Abby Backer, a Columbia University student, daughter of a rabbi in Wisconsin, who attended a debate on Israel at Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., between Alan Dershowitz and J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami, is exactly the kind of young person the Jewish community should welcome with open arms. Yet, her experience at the debate made her feel like a “stranger within my own community,” she cries out in her Opinion essay, “Exclude Me At Your Own Peril” (Oct. 29).
I wasn’t at the debate that caused her to feel that she and students like her are being excluded from the Jewish community. As Backer, who attended as a student leader of Just Peace, the J Street U affiliate at Columbia University, describes it, Ben-Ami was “hissed” and, after the contentious debate, an elderly woman confronted Backer in the synagogue lobby and yelled at her: “I should spit on you,” and “Are you a Palestinian? You must be a Palestinian!”
Backer continues: “I have given much thought over the last week about whether I can continue to be part of this conversation. If I am not welcome why [should I] bother to fight for entry?”
In the same issue of The Jewish Week, Gary Rosenblatt, in a column entitled “Exploring The Generation Gap Among Jewish Leaders,” refers to a study by the Avi Chai Foundation that found that Jews in their 20s and 30s who are leaders of “non-establishment” groups are critical both of the agendas pursued by establishment institutions and the way they relate to young Jewish leaders.
The study also determined that “young leaders find fault with the established groups, seeing them as unwelcoming of diversity and as leaving little room for younger Jews to have a say or to advance rapidly within the decision-making structures.”
The Jewish community is fortunate that Backer concludes: “We can only change the conversation if students like me demand to be included, and ensure that no amount of scorn will silence us.”
And Rosenblatt closes: “Let’s hope our community finds more substantive ways for younger and older Jewish leaders and activists to talk to each other rather than past each other.”
We must welcome younger Jewish leaders and activists like Abby Backer and make certain that civil debate and honest disagreement can take place in our community. And we must also make room for young Jewish leaders to have a voice and advance in the “establishment” organizations.
The next Abby Backer and other young Jewish leaders participating in an “establishment” or “non-establishment” organization may decide to leave us, rather than fight for entry, or leadership, or even a say. That would be a tragic loss to our community.
Seymour Reich is a former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.