I was passing Zabar’s on the Upper West Side of New York when I saw three middle-aged women standing outside, holding up signs and handing out petitions for the patrons to sign. At that point I’d forgotten why I went there in the first place, instead I stood off to the side and listened to them tell anyone who would listen about the need to boycott SodaStream so that there could be justice in the Middle East.
Their signs read 'Jewish voice for Peace.' What I felt at that moment was a mix of embarrassment and fury, disappointment and sorrow. Maybe I should have walked right by, gotten my bagel and gone on with my day - but I couldn’t. So I spoke. Not eloquently or calmly, but from my heart. Naturally, it didn’t go well. I called them a shanda fur di goyim and they blankly stared passed me. No connection was made and no war was won. But I fought it, nonetheless.
If they had not been Jews I probably wouldn’t have stopped. I would have shrugged them off as a part of the world’s random stupidity and I wouldn’t have lost my temper nor would I have missed my lunch.
But this was my community. These were my people.
The next day I was trying out a new shul. We’ve all been there: It’s time for Kiddush and you stand there as an island in the stream of people who have all known each other since grade school. It can be scary; it can be intimidating. When I visited Ohab Zedek this past Shabbat, it was neither.
“I hear you’re in from Sweden? Want to come over to our house for shabbes lunch?"
An hour after that friendly-faced woman approached me I was sharing a table with seven other people; and a few hours after that, I considered them friends. We ended up meeting for breakfast the next morning, swapping contact details and telling tales of our lives.
This was my community. These were my people.
I’ve had the same debate over and over. Do I, as a conservative hardliner, waste my time fighting for the future of the liberal Jew, the one furthest from my own ideology? Am I my brother’s keeper, or is his iniquity too hard to bear?
The answer is, always, that I am a Jew first. As such, my responsibility is towards my family before strangers, no matter how distant a relative they are.
That’s the thing about family - it’s not all pretty. We don’t choose whom we belong to and there is always that weird uncle who is wildly inappropriate and the sister you love to death but who also gives you anxiety-hives whenever she enters the room. Families are messy, but we stand by them. We chastise them in private but defend them to the outside world. They may be idiots, but they are our idiots.
Whenever we think that we as a people would benefit from making alliances with the outside world and choosing strangers over family, we are in for a world of hurt. It was true when letting in the Romans, and it is true in our political and military ventures to this day. We must be the masters of our own fate, and when we choose to leave our own behind for the good of the cause, we forget what made our cause good in the first place. We fight for our people. Not just those we agree with, but also those who drive us insane and those whose politics we find utterly reprehensible.
During my visit to New York this past week I saw the best and the worst of our community, but above all, I saw how deeply we care. Like many others I read the Pew-study and the damning description of a weak American Jewry that is assimilating, marrying out and quickly losing its religion. I see the same thing in my own country, and by any account I should be saying that we are losing the battle. But I can’t. Not as long as I can lose my temper on a crowded street or find family in strangers in a foreign city.
Something is broken, yes, but in the words of Rav Nachman of Breslov:
”Im ata ma'amin sh'ykholim lekalkel, ta'amin sh'yecholim letaken.” (If you believe that you can break it you have to believe that you can fix it.)
We are a community. We are a people. We are family.
And you never give up on family.
Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a political adviser, writer and activist. An alumni of the Young Jewish diplomatic seminar (organized by the Mizrad Hahutz) and Tikvah seminars in NYC. She lives in Stockholm, Sweden, with her two children. Follow her on Twitter.