In this spring of youthful Arab discontent, it has become de rigueur to note
that no one could have seen this coming. We had no warning, the strategists are
all explaining – there was no way to predict this.
Perhaps. But closer to
home, where other seismic shifts are already changing our world, we do know
already what is happening. Far from the Middle East, a new battleground is
emerging, and it is going to change the world we bequeath to the next generation
no less than what is happening in Egypt, Syria and Libya. For the most
part, though, we’ve chosen to ignore it.
This battleground, strange
though it may sound, is the world of rabbinic training in America. Now, if
you’re tempted to say, “Are you kidding? With everything going on in the world,
in Japan, the Middle East, Israel and more, you’re worried about a few dozen
students studying Talmud?”
Well, yes, I am. Why? Because the impact of these
people – most of them bright, decent, thoughtful and deeply Jewishly committed –
is exponential. Each one of them influences hundreds of others, and the
best and the brightest ultimately have enormous national influence.
what is the problem? Consider the following: Item: Not long ago, a student at
one of America’s recognized rabbinic schools sent a note to the school’s e-mail
list saying that it was time to buy a new tallit.
Seeking advice about
what to buy and where to get it, the student noted that there was only one
stipulation, the tallit could not be made in Israel.
Item: After that
e-mail went out, a rather energetic discussion unfolded. As the conversation
became increasingly heated, students were told that e-mail conversations about
Israel were now off limits. You can discuss politics, the economy, sex and
theology, but not Israel.
Item: Also not long ago, other rabbinical
students were discussing how to add relevance to their observance of Tisha
Be’av. They began to compile a list of other moments in history that should be
mourned. One suggested that 1948 be added. Because of the Nakba? No, actually.
It was time, this student said, to mourn the creation of the State of
Item: A rabbinical student in Jerusalem for the year chose to
celebrate his birthday in Ramallah, accompanied by fellow students. There they
sat at the bar, with posters (which they either did or didn’t understand)
extolling violence against the Jewish state on the wall behind them, downing
their drinks and feeling utterly comfortable. Photographs of the celebration got
THE EXAMPLES abound. You don’t have to spend that much
time listening to rabbinical students in New York, Los Angeles, Boston or
Jerusalem to hear these stories. Often, a few students ask to meet
privately. And almost invariably, regardless of the school in which they’re
enrolled or the movement to which they’re committed, what they want to discuss
is the profound loneliness they feel as unabashedly Zionist and pro-Israel
They’re impressive, these young
students. The ones I’ve spoken with are bright, thoughtful, well-read,
deeply decent human beings. There is none of that “everything Israel does is
right” bravado about them, none of the morally obtuse “who cares about the
Palestinians?” position that one hears in other circles. They, too, are
struggling with the strategic and moral dilemmas Israel faces. But
they’re unwilling to say that creating the Jewish state was a mistake. They’re
not falling for the one-state solution trap. They may not love the
settlements, but they’re too sophisticated to believe that they are the reason
that Israel has no peace with the Palestinians.
And for that, they say,
their fellow students often treat them like pariahs.
To be sure, many of
the faculty and administrators at these schools are deeply committed Zionists,
superb academics who represent the very best of contemporary Jewish life. This
troubling but undeniable shift in the loyalties of many rabbinical students is
not, by and large, institutionally sanctioned. But that is what the Jewish
tradition calls a hatzi nehama, a partial consolation at best. Because what
matters is not what the schools’ administrators believe – what matters is what
the next generation of rabbis believes. Because what these rabbis-to-be believe
is what American Jews will soon be hearing from their spiritual
IT IS thus time to get strategic, just as the Saudis did years
ago when they began to seed academic positions across America. The Saudis
understood that an entire generation could be shaped by the people who teach
America’s best students. Now, they’re reaping the benefits of their strategic
foresight. Dare we do less? What, we should ask ourselves, can be done to
support those students who are feeling so vulnerable? How do we let them know
there are many of us who hold them in extraordinarily high regard for their
commitment, their tenacity, their nuanced and brave positions? How do we exhort
them not to give up, for they are the frontline in a battle that must be won, a
battle to ensure that the next generation of American rabbis is unabashedly
committed to the continued flourishing of a Jewish State of Israel?
fiscally challenging era for schools, could we find the funding to place
academically superb and unequivocally Israel-supportive professors in the
schools that want them? Can we create settings where these students, from across
movements, spend more time together than they are currently able to, deriving
strength from the knowledge that they are not alone? Are there foundations that
might want to support them and their studies, both financially and content-wise?
There is no limit to the possibilities, and figuring out what to do should
become a communal priority. Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya might have been
beyond our capacity to predict. But what is unfolding in our own communities is
not. We know. Now we must just decide if we have the courage to act.
writer is senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His latest
Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End, won
the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. He blogs at http://danielgordis.org