What do you know about refugees in Israel?

Sunday November 10th and Monday November 11th, I had the privilege to attend the American University Center for Israel Studies’s first ever Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel Conference.  For my long-time readers, you know this is a topic near and dear to my heart.  I’ve marched and organized and written about this topic over and over again.  You can read about some of my adventures with Burmese, Darfuris, Eritreans, Tibetans, West Africanspro-refugee activism, racism, more racism, politics, and the Palestinian refugee tie-in.  I was one of the lead organizers of Olim and Internationals for Refugees, including organizing a march we did through the streets of Tel Aviv and our participation in broader rallies.

All of which is to say I was thrilled to find out that the message activists had been fighting for in Israel had reached America.  This conference was academic in nature but including the voices of passionate activists such as Mutasim Ali, Dawit Demoz, and Julie Fisher.  Furthermore, this was the first conference of its kind.  While the issue is hotly debated in Israel, it is barely on the radar screen of American Jewry.  But that is changing, as this conference attests.  In addition, I recently attended the J Street conference which held a session on refugees in Israel as well.  I am happy to see American Jews standing up and taking notice as the Netanyahu government excludes, criminalizes, and represses African refugees who are seeking safety and freedom from persecution.

Here are a few basic takeaways from the conference and about the refugees and asylum seekers:

  1. There were over 60,000 refugees in Israel at their peak.  Today, the number is about half, at approximately 32,000.  This is due to the government pushing people to take the risky journey to repatriate to third party countries such as Rwanda and Uganda as well as building a border fence between Israel and Egypt.  There are no new arrivals due to this fence.
  2. Almost all refugees were forced into detention facilities upon their arrival to Israel.
  3. Israeli society was ambivalent or non-hostile towards refugees initially, but as the government ramped up incitement and refugees were put in already impoverished areas of South Tel Aviv, the conflict between existing residents and the new arrivals reached new heights.  Today, incitement is so grave that an African refugee childcare center had its playground defaced with feces and dead rodents and the Minister of Culture referred to Africans as a “cancer”.
  4. While perhaps a minority, thousands of Israelis are standing up for refugees and engaging in meaningful activism alongside them.  Numerous NGO’s have sprouted up over the past few decades and rallies in the tens of thousands have been held, including a massive one I attended in 2018 as the government tried to deport Sudanese and Eritreans.
  5. Israel’s draconian immigration and refugee policies are not unique.  Australia has offshore detention facilities.  The U.S. is separating children from their families.  Hungary built a fence around its border to stop Syrians from entering.  Even Denmark was mentioned as a country now taking a hardline.  The world as a whole is seeing an increase in nationalism and exclusionary policies towards refugees and Israel is one among many countries experiencing this trend.
  6. What is unique is that Israel brands itself as a country to which refugees (who are Jewish) can escape.  Like the U.S., when ruled by gentler politicians.  Yet despite the horrific history which plagued the families of Israeli Jews for centuries, many Israelis oppose non-Jewish refugees’ presence in their country.  Due to the fear of the “other” (both Arab and, in this case, largely African) and the “demographic threat”, many Israelis are reluctant to give non-Jewish refugees a home.  This was to many panelists a disappointment, as many of the original writers of U.N. refugee laws were Jews and Holocaust survivors.

There were many other topics discussed at the conference, including a fascinating art exhibit which you can still visit at the Katzen Center.  These items above are just a few I’m taking away with me.

Another thing I’m taking away with me is our capacity to make a difference.  In a world increasingly charred by cruelty and shaped by leaders who lack basic empathy, we can do something to counter this trend.  Write, read, listen, march, or attend a conference like this one.  Because if you don’t educate yourself, no one will do it for you.

 

Hope

A quick glance at the news is enough to make your stomach turn.

Today over 20 Iraqis were massacred by their government.  Hezbollah thugs attacked peaceful protestors in Beirut.  Donald Trump continues to abandon Kurdish allies to Turkish aggression in northern Syria.  Settlers attacked IDF soldiers in the West Bank.

And yet there are rays of hope.  The protestors in Beirut, in particular, inspire me.  Fed up with ineffective government, they have put aside their (numerous and strong) sectarian affiliations to push for a clean house.  Sunnis are protesting Sunni politicians.  Shiiites, Shiites.  Christians, Christian leaders.  The rallying cry of these protestors is beautiful: “kullun ya3ni kullun”.  All of them means all of them.  Meaning not a single politician is being spared the anger of these idealistic protestors.  People brave enough to speak out as the country experiences a severe economic crisis and in a place where politicians don’t take kindly to criticism.  A place that has known Civil War.

They are a role model for what we should all be doing.  Instead of engaging in ceaseless blaming of one group against another, we should realize that the people up top enjoy this conflict.  While we tear each other to shreds because we pray or speak or look differently, our basic needs go unmet.  Patients die because of lack of care, trash goes uncollected, jobs become more scarce, and the rent continues to skyrocket as if none of it was happening at all.

It’s time to unite against the few who control our fate and yet care so little about it.  Israel could learn a lot from the Lebanese protests, especially as Benny Gantz is now charged with trying to form a government.  If he doesn’t, we will see a third round of elections in a country already fed up with voting over and over again.

Much like its neighbor to the north, Israel’s political parties are almost entirely divided by ethnicity and sect.  There’s the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, the Ashkenazi ones, the secular left, the secular center, the secular center-right, the modern Orthodox, the Russians, and the Arabs.  In Lebanon, the names are different, but the concept the same.  A gaggle of Christian sects, Sunnis, Shiites, and Druze jockey for power based on group labels.  An entire bloody civil war was fought over it.  It’s depressing.

And yet there is this ray of hope coming from the north that sometimes people can put aside their partisan and sectarian labels and come together for the common good.  My hope is one day Israelis will be able to do the same, as they briefly did when they protested against rising house prices.  Perhaps the most salient issue in Israel today, yet one repeatedly shunted aside in favor of endless ethnic conflict both within and externally.

This is not easy.  But my hope is that the fervor gripping young Lebanese people can inspire Israelis to follow suit.  Only by putting human interests first will we be able to make the difference we need to see in the world.  And perhaps one day, God willing, we’ll see Lebanese and Israelis joining together in protesting for justice.  In one straight line from Beirut to Tel Aviv, like the British colonial trains used to run.  If you will it, it is not a dream.

Shabbat shalom.

 

Repose

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is the concept of rest.  And with it, the concept of work.  Shabbat, after all, is about ceasing to work.  And yet we do all sorts of things on Shabbat even in the most Orthodox setting- walking, eating, drinking, chopping fruits and veggies, talking, and more.  Sometimes these activities require real effort- conversation doesn’t always come easy, especially with certain guests at your table.  And inevitably, walking to synagogue or a friend’s house could be quite a shlep depending on where you live.  Shabbat is about ceasing to work- but it’s not about ceasing to do.

Which leaves open the question of what is work?  The traditional understanding of the concept is that one should not be productive on Shabbat.  In other words, no cooking, no receiving money, nothing that involves creating new things.  From this point, new laws evolved that today are deeply contentious among various types of observant Jews- Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and otherwise.  For example, Reform and Conservative Jews typically use electricity whereas Orthodox Jews do not believe this is Shabbat-appropriate behavior.  This is related to the concept of kindling a flame, which in olden times was typically used to cook.  Most liberal Jews would say Orthodox observance takes the concept too far and many Orthodox Jews feel it is simply religious law taken to its logical next step.

So let’s work from the premise that while we have differing interpretations of productivity, the concept of work in Judaism derives from this fraught word.  In the modern world, being “productive” is sometimes valued above concepts clearly more important.  And more critically, productivity is defined according to a certain sliding scale where certain professions and courses of work are valued above others.  After all, why does a banker or lawyer make many times the salary of a teacher?  Is an unemployed person firing off resumes every day less productive than the career coach being paid to help her?  And finally, do we sometimes come to a juncture in life where certain other goals, be it health, relationships, or something else unmonetized should take priority over productivity?  Are these other paths of living less worthy because they are unpaid?

The answer is no.  Sometimes the doing we do isn’t work in the traditional sense.  Reconnecting with a long lost friend, apologizing to someone you’ve hurt, going to the doctor to get a scary lump checked.  These are all things that require courage, action, and perseverance.  And yet our society doesn’t monetize them so the people doing these brave activities often go unnoticed.  Especially in such a heavily capitalist culture like the United States.

This Shabbat, I propose we redefine work and productivity.  Sometimes the work we do is personal in nature or is unpaid.  That’s OK- it counts as effort too.  And if you’ve created something new in the process, you’ve been productive.  If you’ve gotten new answers to important questions, you’ve been productive.  If you’ve helped someone in need, you’ve been productive.  It’s time to let go of our calculators and realize there are many ways to make a difference and to create.  Sometimes intangible things that last a lifetime.

Shabbat teaches us to take a break from productivity.  It’s not enough to simply not go to an office.  It’s about creating an intentionality dividing the hard work you do during the week- whatever it may be and however you define it- and cultivating the inner self.  Finding a time for repose, relaxation, song, meals with loved ones, and a deep breath before the cycle begins anew.

This Shabbat, I wish you the courage to acknowledge all the ways you’ve been productive this week, even if they aren’t written on a pay stub.  And to allow yourself also to breathe, to take a break, and recharge.  We aren’t robots- we have to recline from time to time and let ourselves enjoy.  Let ourselves smile.  And let ourselves rest.

Shabbat shalom!

A good example of why I’m a Reform Jew

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tetzei.  It is filled with lots of rules, more mitzvot (commandments) than any other portion- about a tenth of the 613 listed in the Torah.  Some of them are truly amazing, such as not gleaning your fields- designating part of your harvest “for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.”  It’s a reminder that we can’t do everything on our own.  When we farm, we benefit from soil, from rain, from other people’s labor and efforts- and a whole series of factors outside our control.  So harvesting grapes or any other plant is an intensive process that relies on a mix of luck, God’s good Earth, and hard work.  In acknowledgement that not all of this is in our control, we give back to the community and leave part of our fields for their benefit.  It’s an incredibly progressive concept and one we should continue to keep in mind today as we consider ways to give back to the community and people in need.

There are a series of other commandments in this portion that fit into a category which I find personally meaningful and contribute to society.  There are others, such as the need to wear tsitsit (the knotted fringes you might see some Jews wearing to this day) that seem either neutral or potentially positive depending on how you utilize the tradition.

And then there are those that are abhorrent and morally repulsive.

This portion includes a verse commanding men to wear men’s clothing and women to only wear women’s clothing – which some Jews to this day interpret as meaning women can’t wear pants and of course against the concept of men in any sort of “feminine” clothing or drag.  It’s something I consider personally offensive, retrogressive, and repressive of individual freedom of expression and identity.  If you consider the time it was written, we can perhaps dismiss it as a vestige of ancient ways of thinking about gender.  Ways we’re glad are being reformulated today in a more open society.

Where does this portion get really rough for the liberal-minded reader?  As Rabbi Suzanne Singer points out, there are some violently sexist portions of this text, including commandments that say:

A soldier may possess a captive woman and forcibly marry her (Deut. 21:10-14)

A bride accused of not being a virgin sullies her father’s honor, so proof of her virginity must be brought forth (Deut. 22:13-21)

A woman who is raped in a town is presumed to have given her consent if she did not scream (Deut 22:23-27)

A rapist must marry his victim; adultery involves a married woman with a man other than her husband, whether he is married or not, as the crime involved is messing with a husband’s property (Deut. 22:28-19)

A widow who has not produced a male heir must marry her dead husband’s brother to produce a son who can carry on the name of the deceased (Deut. 25:5-10)

These are verses so aggressive that I can barely read them and consider them a part of my tradition.  And yet they are.

So what do we do when our sacred text not only doesn’t match our values, not only offends, but also intrinsically opposes our most basic human ethics?

There are a variety of possible responses.  Some people prefer to interpret literally- which scares me.  Some people prefer to reinterpret- a route I sometimes find valid and other times find to be too much of a stretch.  And some people, like me in this case, prefer to say it’s just not right or relevant.

Some people would argue that I’m picking and choosing my Judaism.  It’s a criticism you’ll hear of Reform Jews by both religious fundamentalists and some hardcore atheists.  Aren’t I just molding Judaism into the value system I want, instead of reading the text for what it is?

The answer is yes.  To a degree, I am taking the text and adapting it to my values system.  Which simultaneously stems from the same text and the multigenerational tradition of which I am a part.  Otherwise, we’d still be stoning people for adultery.  In reality, every stream of Judaism (and every human being) picks and chooses the values that she or he finds meaningful and uses that wisdom to live wisely and happily.  So while one can absolutely reinterpret this text (as almost all Jews do with or without acknowledging it), the reason I’m a Reform Jew is that I accept and embrace the fact that I’m discarding part of the text.  With the insights of the modern world, sometimes there are verses that just don’t fit anymore- in fact, they never really were ethical.

None of this is to say Conservative or Orthodox or any other types of Jews are in favor of these punishments- that’s not true.  Although perhaps some rare and extremely fanatical flavors of Judaism might be.  The difference here is in approach to the text.  I am making a choice to disregard part of our tradition in favor of what I feel is an evolving, modern Judaism- one in which I could dress in drag, a woman has full rights as a human and not property, and in which rape is (or should be) properly criminalized regardless of gender.  A choice made with pride, not guilt or equivocation because a man-written text is sometimes erroneous.

Whatever branch of Judaism we come from, whatever our faith tradition, I think we can find common ground, perhaps ironically around the harshest parts of our heritage.  However we come to the appropriate conclusion that these gender-based punishments are sexist and immoral, let us find ways as Jews and as human beings to work towards a world which is more egalitarian for all.

My cover photo is of a gay rights rally I went to in Tel Aviv.  The sign says: “everyone deserves a family.”  Because the biblical prohibition on gay sex is bogus too 🙂

 

An Israel contingent on justice

This week’s Torah portion is Shoftim, or “judges”.  The word, when used as a verb, also means “they judge”.  You can read the text here.

In this portion, the famous quote “justice, justice shall you pursue” makes an appearance.  What stands out to me, though, is the rest of the quote.  Few people disagree with the concept of justice, even if we might have radically different concepts of what it means.  It is the rest of the quote which particularly intrigues me.

In the Reform translation, it reads: “justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.”  The Jewish Publication Society’s version reads: “Justice, justice shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.”

In today’s political climate, the difference between the word “inherit” and “occupy” is everything.  For now, I’ll leave it at that, but the verse clearly complicates your point of view no matter where you stand politically.  “Inherit” is a gentle word.  When someone passes away, you may find yourself with a “yerusha” or inheritance, the same root as the word used in this famous Torah quote.  It is something passive, something that comes to you- that you do not conquer.

Occupy, on the other hand, is a very different way to put things.  And without delving too deep in the morass that is Middle Eastern politics, if you’re on the progressive side of the spectrum, this biblical dictate certainly complicates our relationship with the Divine.  And our engagement with Torah itself.

And yet what intrigues me the most about this particular verse is the connection made between pursuing justice and receiving political autonomy.  In other words, the Land of Israel isn’t simply given to the Jewish people in the Bible.  This verse makes abundantly clear that it rests on the pursuit of justice for it to be fully realized.  After all, one could simply say “justice, justice shall you pursue” without any mention of the Land of Israel.  But this verse makes the connection explicit.  That our gift of self-determination is contingent, indeed dependent, on doing the right thing.

The implications are enormous.  The Bible, after all, is an incredibly political document.  To pretend otherwise is to ignore the text itself.  And the text has enormous implications for today’s world.  After all, the early Zionist movement explored other locations for a Jewish homeland, including in Africa.  But the heart pulled us in the direction of our ancestral land.  A land which did not lay empty- which is still precariously shared between two peoples.  If the text of the Torah did not include verse after verse promising the Jewish people this sliver of territory, today’s politics would be quite different.  And we might be eating yams instead of hummus.

The implications also extend to how we engage as a people in this Land.  It is, in my view, not enough that we are simply promised a piece of territory by an ancient document.  This ancient document, filled with wisdom (if sometimes in need of an update), makes clear that any society which is to flourish, to “thrive” in this Land must pursue justice.  It is far from a free pass to do as we will without regard to humanity- both our own and that of other peoples in the region.  The humanity of the poor, the humanity of refugees both Jewish and not, the humanity of Palestinians, the humanity of olim, the humanity of the stranger among us.  The humanity of every person in need.  That is the mandate we are given to pursue over and over again in the Torah.

So where does that leave us today?  It might be enough for me to suggest it as an interesting lesson for our personal lives.  To be good people, and to seek out justice however we can as individuals on a daily basis.  Something I absolutely believe in and strive to pursue.

Yet we can’t ignore the fact that Israeli elections are around the corner.  On September 17, the Israeli public will decide the next chapter of our history.  Far be it from me to endorse a particular political party, I will simply suggest that justice be a metric for our decision-making process.  Does this political party stand for the greater good of society?  Does this party seek peace and pursue it?  Does this party balance our need for security with our need to treat all humans with kindness and humaneness?

That is the barometer our Torah sets out.  There is no more repeated commandment than that which asks us to welcome the stranger.  So this election season, as frustrating as it can be, let us find an opportunity to search our hearts for compassion and wisdom.  So that Israel, the Jewish people, and all humankind can progress in a fashion worthy of the justice we must build.  And to use our self-determination responsibly, on foundations of truth and hope.

The cover photo is of me and an African refugee in Tel Aviv at a rally to support their human rights.

The liberal bias of the Torah

This week’s Torah portion is R’eih.  The word in Hebrew means “see”.  It is a command.  Enjoined upon the Jewish people to observe both the blessings and curses that life can contain.  The portion outlines a series of laws for the people to observe, with reward and punishment accordingly.  You can read the portion here.

Usually when talking about the portion for the week, we focus on the Torah.  But I propose that we actually look to the Haftarah, or accompanying prophetic reading, to understand what this portion is really about.

This week’s Haftarah portion comes from Isaiah.  Chapter 55 Verse 1 reads: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye for water, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”  Whether rich or poor, come and get your fill.  In a highly capitalistic world, this verse is an interesting affirmation of human worth regardless of wallet size.

Many think of the safety net as consisting of basic needs: food, water, and shelter.  In the verse above, though, Isaiah follows basic needs (water and food) with items that seem more optional: wine and milk.  While the prophet seem to indicate an understanding that basic needs are important, why add these seemingly superfluous or luxurious items?  After all, we hardly need wine or milk to survive, items especially precious in the ancient times in which this portion was written.

Perhaps anticipating this question, Isaiah says in the next verse: “Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread?  And your gain for that which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto Me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.”  He reminds us that not by bread alone do we live.  To paraphrase the famous workers hymn, we want both bread and roses.  That satisfaction, contentment, wholeness, and pleasure are worthy goals in and of themselves, even foundational.  That once you have your basic needs filled, you can and should have the blessing to enjoy these joys as well.  They are not, then, luxuries.  But rather simply the higher steps on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Perhaps tellingly, a psychological model shaped like a pyramid, like the ones our ancestors were forced to build in bondage in Egypt.  That pursuing self actualization can free us of the unfair burdens placed on us in society.

If the Torah portion is about rules, then the Haftarah seems to contradict it with a focus on fulfillment above payment.

Today I noticed something at an American public library that puts this Torah and Haftarah portion in perspective- and into conversation.

I had reserved a computer to use and a man, seemingly someone who might be living on the street, was struggling to get up from his chair.  The librarian asked if he needed an ambulance, and he said no.  He asked if he could use the bathroom, but the guard gently escorted him towards the exit.  He looked tired and thirsty.

While I didn’t catch the whole exchange, I couldn’t help but think about the struggle between rules and compassion.  I don’t think the security guard or librarian meant harm.  After all, they are tasked with enforcing the rules of the library for the good of the public.  And the library is not equipped to be a homeless shelter, which requires special expertise.  I volunteered at one in high school.

And yet you have to wonder whether sometimes rules should take a back seat to compassion.  Would it really hurt to allow someone to use a bathroom?  Especially at a public institution built for the social good?  The good of learning, the higher pursuits in life?  Rules have a purpose, but sometimes need to be broken for our well-being.

This scenario doesn’t present easy answers.  And despite the title of my blog, I think that there is value to law and order in certain scenarios.  That while I usually read the Torah with a liberal lens, someone could read the same text and come to different conclusions.  That’s what being a pluralist means.

And yet, this incident demonstrates why we should read both the Torah and Haftarah portions.  Because you could very easily come away thinking that rules rule all if you only read the former.  When our prophetic tradition reminds us of the important of joy, of fulfillment, of satisfaction as deep Jewish values that belong to everyone, not just the wealthy.

If we shouldn’t have to pay for wine or milk, then can’t we let someone use the restroom?  Or build more public restrooms so you don’t have to pay (or beg for entrance) every time you need pee?

Not every society functions this way.  In Israel, everyone can use almost any restroom and get free water at any restaurant or café, even without buying anything.  Perhaps a remnant of the socialist kibbutz ethos that built the country.

My hope is that we can find a better balance of rules and the kind of compassion that allows anyone, no matter her or his wealth, to enjoy life.  May the Torah- and Haftarah- be a light towards a more just society.  Ken yehi ratzon- may it be so.

 

What Reform and Orthodox Jews can learn from each other

First, a little background.  I was raised a Reform Jew and have been involved in the community since I was a young child.  I served on my Temple’s youth group board, was on the NFTY-MAR Social Justice Committee, traveled with Kesher to Argentina, led my college’s Reform Chavurah, and represented my movement as part of my Federation’s dialogue program with Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox youth.  I’ve led services in St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Tel Aviv.  I’ve visited Reform communities in at least eight different countries.  And I believe that social justice and tikkun olam should be integral parts of Jewish practice.

In addition to my ongoing involvement in the Reform world, I am also a member of an Orthodox synagogue and have on various occasions over the past six months prayed regularly at three different Modern Orthodox synagogues.  I’ve been to Orthodox weddings.  I’ve davvened with Hasidim in Bnei Brak.  I’ve wandered the Haredi bookstores of Me’ah She’arim and Crown Heights and done Sukkot with a Chabad family in Montreal.  I’ve visited the ultra-Orthodox community in Antwerp and eaten gefilte fish in a  Satmar restaurant in Williamsburg.  I’ve spent countless Shabbats eating and laughing and counting on my Orthodox friends to both provide joy in my life, and to be there for them when they needed a sympathetic ear.  These are deep relationships I’ve developed and am proud to have, including with Modern Orthodox rabbis who I’m out of the closet to as a gay man.  I’m a member of Eshel, an amazing organization of LGBTQ+ Jews who’ve spent (or spend) time in Orthodox spaces.

I find myself in the unique position of loving both communities and finding something beautiful in each space.  Theologically I still define myself as a Reform Jew, albeit one whose practices lean more traditional than the average member of our communities.  And I think both communities, often at loggerheads and in political conflict in Israel and around the world, should learn from one another.

Let’s start with the concept of community.  Orthodox Jews are brilliant community builders.  Study after study shows that if you want to make friends, you need to see them regularly, organically, and often spontaneously.  Last Shabbat I went to synagogue for kiddush and without even asking, a friend invited me to lunch, where I happened to be joined by a new member of the congregation who I had been talking with on WhatsApp for months answering his questions.  He’s new to town and until Saturday, I had never even met him face-to-face.  I didn’t even view it as a favor, I just felt it was part of the ethos of my community.  Countless people had stepped up and included me in their lives, I would of course do the same for a new member of the synagogue.  Warmth, kindness, and inclusion of new members is interwoven organically into the fabric of the Orthodox communities I’m a part of.  It’s not a special initiative or program- it’s an integral part of the lifestyle.

When you add to this mix the fact that many Orthodox Jews feel an obligation to regularly go to synagogue, it is a potent way to build links between people.  I know that any given week, without having to make plans, I will see most of my friends in the same two or three synagogues.  And sometimes more than once a week if there are weddings, additional holidays, and sometimes even Shrek viewings!  There’s a tightknittedness that one rarely sees in the modern world.  And leads to a rich spiritual, social, and communal life.

In short, consistent obligation creates community in a way that progressive synagogues have rarely succeeded in doing.

So what, then, can Orthodox Jews learn from their Reform brethren?  A few things.  One, that tightknittedness need not come at the expense of concern for the “other”.  In a world that is increasingly polarized and in which we are witnessing political cruelty at the highest levels, Jews cannot remain silent.  Even if it does not always directly affect “us”.  In other words, it requires great effort to ensure that communal solidarity and tightknittedness doesn’t come at the expense of caring for those not in the community.  Reform Jews are incredible at tikkun olam and social justice work that ensures that Judaism is also part of a broader societal “we”.  Politics is often hushed in Orthodox communities that I’ve been a part of, and while this can be a reprieve from the news cycle, I believe religion is inherently political.  Being quiet for the sake of internal cohesion can come at the expense of speaking out on the issues of the day like the Prophets of old.  We come from a tradition of speaking in the here and now.  While respecting diversity of opinion within the Jewish community is important, so is mobilizing to protect the rights of others.

Another thing Orthodox Jews could learn from Reform Jews is to let go of some of the guilt they feel for making non-halachic decisions.  In other words, because Orthodox Judaism views Jewish law as binding, when individuals (inevitably) make personal decisions about the nature of their religious observance, it is often accompanied by a sense of feeling “less” observant than their peers.  With accompanying guilt, or a sense of inhabiting a lower spiritual plane.  Reform Jews, precisely because they celebrate rational, educated choice as the gateway to religious practice, don’t feel as much guilt about not keeping the same “level” of kashrut or traditional Sabbath observance.  For Reform Jews, Judaism is an evolving tradition.  So if we accept that even the most strictly Orthodox Jews make individual decisions about religious practice, perhaps it’d be beneficial to simply label this as “difference” rather than “levels” of observance.  You are not more or less Jewish than someone else simply because of the time of night you light Shabbat candles.  Rather, it’s because of the light you feel from their warmth in your heart, inspiring acts of kindness.

Reform Jews could use some more religious obligation, ritual, and communal warmth.  Orthodox Jews could use less guilt, more openness to change, and more concern for people outside their community’s borders.

And we could all use a deep breath.  There are enough crazy people in the world who are happy to persecute us for being Jewish, for being different.  Do we really need to add to the masses of fanatics by hating each other too?  After all, it’s hardly as if anti-Semites are clamoring to persecute only one kind of Jew.  Kindness is the path forward for the Jewish community- both internally and our relationship with the rest of the world.