Guest Columnist: Of sermons and strategies

Far from the Mideast, a new battleground is emerging, and it is going to change the world no less than the events in Egypt, Syria and Libya.

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.
So 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 Israel.
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 posted online.
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 rabbis-in-the-making.
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 leaders.
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?
In this 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.
The writer is senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His latest book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End, won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. He blogs at