Editor’s Note: Last week, the JN ran a story “Standing With Israel” (page 17, May 3) about a protest the group IfNotNow held at Hillel Day School on April 19. We asked two community members to share their thoughts on this relatively new group.
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Many liberal Jews are familiar with the popular musical mash-up by Debbie Friedman (z”l) combining two famous rabbinical maxims. From the Haggadah, she took the passage reminding us that in every generation Jews must see themselves as having been liberated from Egypt. To this she added Rabbi Hillel’s famous adage: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? Yet if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Like Ms. Friedman, the young people who founded IfNotNow (INN) observed a direct connection between the foundational tale of Jewish liberation and our pressing need to stand up for our people and others, namely, Israelis and Palestinians suffering from the never-ending Israeli occupation.
Employing tactics of non-violent protest at Jewish institutions and events, they have demanded that our Jewish institutions begin to seriously address the occupation. For this, they have been widely vilified. Their critics ask where on earth these young people ever got the idea that it was OK to intrude upon Jewish spaces demanding attention to their cries for justice?
They learned it from us. When our synagogues and youth groups and summer camps reared them on a diet of tikkun olam, they took it seriously. When we lionized past Jewish participation in nonviolent social justice movements, they took us seriously. And when they grew up to realize that their Israel education had failed to address the tragic effects of Israel’s oppressive occupation on both Palestinians and Israelis, they took that seriously, too.
They came to realize that their institutions had failed them, drowning honesty regarding a half-century of Israeli occupation in a sea of falafel, camel rides, and blue and white banners. (Full disclosure: During over two decades as a Hillel director and JCC programmer, I was the one ordering the falafel and banners.)
Who are these young people whom our Jewish community has failed? Detroit’s INN leadership includes Rachel Lerman. She was educated in a Milwaukee day school, spent summers at Young Judaea and was active in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Hillel. She can recall neither her day school, nor the summer camp, nor the Hillel ever giving any attention to the occupation. Despite this, she refused to turn her back on the community that nurtured her. Instead, she joined INN where she helps lead the call to our Jewish institutions to seriously address it.
Hayley Sakwa is another local leader. She grew up in West Bloomfield, fully immersed in Jewish life. She was active in Temple Israel, youth groups and later at Michigan Hillel. She even interned in two Federation departments. Like Rachel, as Hayley grew into adulthood, she came to realize that she was never educated about the occupation. She felt misled, becoming determined to bring the issues to the forefront of American Jewish discourse. She points out that in her own Reform movement she has certainly found support among some rabbis and other leaders. Yet on an institutional level, silence reigns.
One of the most impressive things about these INN members is that they do more than protest. They actively pursue Jewish lives in ways that should make our Jewish community kvell. But far from being the object of pride, they are subject to accusations of being “self-hating Jews.”
Fifty years ago, it was my own movement of Humanistic Judaism that dared to defy Jewish dogma when we challenged Jewish beliefs about divinity. We were called heretics, a label we decided to bear as a badge of pride. Today, these young people have also dared to defy Jewish dogma, this time challenging accepted beliefs about Israel. This proud heretic stands behind them with admiration.
Jeffrey Falick is a rabbi at the Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Farmington Hills.