I wish all of you a happy, healthy and sweet New Year. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.
DONATE: I created a Facebook Fundraiser on my birthday to support my activism, journalism, and research; along with my fiscal sponsor, the Northwest Alliance for Alternative Media. If you have a Facebook account I invite you to make a donation.
My headline is deliberately incendiary in order to emphasize the dire circumstances of American Jewish life. I acknowledge with Mark Twain that reports of the death of American Judaism may be somewhat exaggerated. But not by much.
The leadership, denominations, and organizations of the mainstream Jewish community are increasingly irrelevant and dying. They reflect the interests of older, wealthy Jews and diverge significantly from those of younger Jews. The former grew up with the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, Aipac, and Israel Bonds. The latter have little or no interest in their “father’s Oldsmobile.” The older generation may continue to affiliate with the Democratic Party. But they are centrist rather than progressive. The younger generation wants nothing to do with the corporate wing of the Party, represented by septuagenarian presidential candidates like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton (Bernie Sanders is an exception).
Older American Jews, the ones funding the above mainstream organizations, are relatively depoliticized compared to the younger generation. If there is to be politics, it must be politics within a limited range of discourse. This is especially true regarding Israel. No BDS. No Nakba or apartheid. Israeli “Arabs” may be seen (i.e. acknowledged), but not heard. Jewish traditions are seen mainly through a nostalgic lens. Going to shul is reserved mainly for High Holidays. The two days (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) when you dress up, don your kippah, grab a prayer book and try to follow along with the minimal Hebrew learned in religious school, and listen attentively, if passively to the rabbi’s boring sermon.
Zionists and the older generation lay the blame for this phenomenon at the feet of the arch bogeyman, assimilation. Supposedly, we are intermarrying at such a fast rate that we are dying off as we “marry out.” This is, of course, a false conception. Jews who marry non-Jews often raise their children as Jews. Not to mention that there is an increasing number of Jews of Color who are adding another strand of diversity to the tapestry of American Jewish life.
There once was a plethora of Jewish publications representing diverse and divergent political and religious viewpoints. Hadassah had the most popular Jewish magazine in the country. The Jewish Forward published print editions in English and Yiddish. There were Present Tense, Davka, Genesis 2, Commentary and a score of others. Today, most of them are gone, artifacts of an American Jewish past. If any continue to exist, they are shells of their former selves.
At one time, Jewish philanthropy was the envy of all other American charitable giving. Jewish federations raised hundreds of millions every year for local social services and Israel. Today giving has declined drastically as a younger generation spreads its wealth among a much more diverse array of causes, including many that are secular and non-Jewish. Instead of giving to the local federation, they give to their college alma mater, the symphony, the museum, and to other personal causes.
This carries over into synagogue life. Though the majority of American Jews are unaffiliated, many of those who are affiliated belong to either Conservative, Reform or Orthodox synagogues. Synagogue life has always been largely homogenous, with a narrow and conventional consensus of ideas taught children in Hebrew school regarding Israel and other issues. But at least in the past, there were rabbis and synagogues who prided themselves on their open-mindedness. Rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel (Jewish Theological Seminary), Leonard Beerman (Leo Baeck Temple), Harold Schulweis (Valley Beth Shalom), Arthur Hertzberg, and Marshall Meyer (Bnai Jeshurun) were lions for social justice. They towered above most of their peers in their commitment to prophetic values. They often stood outside the communal consensus, but by dint of their moral and social stature they enjoyed complete independence.
Today, this no longer holds true. There are few if any mavericks in American Jewish life. Those who are, have largely abandoned the mainstream community. Now there are speech limits: certain ideas and topics are verboten. Hillels on American campuses may not discuss or host programs about BDS or other issues deemed treif by the white, male national board of Hillel International. They may not host speakers who have ever endorsed any of these forbidden topics.
As a result, Conservative Judaism, in which I grew up, is a movement in crisis. It is bleeding members. While Reform Judaism remains far and away the most popular denomination, Orthodox Judaism is growing at a far faster rate. In the coming decades, it could eclipse Reform; while Conservative Judaism may disappear or remain a small vestige of its former self. The Conservative movement, more than the others, faces an identity crisis. It has always stood for a middle road between Reform and Orthodoxy. But American Jewish life no longer has much of a middle road. Jews have largely chosen either the right or the left. The center has not held.
IHRA: Defending the Indefensible
An example of the impoverishment of Jewish life is the politicization of anti-Semitism, so that it becomes a weapon used to defend Israel from its critics, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. The IHRA definition falsely labels criticism of Israel or support for BDS as anti-Semitic. That effectively excommunicates all Jews who think critically about Israel. And a great many of them are members of this younger generation.
Here in Seattle, for example, the local Jewish federation put forward the IHRA definition as a community-wide statement on the subject. It is no such thing. Whoever dreamed up this initiative, deliberately excluded the very Jewish groups and individuals who it sought to read out of the community: If Not Now, Jewish Voice for Peace, etc. Some of the dissidents have published this statement of protest. If you’re inclined, I invite you to sign it.
Why would anyone who truly wanted to represent the full diversity of the community do such a thing? Possibly because these American Jews are so frightened, so embattled, that they conceive of the world as the enemy of the Jewish people. They even see their fellow Jews as the enemy, if they stray from consensus discourse. THis, as I’ve written before, bespeaks the impoverishment of American Jewish life. We used to be a vibrant community that embraced independent thought. Now we have turned into automatons repeating the same few phrases like a robotic mantra: “Jewish democratic state,” “two-state solution,” “only democracy in the Middle East,” etc. All phrases that have long been obsolete.
The Decline of the American Rabbinate: ‘None of Us are Prophets’
All this, by way of introducing this woe begotten article from the Los Angeles Times, which polled local rabbis on what subjects their High Holiday sermons would address; and whether they would contain political content. The vast majority answered, No. No politics. Too divisive. Too threatening. Too much rocking the boat makes congregants sea-sick, etc.
This Beverly Hills rabbi at a modern Orthodox shul said it succinctly:
“People love to say, ‘Talk about politics,’ but none of us are prophets — it’s not our job,” Shofet said. “It takes away from the Torah, from our direct understanding. We have to understand that the only one we can turn to for protection is not government, it’s [God].”
An utterly preposterous argument. Abraham Joshua Heschel was as close to a latter-day prophet was any Jew could be. Did he say in his magnificent books embracing civil rights and social justice: “It’s not my job?” Did he say: abandon political engagement and trust only in God for salvation? What a betrayal of prophetic Judaism.
This rousing ‘endorsement’ of progressive Jewish values comes from the current rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple, which was home to Leonard Beerman’s thunderous sermons for 40 years:
“From the outside, people look at California as a whole, at Los Angeles, and at Jewish Los Angeles in particular as hyper-liberal,” said Rabbi Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple in Bel-Air. “But very few congregations would say they don’t have a meaningful mixture” of liberal and conservative members.
Harold Schulweis’ successor at Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants those progressive values represented by his rabbinic mentor, but he doesn’t want to alienate his right-wing congregants (who are implied in the euphemism “heterogeneous”):
“We’re all caught between two poles: On the one hand, we are culturally alive, politically alive people; on the other hand, those of us who have heterogeneous congregations want to preserve our own communities,”
The Orthodox community tends to be the least embracing of universalism and the most particularist and parochial in its view of Jewish interests. This holds true for this local rabbi:
One of the things I learned from my experiences [speaking about politics] was it’s just wrong for the rabbi to cause people to feel like strangers in their own synagogue,” said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Pico-Robertson, an Orthodox synagogue whose positions on LGBTQ inclusion and female leadership put it at the movement’s leftmost flank. “When I want to talk about specific policy — and this has been the case in regard to immigration in particular — I don’t do it from the pulpit.”
In other words, when this rabbi wants to talk about social justice or domestic politics he can’t do it in shul because his congregants don’t find it central to their Jewish concerns. These are all secular issues that don’t belong in the House of God. But the Orthodox too want to have their cake and eat it too. So they fulfill their obligations to their conscience by engaging in social justice outside the bounds of God’s sanctuary:
Instead, Kanefsky led a group of congregants to the U.S.–Mexico border to meet asylum seekers being released from immigration detention in January…
One of only two rabbis who offered unfettered support to the linkage between Jewish prophetic values and political engagement was Sharon Brous, who said:
“There’s no such thing as decoupling religion and politics,” Ikar Rabbi Sharon Brous said. “It’s a talking point used to silence those who come from the prophetic tradition, people who really believe our tradition calls us to stand with the poor, the vulnerable and the stranger.”
Which is all very well, until you discover that Brous was one of the rabbis engaged to lecture Muslim leaders as part of the Shalom Hartmann Institute’s normalization project, the Muslim Leadership Institute. It was conceived by ex-JDL leader and journalist, Yossi Klein Halevi, and his partner, Gulenist imam, Abdullah Antepli, as a means of “educating” young Muslim future leaders about the positive aspects of Zionism and Israel. It appears that Brous’ politics are progressive up to the water’s edge. But once she jumps in she becomes a liberal Zionist and reverts to her pro-Israel roots.
The rabbi of the iconic Reform institution, Wilshire Blvd. Temple, lays out a bowdlerized version of the prophetic tradition here:
Rabbi Steve Leder, senior rabbi of the venerable Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who steers clear of politics. “Instead of me issuing proclamations, we’ve built a social services center at one of our campuses where we feed 50,000 people a year, and we provide free vision and dental care for 5,000, and free ESL. That’s my statement.”
In other words, the rabbi can’t embrace progressive values inside the shul because it would alienate the grey-haired matrons and captains of industry housed in their Beverly Hills and Bel Air mansions, from which they look down on a city filled with the “tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse…the homeless and the tempest-tost.” No lifting of a lamp beside the golden door for this Jewish 1%. They tell Rabbi Leder to assuage his conscience and their own by fulfilling their values far away from the holy sanctuary.
Leder’s social service projects are not a real “statement.” Rather they are a cop-out. A way to say we can maintain a division between Judaism and politics by doing the latter far away from the former.