To be a modern, thoughtful and identified (though not necessarily observant) Jew is to live both within a tradition and community, and at the same time to be alienated from it. Some people live more on one side of the divide than others. Some have their feet firmly planted within the community and are entirely comfortable there, while others live on the more alienated side of Jewish identity and do not affiliate.
I have always found this to be a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, my Jewish identity has been formed in the crucible of the community. I grew up in a Conservative synagogue in suburban New York. I enjoyed some of my best (and one or two of my less favorable) Jewish experiences at Camp Ramah in Nyack and New England, where I was introduced to some of the wonderful educators and spiritual leaders who founded Havurat Shalom in Cambridge and the New York Havurah. I earned a double degree from the Joint Program of Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University. I pursued a PhD in Hebrew literature. I worked as a fundraiser at two Jewish federations. I belong to a Conservative synagogue and raise my children within my tradition.
And yet, I have never felt fully comfortable and assimilated into this world. The Jewish liturgy leaves me with far more questions than answers. I consider myself an agnostic rather than a believer; though I am an agnostic who finds great meaning in our theology. Jewish communal politics as practiced today often leaves me cold. That is why I have gravitated toward the dissident side of Jewish life. I have been a leader or member of every progressive Jewish organization I can remember going back to Breira and New Jewish Agenda.
Unlike some on the Jewish left, I have never given up on the tradition or the organized Jewish community. I strongly believe that religious traditions are not monolithic entities, but rather organic and evolving processes. Even in something as unitary as the halacha, change is constant. That is why I have felt it worthwhile to continue to engage even when I am disappointed or alienated by what I read and hear from my co-religionists.
In this High Holiday season, when I tend to spend more time in shul, I got to contemplating a particularly alienating experience that happened last year. I belong to a Conservative synagogue known for being among the more liberal in town. Its members tend to be university professors or other professionals with quite a bit of Jewish background and knowledge. The Hebrew school has provided a good learning experience for my son, which is one of the reasons I remain despite the story I will tell.
Here’s the background for my story. Rabbi Marc Schneier founded the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding which last year began a national project of twinning mosques and synagogues for discussions about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. I thought this might be a terrific project for my own synagogue to join. When I approached my rabbi, she too was enthusiastic. We had a meeting of a small group which began to plan for the event. The rabbi empowered me to search for a local Muslim partner. Then she went on vacation.
In the process, I inquired of local Muslim leaders for a mosque that might partner with us. Eventually I did find one, MAPS, an eastside mosque whose members were genuinely open and warm to the idea of twinning.
One of the other Muslim leaders I approached was Jeff Siddiqui. I had no idea that some members of the local Jewish community and my synagogue find Jeff to be an “enemy of Israel.” When they found out that I had asked Jeff for advice they began circulating various rumors about the Twinning event that raised fears among enough other members, so that when the rabbi returned she informed me that the event couldn’t go forward on the date we had planned. But she committed to me that it WOULD happen, perhaps even in the following month. I waited in vain for another planning meeting or word of when the event would happen.
When the rabbi called to tell me that some members had stirred up fear and mistrust of the event and that she was postponing it, I was truly hurt considering the many hours I had investing in recruiting a Muslim partner and meeting with their members to begin planning. The rabbi raised other issues too which distressed me. After initially suggesting that she and the imam could exchange pulpits with her preaching at the mosque and the Muslim cleric preaching from the bimah, she told me she “didn’t know what she had been thinking,” and that this was not going to be possible. She simply couldn’t offer the pulpit to an imam. Why would anyone feel they couldn’t do that?
Earlier, Walter Ruby, who coordinates the national Twinning project, had called to tell me that, given Seattle’s recent history of Muslim-Jewish violence, the N.Y. Times religion reporter wanted to come out for the synagogue-mosque event and interview the two spiritual leaders and other community members. My rabbi balked at this, throwing up an excuse I found incredible–that such coverage might embarrass the mosque by putting it into the spotlight. In actuality, MAPS welcomed the coverage. It was the rabbi and synagogue members who were experiencing cold feet. Frankly, I was dumbfounded. How many times are synagogues offered an opportunity to be featured in the pages of the N.Y. Times? I believe it would’ve been a huge publicity bonanza for the synagogue and put it on the map nationally in a positive light. But clearly, this wasn’t what the rabbi or congregation wanted, at least not connected to this issue.
While this was a very personal experience of disappointment for me, it is representative of an atmosphere of fear and mistrust that characterizes too many of my fellow Jews on issues that relate to Israel, Arabs or Islam. There is a small minority who either through ignorance or willful hate refuse to concede that the other side is worth engaging. It was these members of my synagogue, some of them I understand involved with StandWithUs, who led the surreptitious campaign to scuttle this event.
The twinning event never happened at my synagogue. Instead, I helped recruit another local rabbi, Daniel Weiner, to take up the cause and several months later Temple DeHirsh Sinai conducted a joint program with MAPS. As a result, my synagogue lost out on a wonderful opportunity to nurture a relationship with local Muslims.
My rabbi let me down. She promised something she never delivered. She never exchanged a word with me afterward about the program or why she dropped it. And that is one of the reasons why I feel alienated from my own synagogue and its spiritual leader. I understand it is not easy being a rabbi and being buffeted by these opposing political forces within one’s own synagogue. But I maintain that rabbis are meant to lead. Clearly, my rabbi knew that the Twinning project was worthwhile. Yet in the face of internal opposition she dropped the ball.
If we want to look to reasons why many American Jews are alienated from the organized community this is but one very personal example. Our leaders at times simply lack the courage of their convictions. This helps drive away those who are looking for courageous leadership that seeks to grapple with difficult questions raised by the Jewish engagement with modernity as exemplified in my case by the Twinning project.
Next month brings the second annual day of Twinning and my synagogue will again fail to deliver on its promise. I only wish there was a congregation more suited to my needs and interests with some of the good qualities (including some of the ones of my own rabbi) of the one I belong to now.
On a related note, my regular readers will know about my struggle with the local Jewish newspaper, JTNews, to incorporate a critical response to the upcoming Jewish federation hawkish, anti-Iran conference. The editor’s refusal (at least so far, though I’m still trying) to publish a statement embracing a pragmatic U.S. policy of diplomatic engagement toward Iran has caused me to prepare an ad for the paper in the event of his ultimate rejection. By the way, the ad will cost between $375-675 depending on the size I choose and I’m still raising funds to pay for it. I would welcome your contribution to the cause of fighting the suppression of worthy ideas in the Seattle Jewish community.
This is yet another example of a Jewish community so provincial that it organizes a panel on Iran at the behest of the Israeli foreign ministry, including only hawks eager to punish Iran with crippling sanctions and then attack it with force if it refuses to forego its nuclear research program; and then it refuses to open the pages of the community’s own newspaper to a legitimate alternate view (one embraced by no less a figure than Barack Obama). Once again, is it any wonder that so many feel so alienated from such insularity?
Many of the leaders of the community make the mistake of seeing criticism of the sort I articulate as expressing hostility for it or for Israel. That is yet another mistake as I come from the very same community and was shaped in formative ways by it. We silence our dissenters at our peril for they are like the proverbial canary in a coal mine. They bring attention to issues the majority would prefer to ignore. They raise impertinent, uncomfortable questions. This is all the more reason to value them and the role they play.
Instead, in this community the leader of StandWithUs writes to my fellow Jewish peace activists that I require mental health intervention. This unfortunately, represents the quality of some of our local leaders. And to my regret StandWithUs is considered a respected member of our community despite the slime and smear they spread. They’re a co-sponsor of the federation’s Iran conference. They’re looked to for guidance on issues related to Israel. To me, this feels like putting the patients in charge of the asylum (not that Seattle’s Jewish community is a mental asylum). Personally, the ascendance of SWU indicates to me yet another failure of leadership. Why will no one come forward and say that an organization that spreads lies about its Jewish enemies is not worthy of being a leader in this community?
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.