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Saturday, December 27, 2014

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Making way for light and air

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Although Jews have never had it as good as we have it now, antisemitism is still rampant. It manifests itself in many ways, especially in crowds, from gay pride parades to political rallies. Many current expressions of the perennial disdain for Jews are disguised as criticisms of Israeli policies, but some in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and its offshoots have also gone back to the old canard: Jews are capitalist blood-suckers responsible for today’s financial woes. 

It’s therefore tempting to dismiss the underlying discontent with the status quo of the young protesters and forget that their inspiration isn’t only student demonstrations in Chile and the Arab Spring, but also last summer’s tents on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. Since then, many tents have been erected in public places in cities around the world, including Canada.

Though the emphasis of the protests is the yawning gap between haves and have-nots, other issues have also emerged. The “Occupy Judaism” movement is a case in point. The Kol Nidre service in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, where the Wall Street protesters were camping out, was attended by more than 1,000 people. Organizers also built a sukkah, and Jews celebrated Simchat Torah there.

Their Jewish agenda may be vague, but self-hatred isn’t on it. It’s mainly an expression of dissatisfaction with the atrophy and the crass materialism that young Jews often experience in their own communities. They want more Judaism, not less.

By pointing to the absence of a specific platform, Jewish leaders deny the young credibility and ascribe to them base motives. Accusing protesters of muddled and confused thinking is a convenient way of dismissing them as irrelevant.

Although Jewish communal leaders lament that a growing number of young Jews are unaffiliated, they fail to see that many become that way not out of indifference but out of frustration at the lack of authentic Judaism in Jewish communal life. They’re cynical about those they perceive as self-seeking and self-important machers who masquerade as exponents and defenders of Judaism. 

Gary Rosenblatt of New York’s Jewish Week has written: “There is a new pulse of Jewish expression out there. You can embrace it as grass-roots authenticity or feel threatened by it as anti-establishment. But don’t dismiss the fact that significant numbers of American Jews, particularly among the young, are combining politics and faith in ways that blend a discontent with those in authority and an interest in exploring deeper Jewish values.”

There are similar stirrings in Canada, even though Jews here tend to be more cautious in expressing dissent. But that shouldn’t stop federations, congregations and other organizations that seek to harness Jewish commitment from learning what’s happening out there by responding positively to the current quest for commitment without conformity.

Nor should the deplorable instances of antisemitism and expressions of hostility to Israel in the protest movement blind us to the many other things that are being said there. And that many caring and committed Jews are saying them.

The protests are likely to cause discomfort in Jewish institutions because now, as throughout history, organized Jewry depends on philanthropy. But the disproportionate amassing of wealth, even when some of it is given away as charity, has become the prime target of current anti-establishment slogans. Understandably, grateful institutional recipients of donations that help erect impressive buildings and maintain the Jewish bureaucracy aren’t in a position to applaud the protesters, even when they seem to have kosher agendas, celebrate Jewish holidays and pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as they march.

I admit that I, too, would have been more inhibited writing this had I still had the responsibility for a congregation or served on Jewish communal boards. But I’d like to think that I’d have overcome my qualms in an effort to make sure that the buildings we so proudly erect don’t stay empty while those expected to use them study and pray in the park.

There may even be times when pulling down existing structures is more wholesome than keeping them as status symbols. Sweden’s celebrated writer August Strindberg, a hero of my youth, comes to mind. A century ago, he challenged those who attacked champions of change because they didn’t offer specific alternatives. In a famous poem, he made the protesters argue: “For light and air we’re making way! Is it not well that we are trying?”

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