Identity, Justice

Reinterpreting Jewish communal service

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.

10 thoughts on “Reinterpreting Jewish communal service

  1. I’m ambivalent here. I hear your frustration, but I’m not sure it’s a
    fair charge that federations and hospitals care only about Jews. To he contrary, I’m pretty sure that they help a lot of people who aren’t Jewish or related to the Jewish community in any way.
    I also agree that the Jewish community’s work for justice shouldn’t just be about justice for Jews. To the contrary, it’s definitely part of the Jewish mission to bring about a messianic age for all. Otoh, there is a practical stream that runs through Judaism which does emphasize that care begins at home. One makes sure that one has enough to eat oneself before feeding others. Our tradition is not one of those
    that valorizes the kind of person who gives everything away in their happy saintliness and leaves their own family impoverished. I don’t find that “saintly” at all, and neither does the tradition. Because of this, there is a traditional hierarchy of who gets helped first -and so it’s self, family, Jewish community, and only then the rest of the world. I think where I differ with both you and “them”
    is that we have to make a choice. Just because family comes first doesn’t mean that we don’t simultaneously have obligations to others.
    Perhaps it’s charity fatigue that makes people fell they can’t possibly help everyone, so they have to choose one or the other, but I think that that’s bunk. There’s enough in each of us to help both our family and the rest of the world. Maybe not everyone, and maybe the work isn’t finished with us, but if we each picked a couple of things and worked on them, it would sure make a big dent in the conditions of the world. And hey, it would be doing the mission god put us here for, as well.

  2. KFJ,
    I am in awe of your passion, and inspired by your conviction. What I don’t understand is why you adopt the “us vs. them” division that you spend so much time criticizing. Why must the Jewish community choose one side (helping needy people, Jewish or otherwise) vs. another (supporting Jews and Jewish institutions)?
    I agree that Jewish communal dollars don’t go far enough in helping those in need. They don’t go far enough in ANY of the areas in which they’re invested. But why is it “dog eat dog” to suggest that the Jewish community must be focused not just on helping people today, but ensuring that future generations of Jews – the people with which the Jewish community surely has the most dialogue and connection – are committed to helping others in 20, 30, 100 years? As the JEWISH community, naturally it will be most closely connected to JEWISH values, many of which you so eloquently cite in your post. But “loving thy neighbor” is in the same text as “teach your children.” And if we can’t fully achieve both, neither should we abandon them. “It is not for you to complete the task…” and all that.
    Thank you for your jolt of fire and inspiration this morning – it will carry me through the day. But let’s not sit apart! Let’s your perspective and mine work together to better serve those in need today, and tomorrow.

  3. It seems to me that, essentially, this entire post buys into the biggest lie ever told the Jewish people: That we are only as good as non-Jews think we are. This, by definition, means that we are reliant, entirely, on non-Jewish opinion. If non-Jews consider us too selfish, exclusive, introverted, particularist, etc.; then this is akin to a divine condemnation for which we ought to engage in cosmic repentence. Non-Jews, fascinatingly enough, never think of things in these terms, and consider it perfectly acceptable to look after their own interests and concerns. Is it not possible that the best thing for the Jews is to liberate themselves from non-Jewish tyranny and to go as everyone does? In other words, think and act for themselves?

  4. Bowl of soup = State of Israel.
    Mmmm tasty, but soon it will have been consumed….

    Hell, it doesn’t even taste so great. And the portions — so small!
    and to go as everyone does
    = “ke-khol ha-goyim”

  5. I delivered a drash on Jonah last Yom Kippur. It was so poorly received that I have been wondering whether I have a place in my synagogue and in the wider Jewish community. Should you be interested, pleas go to my blog––and read under the heading “Adonai Echad.”
    Thanks very much for your essay above.

  6. It is the task of a nation to take care of its own. That’s the purpose of it’s existence. Not to score points in a global beauty competition, or to be a light unto the nations.
    We are human beings. And as Jewish human beings we have the right to be like any other human being. Which means believing in our own truth, maintaining our own culture, protecting our own territory, and yes being warlike and aggressive when somebody tries to kill our civilians. It’s not racist, it’s not chauvinist. It’s human.
    You call that selfish? Fine, it’s a selfish world. Look around. It’s not going to change soon. We are humans, we will stay humans until somebody imposes a global dictatorship and starts playing around with our DNA in order to create utopia. That will be the end of humanity and you’ll have your perfect society of selfless automatons.

  7. My response to Levnick:
    I don’t share KFJ’s views on many things. I’m a Zionist, but not at all a Likudnik. The latter’s ideology is folly, the former is not. I am personally satisfied with the nature of the overwhelming majority of Jewish community service in the diaspora, where I live. I am able to laugh off political partisans (like ZOA, etc.) as representing partisans – not Zionism writ large. This, I think, is a matter of perspective.
    But let’s be honest about a few things. First of all, ZOA, Commentary, and – to a lesser extent until recently (clearly) – AJC have sought to corner the market on Zionism in the Diaspora. They haven’t been so successful in determining opinion, as they have in polarizing the debate. I think KFJ has drunk the Kool Aid on this, and decided if that’s what Zionism is, he’d better be against it. Being steeped in Labor Zionism from birth affords me the perspective to realize how silly that is. But, if you were to listen to ZOA, for example, Labor Zionists are anti-Zionists in disguise, and J-Street is a front for those who would destroy Israel. Pigs in blankets, if you will. Treyf with a side of horse radish. I’ve heard it all, and it’s all nonsense.
    Second, “endogamy” – as Lewis calls it, need not be racist. But, come on, it is often pretty nasty and certainly was commonly racist. We’ve all been in the room when our parents or our friends’ and cousin’s parents decried dating choices in blatantly racist terms. Being half-Irish, I’ve even been asked, in that context, if my Dad had a drinking problem. Let’s not lie about that – we’re not children. But let’s also not pretend, with KFJ, that this kind of racism is a persistent problem in the diaspora. On the other hand, it is pretty obviously disappearing within a generation. We love our parents and grandparents. But we wish they were different in this regard.
    The Orthodox Community has been harping on the “silent holocaust”, etc., lately, and their success in (re)producing Jews and all-Jewish families in an attempt to sell Orthodoxy to other Jews. That’s not necessarily racist, but it’s ugly, stupid, and it alienates Jews. It certainly alienates me. People who think of intermarried families as holocaust victims that way aren’t necessarily racist. Maybe some are. But I’m not going to bother finding out. I don’t care: they can stick it. As far as they are concerned, I’m dead and buried in a mass grave. Thankfully the “silent Holocaust” some would foist on us was considerably less deadly than the actual holocaust. As a silent-holocaust survivor, I don’t feel particularly dead.
    Third, this self-hating/self-loving Jew thing is tiresome. It’s a bunch of half-baked psychoanalysis that runs through this entire website . It’s also ugly, and alienating. It’s pathetic to see Jews using the language against each other as if it was somehow an interesting concept with explanatory value. Instead, it’s just as pathetic as it appears when other demographics use similar terms like ‘Uncle Tom’ and ‘House Negro’. To see the sycophantic commentators praising the article on that score is fairly amusing. Don’t expect the cream of the intellectual crop here.
    Fourth, and related to the last point, political universalism is the essential tenet of contemporary liberalism. Liberals believe that justice is fairness reflexively. Liberal Jews in the diaspora, overwhelmingly educated, are contemporary liberals par excellence. Dissonance is normal, and going overboard to correct a perceived unfairness is a normal response to such dissonance. But this reaction is not a psychological disorder, nor is it anti-semitism. As I said before, it is a matter of perspective. As I’ve said, I think KFJ is wrong about quite a lot. We all need to think more deliberately, and less anachronistically. KFJ seems to write as if he were stuck in the 1960’s. So do people here.

  8. KFJ: Sorry but your message is just as filled with not getting it in the least at best and self-hatred at worst. As part of those who think that it’s okay to try to staunch your own arterial wound before applying band-aids to others, your denigration of Israel- a country dying of thirst for peace facing a floe who wants their total annihilation- and your denunciation of any of us who try to strengthen Jewish identity so that there is someone left to self flagellate about the Jewish values that you decry and denigrate is a sad commentary on your point of view, work and message. No wonder you’re so angry- that remark must have really hit you where you live, chaver- right at the intersection of oblivion and distortion. Jews are dedicated to the truth and here’s how to find some: 1. Study Torah until you understand what it means to be a Bracha, a blessing to the world without tainting what you think others say with xenophobia. Try to get it right and shed some of your self-righteousness; it is not an adornment to you. 2. Visit some of those places you put down, the places that try to build Jewish community, Jewish consciousness and caring and listen to what they’re really saying as opposed to the ventriloquist act you are pulling. Let the truth blow through you and some of your rage will resolve- or at least you’ll realize what it is you are really angry at. Kol Tuv.

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