanted to know. (That desire for Jewish grandchildren explains why conversion will always be such a hot-button issue for the non-Orthodox.)
I had little solace to offer other than to introduce her to the Orthodox rabbi of Palo Alto, with whom I have been extremely close since he first came to our home on Rosh Hashanah 35 years ago wearing a cardboard kippah from the Kosel. His experience and that of thousands picked up at the Kosel and brought to yeshivos and seminaries by Rabbi Meir Schuster, zt"l, over the decades explains why fighting to protect the Kosel's status as the most powerful symbol of our continuity as a people is so important.
The age distribution of those in attendance, reflective of American Jewry as a whole, would have been fine if I had been in Palo Alto courting affluent donors. But I was seeking to spark Jewish souls to rethink their Jewish future. I can only hope that a few such sparks were struck.