I learned to love being Jewish amidst the sun dappled hills of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains at the Reform movement’s Camp Swig. The worship was inspiring and accessible as we prayed in God’s gorgeous outdoor shul to the grooving tunes of late ’70s Jewish folk rock-inflected guitar. But perhaps the most impactful and enduring parts of camp were the educational experiences, immersive and interactive psycho-dramas that recreated key historical moments: the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem; the migration of early Zionist pioneers to Israel; the courageous resistance of Soviet Jewry; and that classic of ’60s and ’70s post-civil rights Jewish experiential education, the Freedom Rides for voting rights through the American South.
In retrospect, it was a benign yet powerful indoctrination, binding Jewish values like tikkun olam (repairing the world), b’tzelem Elohim (sanctity of the individual) and pikuach nefesh (saving a life) to the liberal ideals of the mid-20th century — ideals that secured our place in an increasingly open and accepting America. These inspired our pursuit of civil rights, freedom of speech, openness to immigration and protecting the environment.
This infusion of tradition into social ethics was the hallmark of the Reform movement from its beginnings, as the call of the prophets — the foundation of liberal Jewish identity — affirmed the universal rights and wellbeing of the most vulnerable in the larger society. It also reflected the desires of most American Jews to secure our acceptance in the larger society. This fusion of tradition and ethics would be our offering to the great banquet of culture and civilization, demonstrating our appreciation for the refuge of peace and prosperity attained in this nation after millennia of persecution and genocide.
Half a century later, as the seeds of social justice continue to take root in successive generations of young Jews and the portfolio of progressive causes tied to timeless texts has only expanded, we find ourselves at a crossroads. The events of Oct. 7 have already proven to be an inflection point that will indelibly mark and change our people; but perhaps the greatest challenge will be their effect on the relationship between American Jews and Israel, and specifically the dramatic disconnect between so many — too many — Jewish young adults and the Jewish state.
For many, this amounts to a contest of moral systems — systems that have always appeared complementary, but which the polarization of the current moment has revealed to be in conflict. When pushed to choose between a commitment to the human rights of the most vulnerable or an unqualified support of the survival of Israel as it defends itself against genocidal attack by an implacable enemy, too many of our young people default toward empathy for the perceived underdogs, the Palestinians, rather than rallying around our too-criticized cousins in Israel. While most would say that Israel had the right to do something in response to atrocities against its civilians, they see the current cost in Palestinian civilian lives as too high a price to pay.
There are many reasons for this outlook, including the pressures of social conformity amplified by social media, and the rise of an illiberal identity politics in higher education that flattens and oversimplifies the world between the “oppressed and oppressor” — blithely depositing Israel on the side of “settler-colonialism” and Jews more broadly as privileged beneficiaries of white supremacy.
Additionally, this outlook reflects the reality that Jews in their 20s and teens today have only known Israel as a military behemoth, run by a right-wing prime minister with a history of corruption scandal. They have never agonized over the Jewish state’s very survival as the beleaguered and scrappy underdog of the wars of 1948, 1967 or 1973; nor have they shared the lofty visions of its enlightened leaders who risked so much to promote multiple offers of peace to the Arabs, only to be rejected each time and left instead with intifada and violence.
There is another reason for this disconnect, one that is unique to non-Orthodox Jews more broadly and particularly to the Reform youth movement that propelled so many, including me, to pursue Jewish professional life.
In many ways, we failed our young people in teaching them too much about the conscience of the prophets and too little about the passion of the priesthood. We rooted the majority of their Jewish identities in the universal call of social justice and put less emphasis on balancing it with a particular pride in and obligation toward Jewish peoplehood.
This is a painful admission for me, for it reveals an even deeper challenge. The feelings that so many of our young adults have about Israel in this moment are less about geopolitics or discomfort with Jewish nationalism; rather, they reflect an absence of a sense of common cause and common bond with Am Yisrael, the Jewish People.
Yes, we may passionately disagree with an Israeli government as we would with our own. Yes, as Jews we should hold any leadership accountable for actions that defy our values and our ideals — but as Jews we should strive to do so out of a longing for Israel to better realize its founding principles, not its dissolution. It is with the people of Israel — not the state, nor the government — that we share a turbulent history, a challenging present and an uncertain but definitively bound destiny.
So many of us who grew up both committed to social justice through a Jewish lens yet deeply rooted in a love for and a need to defend Israel are struggling with how to remedy this dilemma. It will require a reassessment of our educational vision and curricula, and an investment of resources to bring more of our young people to Israel, and to bring Israel more integrally into their lives. But the trite metaphor and old adage of the flight attendant’s instructions sums it up well: Put your own oxygen mask on first
before assisting others.
Far from encouraging selfishness, this simple insight speaks to a larger need, because it is only if we Jews survive as a people that our message and our values will sustain us and compel us to work for the benefit of all.
This is not a call to neglect those timeless principles to heal a troubled world that we were taught in our camps, schools and youth groups. It is a mandate to embrace and amplify them as our uniquely Jewish contribution to the broader world, a gift that could only have emerged from a tragic history that enabled us to identify most intimately with the oppressed and the vulnerable. It is a gift that inscribes upon our souls a vibrant vision of the world as it should be — a vision that compels our pursuit of justice not merely because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the Jewish thing to do.
Even in this moment of rigid binaries and polarized tribes, pride in one’s own and obligation to others blend seamlessly, mutually reinforcing and strengthening each other in a sacred symphony of care and complexity, fulfilling the essential demands of authentic living in an imperfect world.
Rabbi Daniel A. Weiner is the rabbi of Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle.