I am so rarely angry. Savlanut, “serenity,” in the face of insult is my superpower. But recently someone stepped on a landmine I barely knew I had: the tension between my work among my people and my concern for all peoples. Accused, I was, of not caring enough for those other than Jews. Of working only for Jews.
I should have seen it coming. Indeed, I am a Jew and I see the world through Judaism’s prism. Yet everything I do Jewishly is to benefit all, regardless of identity. I often have sectarian, parochial priorities in reaching out to Jews who care enough about Jewish values because my work is to move the Jewish community to care for everyone. Do not mistake this focus on Jews for selfishness. To be accused of this! Against what I know I stand for. I lost my temper, on my feet and yelling into a telephone. Let me clarify then.
There are plenty Jews in my world of the predominantly young and unaffiliated who are tired of the drumming of “Jew Jew Jew” and recoil from its incessant self-centered, self-referential, self-ish concerns. Every synagogue is just a ghetto to lock out the goyyim, they feel, every Jewish social event serves the agenda of the claustrophobic “marry a Jew!” crowd. Tied to a community that is lacking in fulfillment yet insists on their loyalty, they can’t stand to be around it. I feel the same. Yet here I am, working in the Jewish world. A young career-nik.
But I do it for the Other, not myself. For those outside my tribe, not ourselves, though beneficial to us it is. I fulfill the admonishment of Rabbi Hillel “for myself” and “for others” simultaneously. Just as the encounter with the “not me” defines “me” more than I could by myself alone, my work for others through us defines our quality.
Some communal voices triumph selfishness. Find what is Jewish, they advise, and maximize it. This attitude corrupts every facet of our Jewish lives it touches.
What I abhor about the fight “against” intermarriage is the drive to identify and then root out non-Jewishness to protect us against its invasion. Jewish identity is an idea, not a bloodline; Jewish values and ideas are a legacy of appropriated Gentile ideals, not an ideology straight from Mount Sinai. Time-worn and battered, these ideas are not towers of pure Jewish creativity, but a shatnes fabric woven of surrounding influences we sometimes led but largely followed. A Jewish boat in an international fleet in a rising global sea of human thought.
Israel becomes a place where the ends justify any means because we must secure safety for the Jews first, foremost and instead of all other peoples. A country born of a global struggle for self-sovereignty and participation among the discourse of nations becomes a bitter fest of greed to hoard and preserve power for ourselves to share with no one. Israel is not just a bomb shelter, it’s the largest symbol of what Jews believe. Dominating neighbors and obstructing the self-determination of others in the UN, these actions tell the world self-defacing things.
Our communal infrastructure — federations, hospitals, schools, etc. — becomes an entrenchment of race and class privilege, where Jewish needy get saved and the rest are abandoned. The continuity panic drives philanthropists to prioritize week-long free vacations over the simple safety and well-being of the less fortunate. “To each his own” and “dog eat dog” are not in the Torah; “love thy neighbor” is.
The effort then to sort between the Jewish and non-Jewish — be it in ideas or genes — smells of what we learned at the hands of our cruelest rulers in times we’d rather forget. This is not a war of peaceniks vs. warmongers, intermarried vs. purebloods, or globe-trotting good will vs. family priority. These issues are all the same issue: the me-firsters versus everyone else.
This is how I see my work as a Jewish communal professional, and the world at large as a Jewish servant of God’s good mission: I dedicated myself to the service of others, the “everyone else” — and by doing it through the Jewish community, build us up as well. Only in the shanty town of Negev Bedouin could I so clearly hear the voices of the sages. Only by experiencing the vastness of the Catholic charitable network could I see how far behind we are. Only by lifting a homeless man’s spirits did I understand gevurah, strength, and chesed, compassion. I saved a Jewish language from becoming lost, in myself.
To some of my peers who are so put off that Judaism, Jewishness and Israel stands only for I, me and mine:
I too am scared to death that this community has sold its birthright for a bowl of soup. My work here is to salvage what we can. A cadre of others works with me, reigniting some organizations from within, lighting new ones where possible, torching others when necessary. I am just one example of a brave new breed of Jewish communal professionals.
To my predecessors in the established Jewish institutions:
We are the generation born in the wilderness, waiting to inherit the mantle once the memory of Egypt has passed. We never lived the terror of the past, which we nonetheless keep and remember. But because you are paralyzed by it, you cannot fulfill our full potential. The golden calf is still freshly in your minds. And so Moses and the survivors weren’t allowed milk and honey. Only Joshua and us offspring of the wilderness.