Israel, Justice

What They Didn't Teach Me at Solomon Schechter

[pullquote align=left] Schechter did not teach us about Palestinians.
[/pullquote]My students and I all try to look our best for the first day of school, with new hairstyles and fancy school supplies that we believe will allow us the new start we seek each year. For me, the start of a new school year coincides with the Jewish High Holidays, which also allow the chance for renewal, for starting from a blank page.

What I love most about the beginning of the school year and the High Holidays, however, is not the opportunity for starting anew. It’s the comfort in knowing how many people are experiencing the same things at that same time. Students and teachers alike lost sleep in anticipation of, and then actually experiencing the big day; Jewish people all over reciting the same prayers in their farflung communities.

My love of the communal experience of the High Holidays might also explain why, every year for thirteen years, I so eagerly anticipated the New York City Salute to Israel Parade. What could be better than spending a Sunday walking down Fifth Avenue with my classmates and family, singing along to familiar Jewish folk songs playing in the background? My family would arrive at the Solomon Schechter Day School meeting spot and I’d find my friends. A parent volunteer would hand us our new brightly-colored, Israel-themed T-shirts. Throughout the day I would run into dozens of friends and acquaintances—marchers and onlookers from various parts of my Jewish life. In my memories, people smiled, waved, and hugged, all the while carrying Israeli flags. It was comforting to see so many familiar faces congregating in the same place year after year. Though I would only later discover that this was not the case, it felt as though all the jews in New York were doing the same thing at the same time and I loved that.

It was a given that Schechter marched annually in the Salute to Israel Parade. This was just another way to express our Jewishness, like celebrating Shabbat every week, or keeping Kosher, or going to shul.

Each year, though, there was a moment that stood apart from the rest of the day. As we marched, we would inevitably reach protesters carrying Palestinian flags and signs that I couldn’t read because we went by too quickly. My sense of safety and pride was erased. Fear overcame me; as far as I understood, these people hated me just because I was Jewish. “How could Jews stand with them?” I wondered. In spite of this fear, I wanted to stop for a moment, to look a little longer at their signs, and to ask questions. But I did what I was told to do: sing “Am Yisrael Chai” louder, look straight ahead, and keep marching. There was no place to engage, especially not on a day dedicated to celebrating the State of Israel. We would keep marching, and I would soon forget about it, returning to singing and celebrating.

This was not a coincidence or an isolated incident. At Schechter, while learning about Judaism necessitated asking questions and digging deeper, learning about Israel did not. We were taught  that, as Jews, we were never completely safe outside of Israel. Israel was our protector, our safe haven, and we were obligated, in turn, to defend Israel to those who didn’t understand. Anti-Semitism took one form and that was anti-Zionism, and I was to respond to that anti-Semitism by advocating for Israel.

Schechter did not teach us about Palestinians. We were taught that the weak, nascent State of Israel had come into existence after being attacked on all sides, and winning. During Operation Cast Lead my Hebrew teacher made an announcement to the class: “Israel needs our support right now. It is not the time to question her.” But my parents had begun discussing Israel’s human rights violations with me. I was torn. Did I have a Jewish obligation to defend Israel, without question, despite its human rights abuses? School was clearly not the space to explore that question.

We all looked forward to our three-week trip to Israel at the end of our senior year, a culmination of the high school experience. I sold the most cookies in our class fundraiser for the journey. At no point on the trip did anyone mention “Palestinians” or “Occupation.” We did, however, get an “authentic Bedouin experience” complete with trying on Bedouin attire and tasting Bedouin food. We rode donkeys. We visited a Druze home, where we learned that Druze people are Zionists. We went to beautiful Kabbalot Shabbat (Friday night Shabbat services), three times. We went to the Kotel and to Yad Vashem. We visited Kibbutz Misgav-Am, the northernmost Kibbutz in Israel, overlooking the Lebanon border. An American member of the kibbutz spoke with us, describing with both fear and pride what it was like to live so close to Lebanon, somehow justifying the gun he was holding. We visited Ir David, and I was awed by the artifacts and excavation on that site.

During the trip, the Israeli army raided a flotilla headed towards Gaza with humanitarian aid. Itzik, our tour guide (the same tour guide who had led every Schechter senior trip), explained that Israel had no other choice. Its security was at stake. I called my dad who mentioned a perspective that I had not heard from anyone else that trip; that actually the flotilla raid was the result of an immoral blockade that Israel held on Gaza, and that perhaps the blockade should be lifted. I felt nervous sharing this with my classmates and kept silent when the school added a speaker to the itinerary, one who further defended Israel’s actions during the flotilla raid, explaining that Israel was protecting the Jewish people.

#YouNeverToldMe IfNotNow campaign site

In the final weeks of my final year at Schechter, I was beginning to understand that information was missing from the story. When I started my first year in college, I continued to seek truth in my Israel-related activities, which led me to a trip to Israel and the West Bank. I wondered, why had Schechter never explicitly taken us to the West Bank (and when we did cross the Green Line—the border that separates Israel from the Occupied Territories—we visited Jewish Settlements and were uninformed of their legal status)?

I revisited many places and relearned history, this time including Palestinians in the story. I visited Ir David for the second time and I learned, for the first time, that the excavation of Ir David is destroying the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. I visited Hebron where I saw Palestinians and Jews living in the same city under separate and unequal systems of law.

I am endlessly grateful for my Schechter education. I have a rich understanding and love for Jewish ritual and traditions. Thanks to my 10th grade Rabbinics teacher, I know Aramaic Tricks to Wow Your Friends at Cocktail Parties (they’re actually very cool), and have deep respect for Talmudic thinking. I continue to participate in a vibrant Jewish community and to live a meaningful Jewish life that incorporates many elements of my Conservative upbringing. It is for these reasons that I feel so disappointed by the Conservative Movement’s silence and inaction around the Occupation. This directly contradicts the values I gained from the Conservative movement—values of community, righteousness, and questioning.

Recently, I attended Shabbat services with my parents at their Conservative synagogue on Long Island. The service was beautiful as always, but little did I know that the dinner that followed was “Celebrate Israel” – themed. Throughout the dinner, members of the congregation stood up and shared memories of significant experiences they’d had in Israel. It appeared that there was basic agreement among the congregants on the subject. “Israel isn’t perfect, but we love her” everyone seemed to be saying. I hoped that one person, just one, would explain, in explicit terms, why Israel isn’t perfect, and why it is important that we discuss this. I had been away from the Conservative establishment since I’d graduated—six years—and wanted to believe that the Conservative Movement had grown with me. But there was no mention of the Occupation, no mention of Palestinians.

Today was my first day of school, as it was for countless teachers and students across New York City. I have a new haircut and a new backpack and am thinking of the ways I will be a better teacher this year. I am also thinking about where to spend the high holidays and how they can be most meaningful this year. Sadly, the Conservative movement has forced me, along with many other young Jews, to make a choice between the community I grew up with and living a Jewish life that reflects all my values. I have been let down by the institutions that claim to speak for me; their commitment to supporting Israel so unwavering that they remain silent when Trump empowers white-supremacists and neo-Nazis.

In my search for a holistic Judaism that confronts difficult truths, I’ve found IfNotNow —a community of Jews who seek to end American Jewish support for the Occupation. Standing with IfNotNow, I feel what I used to feel at the Salute to Israel Parade: passion, community, shared identity; and I am proud to be involved with IfNotNow alongside many other folks from my Solomon Schechter days. We value the Jewish experiences of our childhoods but seek an ethical Judaism that sees urgency in the Occupation, that speaks out against Trump and neo-Nazis, that says Black Lives Matter, that fights anti-Semitism and that stands for freedom and dignity for all people.
Adina graduated from Solomon Schechter in 2010 and Barnard College in 2015. She now lives in New York City where she teaches fourth grade and is active in IfNotNow.

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