Right of Reply: Young US Jews - self-centered and individualistic?

ByARI HART
October 29, 2009 14:01

Right of Reply Young US

In his recent column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine ("The I's have it," October 16), Daniel Gordis informs us that out of all the challenges facing Israel and the Jewish world today, this is the real crisis: America's "unfettered individualism" is corrupting the minds and souls of young American Jews, leading them to abandon Israel. To try to prove this epidemic of selfishness and individualism, Gordis cites several examples of young American Jews, challenged by their relationship to the State of Israel, who seek to hear a multitude of voices and perspectives on the situation, or act on deeply held values and principles to try to create change. Gordis may find some of those values and principles misguided, counterproductive or even dangerous. But self-centered and individualistic? Since when did challenging ideas and community norms become pampered, selfish behavior? Given my experiences as a member of the exact generation Gordis takes such issue with, I tried to think about who exactly these young "me" Jews might be. MAYBE THEY are the thousands of young American Jews answering the Jewish call to pursue justice by teaching in inner city schools, advocating for the rights of prisoners or providing health care in the Third World? Perhaps they are the Jews who care so deeply about God's creation that they bicycle to work, compost their waste and meticulously track their carbon outputs. Maybe they are the Jews who travel each summer to countries in Eastern Europe to help struggling Jewish communities thrive and grow. Or perhaps they are the thousands of Jews on college campuses, responding to "Never Again" who mobilized and advocated for stopping the genocide in Darfur. Are they the ones? Gordis may wish that more of this tremendous energy and acting beyond oneself was directed toward helping Jews in Israel. That might have been a valid critique, and one that I struggle with personally in thinking about my own activism. He failed to do so, and instead attacked the character and motives of thousands of Jews he does not know. When Gordis asks, "Why are American Jews abandoning Israel?" he needs to understand the following cognitive and emotional dissonance facing many young, talented, passionate and inspired American Jews: These Jews have dedicated themselves to working on fixing the suffering and oppression in their communities at home and abroad. It is a vital part of their Jewish identities. In turn, they are very uncomfortable with the feeling that a Jewish state is responsible for the suffering and oppression of another people, directly or indirectly. If Gordis wishes to reach these people, he needs to openly and honestly deal with that disconnect instead of attacking them for being selfish. Unfortunately, the perception of many young Jews is that Jewish institutions are not interested in seriously dealing with that dissonance, and that communal Jewish life is not a safe space for engaging in some of the Jewish questions that matter to them most. The perception among many young, progressive Jews is that Jewish institutions push an oversimplified, heavy-handed, us-or-them approach to Israel and Jewish identity. That's one reason why many young Jews who live to make the world better for others often turn outside the Jewish community to do so. Gordis, writes: "In today's individualistic America, the drama of the rebirth of the Jewish people creates no goose bumps and evokes no sense of duty or obligation." "Jerusalem of Gold" sends shivers up and down my spine every time I hear it. When I hike through the Golan, tracing the footsteps of my ancestors, I often want to burst into tears at the sheer beauty and impossibility of it all. But yes, I do struggle. The Jewish values I hold dear - pursuing justice, loving the stranger, fighting for the poor and underprivileged - do not always appear to be prioritized by the State of Israel in policy or culture. And that disconnect causes me great, great pain. MR. GORDIS, I am training to be an Orthodox rabbi. It is my professional and personal goal to serve the Jewish people for the rest of my life. Few things give me greater joy than learning a page of Gemara with someone for the first time, reaching out to bring others to my Shabbat table, distributing gifts to the poor on Purim or spending the holidays in Jerusalem. However, if I see a film you don't approve of, oppose particular policies of the State of Israel or identify as an American, does that mean that I've "given up on Israel?" Couldn't one even argue that critique and challenge are fundamental Jewish values and might actually help to preserve and strengthen the Jewish people as we move into more and complicated moral and ethical terrain? At the end of his piece, Gordis writes that "a gaping chasm threatens the American-Israeli relationship, and we're basically doing nothing." If Gordis is right about the chasm, isolating giving, creative, inspired and motivated American Jews through unfounded and frankly silly attacks like this isn't "basically doing nothing" - it's making the problem worse. Let's get real, and God willing, get better. The writer is the cofounder of Uri L'Tzedek and a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

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