‘Occupy’ Judaism Echoes Past Protests

‘Occupy’ Judaism Echoes Past Protests

Establishment critique has back-to-the-future quality.

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

When a call for a Kol Nidre service among Jews protesting near Wall Street produced a huge response virtually overnight — press reports on the number who participated on Yom Kippur ranged from 500 to more than 1,000 — it was more than just an example of Twitter power.

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.

Carrying over the energy of their anger toward the business elite that drew them to the Occupy Wall Street movement, Jewish activists are also registering their dissatisfaction with mainstream Jewish life. Some are calling for an Occupy Judaism movement, as witnessed by Occupy Sukkahs sprouting up here and other major cities around the country this week.

The message is both fresh and familiar:

Down with the old ways that favor the privileged and leave out the little guys. Enough of crass materialism and empty rhetoric. Time to express real Jewish values, and put them into practice.

Similar complaints have echoed throughout the ages.

The biblical prophets railed against the hypocrisy of Jewish life, warning the people that God did not want their insincere sacrifices, but rather that they deal kindly with each other and follow the commandments.

Today, in a country bitterly divided between Red and Blue, liberals and conservatives, one man’s Tea Party is another’s Occupy Wall Street protest; we have a hard time accepting the earnestness of those on the other side. Both groups express discontent with things as they are. But their solutions are at odds, calling either for less or more government involvement, and insisting that the other approach spells disaster.

Kenneth Bob, national president of Ameinu, a progressive Zionist organization, hails the nascent Occupy Judaism movement, writing that it “inspires creativity, develops leadership and results in community. Are these not the values that the Jewish community strives for?”

Critics on the right, though, see it as artificial, even dangerous.

“The organizers’ attempts to combine Judaism and today’s fashionable politics are simply incoherent,” wrote Matthew Ackerman on the Commentary magazine website, calling the trend “deeply troubling.”

Have we lost the ability to accept an adversary’s point of view as genuine, perhaps containing a grain of truth?

Those calling for radical change today are, in many ways, the beneficiaries of the men and women who sit at the center of the Jewish establishment, both professional and lay, and who themselves led efforts to shake up the status quo four decades ago, with mixed results.

In 1969, a small group of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students, influenced by the campus protests that were sweeping across the U.S. and Europe, staged a demonstration at the General Assembly of the national Jewish federation movement in Boston. Under the glare of the national media, they called for a re-prioritization of communal goals and challenged their elders to deepen their communal commitment to Torah ideals.

The result was the establishment two years later of The Institute for Jewish Life. Its creators called for an independent body fueled with $100 million to spark a renaissance in Jewish life for generations; in the end it was far from independent, received less than $5 million and closed its doors four years after it opened.

The victim of unrealistic expectations and turf wars, the Institute ultimately was a failure. (It is so little known that a Google search yields not a single reference.) But the goals of the student protesters in Boston have become so ingrained as communal priorities that we find it hard to believe today that young people had to take to the streets to insist on more funding for Jewish education and programs to enhance Jewish identity, values and connections to Israel.

Those objectives were clear; it’s too early to tell if those advocating Occupy Judaism have a specific agenda. While they acknowledge that social justice has become a major cause in the community today, they insist there is too little willingness to call attention to the concentration of wealth in America. They say the organized community, fearful of offending major donors, is morally implicated in the cruelty of the broader economy.

It’s a message that may be hard to hear but worth considering. So too, those calling for dramatic change would be most productive if they channel their efforts toward building community rather than tearing down those in authority.

Humility, and a sense of history, even recent history, should be a requirement for those activists calling for more do-it-yourself Judaism.

Let them remember they are challenging an organized community, some of whose leaders were branded “young radicals” four decades ago. And they should be aware that the bible of do-it-yourself Judaism, “The Jewish Catalog,” a major best seller in the early 1970s that spawned two sequels, was created to make rituals and customs more accessible for disaffected Jewish youth — as are many of today’s activists.

Ironically, it was a $5,000 seed grant from the Institute for Jewish Life that led to the publication of “The Catalog.”

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

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