Reprinted by Permission of the Author, Rabbi Stephen Kahn, Congregation Beth Israel, Scottsdale, Arizona
I am grateful to the Jewish News for printing Rabbi Pesach Lerner’s, “J Street Vote Heard Around the World” in last week’s edition. I would frame my response to his article in the context of the letter you received from one of your readers last week which seemingly disapproved of the Jewish News’ content. The writer’s critique stated that the JN is publishing “less meaningful content and more religious content.” I found this letter, along with some of the other critical letters you have printed over the past few months, to be ironic and baseless.
First, since the word “Jewish” is the descriptive word in the name of the paper, I am confused by the idea that “meaningful” and “Jewish” as either diametrically opposed or mutually exclusive. Second, I believe the role of a community Jewish newspaper is neither to stifle debate nor to present exclusive opinions on the issues with a singular voice. If anything, by publishing pieces like Rabbi Lerner’s editorial concerning the vote by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations decision against admitting JStreet onto the Council, you have presented, without bias, one of the great paradoxes of organized American Jewry which represents one of the most “meaningful” discussions of our time.
Admittedly, I don’t really worry much about the Council of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations. Like many self-serving institutions and organizations in the American Jewish community, the Council is mainly anachronistic, and has no value or significance in my Jewish life and the life of my community. Furthermore, I would argue that most American Jews (at best) don’t know or (at worst) care, that the Council exists at all.
I would also add that I am not personally a JStreet supporter for a variety of reasons that I will not address here. However, while I disagree with JStreet’s principles, I fully accept that their members believe, with conviction, that they have something productive to say about the extraordinarily complex political, religious and sociological struggles of Palestinians and Israelis. However, I will not disparage their Jewishness based on their positions and, in truth I supported their acceptance onto the Council in theory. I also accept that this was not to be, and I agree with Rabbi Lerner when he suggested that JStreet’s leadership “responded [to rejection of the Council] with unbecoming condemnation of that same democratic process [which rejected their application for membership].”
But I don’t believe Rabbi Lerner’s article ultimately had anything to do with the JStreet vote but rather was an attempt to engage in the typical unabashed polemic directed toward the Reform and Conservative movements we have heard before. He uses the Pew survey results, to give his own sociological explanation while drawing on the survey’s results to remind us that all things Reform and Conservative should be painted with the same brush as the unaffiliated, intermarried and Jewishly detached – all of whom are implicitly undermining the future of the American Jewish community. He surmised, “Today, unfortunately, the ‘Jews of no religion’ are the fastest-growing Jewish group; they care little, if anything, about Judaism or Israel. In other words, for Rabbi Lerner, “Jewish of no religion,” and Reform and Conservative Jews are basically one-in-the-same, “both movements are shrinking, unable to predict where and what they will be by the time the next Pew report is issued,” he opines.
Rabbi Lerner’s socio-religious interpretation of the Pew survey as a frame for creating a polemic against non-halakhic (legally observant) Judaism’s role in the downfall of the Jewish community is not only objectionable, but ironically, the exact reason why so many American Jews run – not walk – away from the very Jewish institutions and organizations Rabbi Lerner’s is attempting to protect and defend.
The continuous attack on the bifurcation of American Jewish life which leads to the further separation of Jews based on the ideas of “us” versus, “them;” “pro-Israel,” versus “anti-Israel;” Jews “of no religion,” and Jews who are authentically religious is unconstructive and unrealistic. The future of American Jewry lies in enabling the 94% of Jews surveyed by Pew who claim to be proud of being Jewish the opportunities to engage, connect and feel safe when we draw them closer to the Jewish community.
Like many others in our community, I hope the JN continues to publish articles which offer divergent ideas so, as a community, these “meaningful” issues which speak to our future can be discussed, debated and argued within the pages of our community’s only Jewish newspaper.